Old songs played again after a long time can bring back floods of deeply felt emotional associations from the particular time in one’s life when they attained meaning. A few years ago, designer Tommy Hilfiger’s unveiling of a new fragrance called Prep prompted me to start thinking of a reaction. However, it wasn’t until this morning, as I put Everything But the Girl’s The Language of Life on while I watched my one year-old, that I had the impetus, like a strong cocktail that clears the head, to marshal my thoughts. What passes for Prep now must be meaninglessly watered down by the revisionism of those who did not live it. I can only feel that those who aspire to it, either by selling items labelled Prep or preppie or by buying them, must be (perhaps willfully) unaware of what it was, subscribing to the tantalizing ineffable and ignoring the infernal edifice Prep built that guaranteed that, like Tantalus, we could never reach it.
Prep was knowing. I grew up at a time when prep was beginning to fold in on itself like the molecules of some evocatively scented chemical compound, each twist a postmodern turn into different levels of self-pastiche. Prep was recognition, of the gum-soled boots or worn-out moccasins that could only come from a handful of (paper) catalogs, of the meanings of vague references to an undefined shore or the names of the better ski resorts in the American mountain states, of a familiarity with tradition that meant Ralph Lauren had earned his welcome in Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppie Handbook as a sort of promising newcomer who got it all right. For Prep was not about overthinking, but the comfort of convenience regardless of integrity: Lauren had nailed the mythos, made it flesh in the old stuff decorating his stores and, better still, put them all in one place, one mall shop or department store corner where you could buy the entire look, logoed knit shirts reminiscent of Lacoste (at the time still licensed to Izod), oxford button-downs like those at Brooks Brothers (then already in its decline), brown brogues like the English made, and so on and so on that could go eye to eye with the enormous stack of catalogs that were so part of Prep life’s samsara, its circle of cravings and fulfillment.
Prep was soundtracked by the familiar and the safe, rock bands that had been possibly daring 25 years earlier – the Grateful Dead, the Who and a slew of others who appeared, like other Prep commodities, to have been selected as comfortable and long-lasting. EBTG was not Prep, except when it was, in the earphones of earnest doe-eyed girls whose mothers wrote poetry or painted in the basements of large brick houses off the winding back roads of a leafy suburb. Prep was about knowing what belonged, the appropriate bands, the appropriate color oxford shirt, and where you belonged.It was about knowing your place, and forever impeaching you with the judgment you were never going to completely belong.
Prep was yearning. The term Prep itself derives, of course, from prep school, the preparatory high schools intended to equip their students for prosperous careers and stints at elite colleges. High school by its nature is in any circumstance a painful, grasping, exclusionary place, occurring as it does at the most insecure and emotionally vulnerable time of our lives, when meaningless striving for position and put-downs in cliques is at its most important (until we become middle-aged and join Internet forums). Prep schools featured the same striving in a setting of presumed affluence and futures secured by a status quo. The unstated stakes, toys and presumptions, were higher. Everyone aspired to belong to that order, to the point of claiming the same dissatisfactions with the system, the Prep superorganism, its pigeonholing, its dismissiveness. Because at its heart Prep promised belonging, to the institution, to the damp outdoors of a catalog life, to “the music on the beach at Malibu” as Lewis Lapham once wrote, to the unsullied promise of calm sailing both literally and providentially, to all of the indulgences of the upper middle class without its permanent insecurities, the burden of its expectations, and thus that Prep nirvana was an impossibility.
For Prep to me was not the Slim Aarons-shot glamour of leisured decadence, but the promise of a place in the social order through a diffidently lucrative profession, one difference I perceive from what has become known as Ivy Style, which I have the impression both predates and outclasses Prep. (This idealized Ivy Style supposedly prevailed wherever wealthy young Americans spent their Ausbildung from, roughly, the 1920s through the 1960s; it should not need to be said that nothing like that exists on the campuses of the Ivy Leagues today without a great deal of postmodern self-consciousness.) You get glimpses of Ivy Style in some of the 1930s Apparel Arts drawings, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s more plangent short stories, and I suppose in the recently reissued Japanese-penned Take Ivy, although that was written with so wide a gap of cultural misunderstanding I half-expected to see a tentacle in it.
Prep was cold. It judged harshly all who did not measure up, which meant everyone, arrayed by classism and casual but unspoken racism in concentric circles like the shells of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. Judgment was cutting, evinced by that time not so much in violence but by silence and exclusion. A former fellow classmate once described observing the paradigmatic Prep guarded interaction: a boy and a girl sexlessly dressed in almost matching outfits of plaid shirt, khakis and moccasins who walked towards and right by each other in the hall without saying a word.
Perhaps that has warmed now. A grasping class that would say, do or justify anything to retain the least of its material privileges, too unsure of itself for noblesse oblige, may have admixed with newer and less pretentious blood. A sort of social consciousness on the part of the better schools has penetrated beyond charity cotillions to a greater tolerance and diversity of thought and deed. For in my experience what diversity of ethnicity there was still meant homogeneity of Prep, tolerant in its accessories, accepting of those who could make the trappings work, at least to a point (for Prep could always bite back).
What should Prep smell like? The boxwood reek of Lawrenceville in the late spring, the remnant odor of the perforated leather seats in a hand-me-down Mercedes, salt breeze-corrosion optional, the cottony nothingness of wash-dry Keds fresh from the dryer, the cutting iciness of deliberate cold shoulders, but above all the smell of solipsistic yearning for the unattainable of belonging and the soft secure embrace of a sense of entitlement that ensuing real life has irredeemably fractured, and what could smell like that, really?
Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans and photo by Polo Ralph Lauren