The Origin and Evolution of ‘Prep’ Style and its Socioeconomic Relevance

This paper was originally inspired by the resurgence of ‘prep’ style in the modern fashion industry and the 2010 reissue of the book Take Ivy. “Prep” fashions are commonly considered a derivation of young boy’s preparatory school uniforms, but this assumption is not well corroborated in regards to how and why these uniforms have evolved to become what we know as ‘prep’ style today. My research seeks to clarify and substantiate the origins of ‘prep’ style, its relationship with American collegiate culture and the national class structure, and its evolution as a fashion subculture. A great deal of writing analyzes the correlation between upper class society and northeastern universities, and some material also exists on the basis and popularity of ‘prep’ fashions in college culture. However the connection bridging these interactions is rarely discussed or is only considered on a superficial level. Through a review of literature and historical materials, I delve into the complex symbiotic relationship between these three aspects of American society (‘prep’ style, college culture, and the upper class). I then aim to answer the question of how relevant this relationship is in the current socioeconomic climate as compared to that of the earlier twentieth century by comparing historical research with contemporary fashion marketing, ethnographic observation of the modern university climate, and interviews with current college students. The evolving concept of ‘prep’ fashion and its diluted meaning as an indicator of status in modern society is determined to be a consequence of media and mass merchandising in the fashion industry.

Key Issues

subculture, trend cycles, luxury, exclusivity, socioeconomics of dress, class structure, social politics, collegiate culture, design change, commercialization, commodification, media, mass merchandising, tradition and innovation, ethnography