Prep fashion for a new age

Style: That old-money, privileged, private-school look is back, with a modern twist.

April 08, 2001|By Greg Morago | Greg Morago,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Check out the madras, Biff.

Where'd you score those cute clogs, Bunny?

Muffy, I'm loving your shirt dress.

Cocktail chatter circa 1950s Kennebunkport?

Hardly. Try this season. Now. Today.

You don't have to summer in Nantucket, be schooled at Hotchkiss or shop from the L.L. Bean catalog to recognize that prep style is all the rage for spring '01 and beyond. Fashion magazine and designer ads are plastered with all manner of clothes and accessories evoking the look of sun-kissed privilege, boarding schools, yacht clubs, polo-playing rakes, naughty debutantes and Upper East Side exclusivity.

So you may not have friends named Binky, Bitsy and Bootsy, but it's easy to see a world clad in button-down oxford cloth, stitched together with monograms and tied up with pink and green ribbons. Preppy fashion -- the uniform of the Northeast -- is back in style.

Could it have something to do with having a prepster in the White House? George W. Bush, who prepped at Phillips Academy before Yale (class of '68), is an undeniable preppy whose style has changed little from his Andover days. If things hadn't turned out so well for him in Florida, we still would have had a preppy in the White House. Al Gore, who once claimed to be the model for preppy hero Oliver Barrett IV in Erich Segal's "Love Story," still looks the part of the boyish barrister-to-be.

Whatever the reason for the prep resurgence, preppy dressing isn't just for the country club set anymore. It has morphed from exclusive to inclusive.

"Preppy clearly has a mutating meaning that depends on who wears it and under what circumstances," said Valerie Steele, chief museum curator of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

In other words, it's not about social class or ethnic background. It's simply about feeling comfortable and looking good. No wonder it's everywhere, from traditional prep purveyors like Brooks Brothers and J. Press to hip, new-prep pioneers like BCBG's Max Azria, Coach, Banana Republic, Kenneth Cole and Gap.

Anna Lonergan, spokeswoman for Gap, said prep, while in and out of vogue, probably never went away because it's a style that lasts. "I think people are returning to a classic dressing and concentrating on putting themselves together," she said. "For spring there's a revival of the prep look, but infused with modern ideas. It's inspired by the classic preppy look."

For those of you who weren't born wearing Weejuns or Lacoste shirts, we offer this guide to classic prep looks vs. modern prep stylings. (For authenticity's sake, we relied on the prep bible, "The Official Preppy Handbook" by Lisa Birnbach.)

POLO SHIRT

Classic prep: The Lacoste sports shirt -- cap sleeves with ribbed edging, narrow collar and two-button placket -- is a wardrobe essential for men and women. The "crocodile" shirt is generous and boxy, perfect for playtime (beach, boating, bar-hopping). It also can be dressed up with a string of pearls for women or a blazer for men.

Updated prep: Today's polo shirt is leaner. It's cut closer to the body and may even have a bit of stretch to it. The look is slim, the proportion smaller. Gap carries these tighter polos in warm colors. Look for a halter-top polo for women come summer. Of course, if you want the original, Lacoste thankfully hasn't gone away.

BLUE BLAZER

Classic prep: There is no more important (or harder working) staple in the prep wardrobe than the blue blazer. Roomy, comfortable, single-breasted, and conservatively tasteful, the blue blazer can take you from the workplace to the weekend regatta. In flannel or hopsack, it is the backbone of the prep look. Brooks Brothers is the classic example of the navy blazer.

Updated prep: Even though Brooks has turned up the heat with its flashy and suddenly hip stylings, it hasn't messed with the blue blazer. But there are other worthy alternatives today, from affordable options like Claiborne and Perry Ellis Portfolio, to luxury coats from Ralph Lauren and DKNY. Traditionalists who prefer a two-button coat might be glad to hear that two-button blazers from Burberry, Hugo Boss, Cerruti and Calvin Klein are hot for spring.

PANTS

Classic prep: Khaki, plain and simple. Also called chinos. According to the book "Khaki: Cut from the Original Cloth" by David Fahey, khakis emerged from World War II as the symbol of the American age -- a silhouette of victory and valor. Gee, who knew? Paired with an oxford shirt, blue blazer and penny loafers, the khaki pants are an integral part of prep dress.

Updated prep: Banana Republic was built on prep essentials like khaki pants. Today we can get cool khakis everywhere, from Gap to Abercrombie & Fitch to L.L. Bean.

BELTS

Classic prep: Web belts and grosgrain belts are staples for the prep man and woman. Web belts may feature motifs such as ducks, lobsters and whales. But it is the grosgrain ribbon belt that is much more fun and versatile. Grosgrain belts add a sassy flair and jaunty spirit to dress-down dressing up.

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