Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Preppiness -- A Caution

As a follow-up to yesterday's post -- and in response to the many comments I've read on other articles and posts talking about this subject in the last 24 hours -- I'd like to address where Preppiness and Class intersect.

And where they don't.

Most people can be forgiven when they equate Preppiness with Class.  In Birnbach's original book, Preppies are the ones who "summer" in places where they can sail, or "winter" in places where they can golf, or send their children to the best boarding schools and colleges, or drive foreign-make cars, etc.  In short, they have money -- ideally money made by earlier generations that is now simply taken for granted.  It's assumed.  And any discussion involving money -- like those involving Disco -- is like smacking a hornet's nest with a bat; everybody starts buzzing angrily.

Most people take for granted that having money doesn't necessarily result in having class.  Even the poorest of us can sniff at the nouveau riche.  Who do they think they are!?  But preppiness gives an aura of "old money", which is somehow classier.  Never mind that "old money" had to be "new money" at some point, and few get to earn large amounts of money by being sweethearts.  Class somehow comes after the stench of earning it has worn off.  It's an odd and old game we play with ourselves, and Marx and Engels had a field day with it.

Long lost to the ages is the fact that L.L. Bean existed to clothe and shoe people who spent a lot of time outdoors in a part of the country that has a fifth season called Mud.  Yes, you might be landed gentry hunting duck on your estate, or you might be a lobsterman out on the frigid surf or a lumberjack out in the back woods or someone picking potatoes.  All these things happen now and happened long before most people knew where Freeport, Maine, was.  Take another waving red cape to the anti-prep crowd: the turned-up color on a "polo" shirt.  Before there was a polo shirt, there was a tennis shirt.  Jean RenĂ© Lacoste (1904-1996) was the tennis-playing Frenchman who invented it -- long in back to stay tucked in while playing and with a collar that could flip up to protect the back of the neck on an outdoor and, therefore, shadeless court.  These things have Utility; it's only later that they became Fashion Statements.

In fact, true Preppiness can be defined more in terms of Utility and Quality.  We take for granted nowadays that Quality means "Priceyness".  It certainly can, but it doesn't have to and it certainly wasn't always the case in the past before consumerism with its planned obsolescence stuck its greedy hand into our wallets.  Take another preppy totem:  the Volvo.  Is it really any surprise that folks in the Northeast look to a car engineered to function reliably in the severe climate of Sweden as their own choice in a similar climate?  In fact, my down-at-the-heels, central Maine mill town actually bought several of them as police cruisers in the 1980s.  They didn't do it to be classy or preppy; they wanted a car that would last.  The program didn't ultimately continue because the voters didn't see it that way.  So now they have Crown Victorias like everybody else and lose money in the bargain.

Take the phrase "preppiness" itself.  It comes from being "prepared", specifically in our parlance as how and where you "prepared" for college or university.  This can mean an actual "Prep[aratory] School" like Exeter or  Hotchkiss or it can simply mean your local high school.  In the obituary section of Bowdoin's alumni/-ae magazine, the stock phrase is "Joe Schmo prepared for college at...."  It's a tradition they haven't bothered to change, because there is no reason to (other than to mollify folks who might see such language as "snooty"?) and because they know that the phrase ends equally with either the most exclusive "prep" school or the "lowliest" high school or anything in between.

If people want to lampoon or even harpoon what Preppiness has become -- in no small thanks to either one of Birnbach's books -- have at it.  My only caution would be not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  If we're going to skewer conspicuous consumption, fashion silliness, snobbery and the like, then let's do that fully cognizant that being prepared -- for further education or for icy winters or outdoor sports (including hunting for and catching food) -- is not the sin here.