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Issue 15 – Lent 2023

Arts and Letters

Layered Separates

Threading the Needle

Richard Press

J. Press, pp. 200, $34.95

Threading the Needle Vol. 2

Richard Press

J. Press, pp. 200, $39.50


What was the Ivy League Look? The past tense is necessary, because the phrase is almost certain to draw a blank. There’s no longer any distinctive mode of dress associated with America’s most famous colleges. Students there dress much like students everywhere in the world: a utilitarian combination of sneakers, denim, and hooded sweatshirts. “Preppy” is more likely to activate some visual and cultural associations. The term was brought to national attention by the 1970 novel and film Love Story, and came to denote a patrician combination of tweed, flannel, and warmly burnished leather. The hero, Oliver Barrett IV, defies his family to marry the working class woman he loves. Against the rapidly degenerating standards of the period, though, the film’s Oliver (played by Ryan O’Neal) looked like an old man, thickly bundled up for a winter of discontent rather than disrobed for a summer of love.

A few decades later, the term became both more commonplace and more polarizing. For buyers of how-to guides such as The Official Preppy Handbook, it was an invitation to a form of consumer activity that was simultaneously conservative and aspirational. Even more garish versions of what Oliver Barrett might have worn on winter break in Palm Beach were now available at every mall in America. For the audiences of the period’s exultant teen comedies, on the other hand, the preppy—or the diminutive “prep”—had become a stock villain. Rather than defying the expectations of his elders, he sought to impose them on everyone else. The fame of James Spader and other actors who specialized in portraying this character has long since receded. But the clothes they wore have never shaken that unpleasant reputation.

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About the author

Samuel Goldman

Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.