What is the Preppy Subculture?

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the defining characteristics, history, fashion, and activities of the preppy subculture. You will also about some characteristics and qualities that are associated with people in this subculture.

What is Preppy?

Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire, is one of the most prestigious college preparatory high schools in the United States. It boasts an impressive alumni, such as the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, members of the famous Rockerfeller family, and a handful of US presidents.

Tuition is tens of thousands of dollars, so it is no stretch to say that this school tends to house the most affluent and distinguished families in the US. The word, 'preppy,' in preppy subculture comes from-- you guessed it-- preparatory schools.

An Elite Subculture

The preppy subculture refers to the resulting fashion, activities, beliefs and values that encompass those that are privileged enough to enjoy expensive higher education and the accompanying privileged lifestyle. This subculture is comprised of upper-middle to upper-class individuals who attend, or send their children to the expensive schools, preparatory schools, and Ivy League universities, most notoriously in the northeastern United States. This subculture is also commonly referred to as WASPs, or white Anglo-Saxton Protestants.

History of the Preppy Subculture

The inspiration for the American preppy subculture was English college preparatory schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, which taught only the wealthiest and most distinguished students. The popularity of preppy in the United States is said to have several upsurges, but we'll talk about four of them.

1. The first was in the early 1900s and was much inspired by a business called Brooks Brothers, a men's clothier established in 1818. Brooks Brothers introduced the original button-down polo shirt in 1896 and the sharp-looking sack suit for men in 1901. This clothier became the uniform of preppy at this time.

Brooks Brothers store on Catherine Street in Manhattan.
Brooks Brothers first store

2. The 1920s is said to be the second emergence of the preppy subculture. It was an exciting time in America; it was the era of classy parties, jazz, and Fitzgerald. Americans were really seeing the value of higher education, especially on the Ivy League level, and schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Adult men established a more relaxed, yet polished, style for young collegiate men.

3. Another prosperous and happy era in the US were the 1950s, and this is yet another emergence of the preppy subculture. There was a surge of college-aspiring youth after the war, and music singers and groups, like The Four Preps, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra, embodied the classic style and caliber of the preppy subculture.

The 1960s and 70s brought youth cultures like the hippies and punk rockers who were challenging the conventional and mainstream. Some preppies were scrutinized and labeled as conformists during this time.

4. The fourth emergence of the preppy subculture came after The Official Preppy Handbook in the 1980s; a book that poked fun of all things preppy. Ironically, many used the book as a guide to emulate the elite subculture, creating impersonators of the subculture who were not of the high caliber and class of the original preppy subculture.

Activities of the Preppy Subculture

Sports are a major aspect of this subculture. In fact, manliness in this class is often measured by the level of involvement in sports and an outdoorsy lifestyle. Due to the availability of money, costly sports, like horseback riding, sailing, rowing, golf, skiing, and polo are popular among this group. Adults enjoy memberships with country clubs, where they can polish their tennis or golfing skills.

Sports at the collegiate level were a measure of manliness in the preppy subculture.
Ivy League track champions

President Kennedy embodies the style of the preppy subculture here while sailing on his boat.
President Kennedy sailing

In terms of school, there is a heightened aspect on involvement in social activities and clubs. Networking and establishing social connections are seen sometimes as even more important than the GPA. Therefore, fraternities and sororities tend to be popular with preppy university students, as well as taking on leadership roles in student government.

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