“The best fashion statement,” Lisa Birnbach once wrote, “is no fashion statement.” But even the poet laureate of the preppies would acknowledge that there’s an unspoken dress code to follow.
Back in 1980, when The Official Preppy Handbook was published, the wardrobe must include sporty fisherman’s sweaters, flannel-lined khakis, and madras in extremis. Thirty years later, when True Prep came out, the rules were updated to fit the times: “We do not display our wit through T-shirt slogans.”
For the year just beginning, designers are reviving, remixing, and reinterpreting the building blocks of traditional American collegiate fashion for an increasingly nostalgic TikTok generation and probably more than a few of their parents. Miu Miu led the way with a spring collection of uber-cropped knits and pleated miniskirts so mini they could serve as belts. Thom Browne dropped a football capsule collection for Notre Dame, his alma mater, where he is an artist-in-residence for the 2022–3 academic year. In his final collection for Gucci, Alessandro Michele dressed pairs of twins in white-tipped blazers, classic blue Oxford shirts, and floppy neckties.
And at Coach, Stuart Vevers deconstructed Aran sweaters, patchworked blazers in mismatched shades, and showed Nantucket red varsity jackets with leather shorts. Try finding that combo at Murray’s Toggery. “I often go back to those collegiate references because they’re so unique to American style,” Vevers says. “In a way, we all have personal connections to them—even for myself. I didn’t grow up in the US, but from TV and film they’re just ingrained in my brain.”
Although “trad” style has never been entirely out of vogue—it’s always on the mood board at Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger—every generation gets a version of prep refracted through the pop culture lens of its era: Ali MacGraw in her belted camel coat in Love StoryJames Spader’s white linen suit in Pretty in PinkDylan Hundley’s prime pearl sets in Metropolitanand Leighton Meester’s extravagant headband collection on the original Gossip Girl.
Is it a coincidence that campuscore is soaring again while Gossip Girl 2.0 enjoys a second season on HBO Max?
“Absolutely not,” says Eric Daman, the costume designer for the series and its early aughts predecessor. “We’re all in the same zeitgeist, so it’s just art imitating life imitating art.”
Daman’s original take on prep school uniforms in Michael Bloomberg-era New York involved Marc by Marc Jacobs pleated skirts layered over brightly colored tights. The show’s popularity turned him into a kingmaker: By topping the resident queen bee’s looks with sparkling Jennifer Behr headbands, he more or less single-handedly jump-started the trend for hair accessories.
The excess of the Gossip Girl fantasy provided an escape from the era’s economic sturm und drang. Today there’s some of that in the air again, so Daman is going back to the well, this time pairing oversize varsity jackets by Saint Laurent and biker shorts with Louis Vuitton bags for Julien Calloway, the new Upper East Side It girl at the fictional Constance Billiard school.
“It’s not just twinsets and pearls,” he says. “The new generation is taking that heritage and giving it a Gen Z twist.” He even collaborated with Monse designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia on a special piece for the latest season finale.
For Kim the draw of prep school style is simple. “I find it very sexy, to be honest,” she says. “When you are actually that age, you don’t have the budget to do the whole look. I’m always craving to go back, because I feel like I haven’t really gotten it out of my system.”
This story appears in the February 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW