The return of the preppy look must have aging Ivy Leaguers spilling their snifters in paroxysms of laughter. The very essence of preppydom is that it is a style more or less impervious to the passing of time, and its return has been to the radar of the fashion industry and its followers, not the brandy-drinking, suede-elbow-patch set. Preppydom stands for age-old institutions and old-fashioned values — making money, for example. And when it comes to style, preppies have always eschewed the vagaries of fashion and opted for high-quality clothing in timeless, iconic styles.Though our millennium is but a nascent bud, if ever there was the impetus to lurch radically forward in the draping of the human form — to spandex “Star Trek” suits, for example — it would be the crossing of that powerful psychological threshold of the year 2000. And yet so far our young millennium has revealed the opposite tendency: We’ve returned to the familiar styles of the 20th century as if reaching for a cherished sweater.
Perhaps there’s nowhere else to go in fashion, and if there is — say, to the Starship Enterprise — we’re not ready to go there and may never be. So were Ralph Lauren and Lilly Pulitzer right all along? Is classic-with-a-twist the only way to dress with dignity, and without ever having to worry about being out of style?
And most importantly, will preppies inherit the Earth?
Clotaire Rapaille might say yes. The highly paid and increasingly visible corporate consultant and founder of the market research firm Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, notes that people’s responses to things such as status and luxury is largely unconscious. Though it varies from culture to culture, our notions of what it means to look well dressed and successful, for example, are imprinted on our “reptilian brain” at an early age, giving us a powerful, visceral response to these cultural signifiers for the rest of our lives.
There’s an old adage about how if you put two men side by side, both equally handsome and both perfectly tailored, but one in a contemporary, Italian look and the other in a traditional British ensemble, people will invariably consider the traditional looking man to be better dressed. That’s because his double-breasted chalk stripe suit with cuffed trousers, regimental tie, Irish linen handkerchief, wingtips and camel topcoat are all so familiar.
So one could argue that in order to make an immediate impression when entering a room, a man should be wearing something that is immediately recognized because it is already imprinted on the mind, and all of its associations are immediately projected onto the wearer.
Look at Charlie Sheen’s character in “Wall Street.” When he becomes the protégé of the powerful mogul Gordon Gekko, Sheen jettisons his anonymous working-stiff uniform and begins wearing double-breasted suits, French cuffs, tie-bars and pocket squares in conservative but bold styles that present an aura of power and elegance. Why is it so effective? Because our collective unconscious senses that that’s what a successful man looks like.
Preppies understand archetypal dressing because the navy blazers, cable-knit sweaters, polo shirts and penny-loafers they favor are veritable cultural institutions.
But if you opt to dress iconically, make sure you don’t overdo it. Avoid pairing your black cashmere turtleneck with a beret, goatee and bongos. And make sure your camel sportcoat, a recently resuscitated wardrobe icon, isn’t paired with a Century 21 name tag.
As for Dr. Rapaille, his own archetypal dressing verges on the archeological. Perhaps inspired by 19th-century captains of industry such as Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, (or maybe Charles Darwin), Rapaille has begun wearing dark frock coats, ruffled white shirts and long silk black cravats.
Originally published in Forum magazine, fall 2005.