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Exploring the Preppy Style Origin in the Most Influential American Elite Subculture

What Does ‘Preppy’ Mean?

The term ‘Preppy’ describes a subculture that emerged in American preparatory schools for boys in the early 1900s in affluent Northeastern suburbs, New England coastal towns, the Upper Midwest, and the wealthiest spots of the American South.

Descendents of heritage wealthy families, Preppies (or preps) had similar values, activities, mannerisms, and ways of dressing, which are nowadays known as the old money.

Harvard University Preppies
Preppies at Harvard University, from the 50s to the 90s.

What is the Origin of Preppy?

In the early 1900s, American preparatory schools and educational institutions followed the model of British preparatory schools regarding curriculum, athletic activities, school uniforms, and hence the subculture’s deep connections with the British aristocracy and their traditions.

The Origin of Preppy from English Preparatory Schools of early 20th century in 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s
The Origin of Preppy – Early 20th Century English Preparatory Schools.

The influence of British culture went beyond school activities, school attire, and pupils’ ways of dressing, impacting their values, mannerisms, and lifestyle.

However, as we understand it nowadays, the preppy subculture was shaped by the social and cultural practices of America’s upper class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ivy League Prep University Life 1930s 1940s
The Origin of Preppy – Ivy League Colleges’ Life and Activities in the 1930s and 1940s.

Hence, the ‘origin of preppy’ discussions revolve around American educational institutions and the three main educational areas credited with creating and evolving the Preppy fashion and lifestyle.

Each of these regions contributed to the Preppy culture look and style with its unique climate, local customs, and lifestyles.

New England

The Home of Ivy League Preppy

New England, Northeast, Ivy League Preppy Origin
The Origin of Preppy – New England, Northeast, or Ivy League Preppy.

New England is a northeastern region of the United States comprising the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and home to Ivy League universities.

The first usage of ‘Ivy’ regarding a group of colleges is found in New York Herald Tribune’s October 14, 1933 edition, where sportswriter Stanley Woodward describes the football season:

“A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.”

That’s because, starting in the 1800s, ‘Ivy Day’ – planting ivy at New England colleges – was a common practice.


The Home of Northern Preppy

Upper Midwest Region Preppy Origin
The Origin of Preppy – Upper Midwest Preppy.

The Upper Midwest is a region in the northern portion of the United States comprising the states of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

The Upper Midwest regions, particularly Michigan and Wisconsin, with great lakes and cold winters, played an important role in developing the lifestyle of the preppy subculture.

American South

The Home of Southern Preppy

American South Southern Preppy region origin
The Origin of Preppy – American South or Southern Preppy.

In the context of preppy, the American South refers to the Southeastern United States, particularly North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.

The American South’s warm and humid climate and cultural traditions based on community, manners, formality, and refinement gave birth to the Southern preppy look and relaxed lifestyle.

Preppy Colleges and Schools

The look of the preppy subculture draws aesthetic elements from the elite preparatory schools of the mid-20th century, in particular, school uniforms and sports attire for golf, yachting, rowing, tennis, rugby, and horseback riding.

The preppy educational institutions in the Northeast are called the ‘Ivy League group’ and comprise Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Pennsylvania, Brown University, and Dartmouth College.

Ivy League Preppy Universities. Brown University Columbia University New York, Cornell University New York, Dartmouth College New Hampshire, Harvard University Massachusetts, Princeton University New Jersey, University of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania, Yale University Connecticut.
The Origin of Preppy – The Ivy League Colleges.

In the Upper Midwest, the University of Michigan – considered one of the few public Ivies – played an essential role in developing the Preppy subculture.

From the American South, the University of Virginia’s architectural style and reputation as a bastion of Southern tradition was critical in propagating the Preppy subculture and lifestyle.

Other preppy schools and colleges that participated in the creation and popularity of the Preppy subculture are:

  • The Lawrenceville School (Lawrenceville, New Jersey)
  • St. Paul’s School (Concord, New Hampshire)
  • Groton School (Groton, Massachusetts)
  • Phillips Academy Andover (Andover, Massachusetts)
  • Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, New Hampshire)
  • Choate Rosemary Hall (Wallingford, Connecticut)
  • Hotchkiss School (Lakeville, Connecticut)
  • Deerfield Academy (Deerfield, Massachusetts)

Many of these institutions are still active and known for continuing to foster preppy values and lifestyles.

What Are Preppy Values?

Preppies’ values and lifestyles are rooted in the subculture’s historical and socioeconomic background.

The subcultures’ core activities revolve around higher education, sports, fashion and arts, philanthropy, and etiquette.

High Education

Preppy Education

Preppies value education highly, particularly in prestigious preparatory schools and Ivy League colleges.

Attending esteemed preparatory schools, colleges, and universities, participating in academic clubs, and preparing for successful careers in law, business, or medicine are all central to the preppy lifestyle.

Sports and Recreation

preppy sports: golf, tennis, polo, sailing

Any preparatory school curriculum includes sports of British origins, such as polo, tennis, rugby, and rowing.

Over time, these sports have become critical activities at the core of an active and healthy Preppy lifestyle.

According to the ‘Preppies value book,’ these sports require sportsmanship, camaraderie, competitiveness, and being a team player.


Preppy manners behavior etiquettes books

Influenced by traditional upper-class etiquette and high education, Preppies are known for their courteous mannerisms.

Language is also important, as in the U.S., Preppies’ speech is characterised by a specific accent known colloquially as the ‘Locust Valley Lockjaw’ or the ‘preppy lisp.’

To preppies, good manners and proper etiquette signify a classic upbringing, tradition, heritage, and stylistic sophistication.

Family, Tradition and Conservatism

preppy families
Preppy Families from 1940s to 2010s.

To Preppies, tradition means connections to their roots, historical heritage, and upper class, reinforcing their sense of identity and continuity.

Vintage photo of Poster and pamphlets political:Election poster. https://www.amazon.com/Vintage-photo-Poster-pamphlets-political/dp/B07KWCZH3V

As such, most Preppies lean towards conservatism regarding behaviour, political views, and fashion.

Social Gatherings

Preppy social events

Preppies engage in social events within their social circle, such as parties, dinners, and charity galas.

These events aim to maintain a sense of decorum and decency in keeping with their respect for old traditions and good manners.

Community Service

Princess Diana volunteer work

Community service and philanthropy are part of Preppies’ commitment to social responsibility.

Some of the most popular activities are volunteering at local organisations, participating in charity events, or donating.

With a deep sense of social responsibility, preppies give back to their communities through charitable activities and volunteer work.

Arts and Culture

Preppy Community Engagement

Knowledge and appreciation of fine arts are at the core of the Preppy subculture and lifestyle.

As such, Preppies are interested in the arts and have a propensity for classical music, ballet, and theatre.

Some popular Preppy activities include attending theatre performances, visiting galleries, reading art books and style magazines, and listening to classical music.

What Are the Most Influential Preppy Books and Movies?

Several influential Preppy movies, books, series, and songs have contributed to the creation and development of the Preppy subculture.

The Official Preppy Handbook (Book)

The Official Preppy Handbook

Lisa Birnbach’s 1980 ‘The Official Preppy Handbook’ is a satirical look at the preppy lifestyle and is seen as the manual of what it meant to be Preppy.

Prep (Book)

Prep (Book)

Curtis Sittenfeld’s best-selling novel Prep provides an in-depth and relatable look at prep school culture, making it accessible to a broader audience.

The book delves into boarding school culture while showcasing the intricacies and unexpected nuances of the modern Preppy subculture.

The Catcher in the Rye (Novel)

The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye portrays preparatory school culture and has become a literary classic.

It has influenced perceptions of the disillusionment and rebellion that can exist within the Preppy subculture.

Dead Poets Society (Movie)

Dead Poets Society (Movie)

Dead Poets Society takes place in an elite preparatory school for boys and depicts rebellion within the constraints of a traditional Preppy institution.

The movie recreates the Preppy subculture’s origins, influencing how the general public understands it.

The Great Gatsby (Book and Movies)

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, and film adaptations depict the opulence and fashion of the Jazz Age, almost like a manual for those interested in the extravagant side of the Preppy subculture.

The following adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel comprise lavish depictions of 1920s upper-class style, greatly influencing the preppy aesthetic.

Love Story (Movie)

love story movie

Love Story is a 1970 film that established the Preppy style as shorthand for elite American good taste by depicting the lives of Ivy League students.

What is Preppy Fashion?

Preppy fashion depicts a classic, clean-cut look, aligning with Preppy etiquette, mannerisms, and lifestyle.

The Preppy way of dressing draws inspiration from the Ivy League style and the East Coast American Nautical aesthetic.

Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Brookes Brothers preppy fashion

The Preppy style outfits range from smart casual to semi-formal.

Navy blazers, Oxford cloth button-down shirts, cable-knit sweaters, chinos, loafers and boat shoes, needlepoint belts, and repp ties from renowned Preppy clothing brands like Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, L.L. Bean, and J. Crew. can be found in almost all Preppy wardrobes.

Preppy Polished and Classic Look

With over twenty years of front-row fashion and styling events, collabs with haute-couture houses, and a PhD in Luxury Fashion, Laurenti is an expert in crafting personalized looks that depict old-money sophistication.

With years of expertise in high-end fashion collabs and a PhD in Sustainable Fashion, Ru specializes in curating eco-luxe wardrobes for the modern gentleman seeking understated refinement.

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  1. Had no idea that preppies are actually following british culture, fashion, and lifestyle. Great article, many things suddenly make a lot of sense right now, thank you for putting the time to create this piece and looking fwd to many more like this.


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