Sunday, September 26, 2010

Preppy Pitfall

Did the preppy obsession of the 1980's help to create a lazy generation? To quote:
The clothes may have been the most visible part of the preppy phenomenon, but they represented only a small part of the upper-class way of life Ms. Birnbach was championing (however cheerfully sly and subversive her advocacy may have been). Much of the book was devoted to a world-view that was casually aristocratic. Ms. Birnbach promised to make that outlook available to one and all. "In a true democracy," she wrote, "everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut."

How could the suburban teenager from Peoria or Pomona all of sudden be "upper class"? It was less a matter of pink oxford cloth and Kelly-green poplin than of adopting an aristocratic lassitude, an attitude that exuded privilege by treating effort with contempt. One simply mustn't try too hard. A key principle of what Ms. Birnbach called the Preppy Value System was Effortlessness: "If life is a country club, then all functions should be free from strain."

There's no denying the seductive appeal of the old aristocratic disdain for those who strive. How much nicer (and, of course, easier) it is to adopt a blasé and boozy contempt for the grinds and geeks who put in effort than it is to compete with them. The original Handbook warned acolytes not to waste their college days studying "Professional majors" such as engineering, chemistry or mathematics, because they "all reek of practicality." Nor, we were told, did the preppy go for intellectually demanding subjects such as philosophy or linguistics because, "they smack of an equally undesirable effort."

And there's the rub. Unless you actually have a fat trust fund to underwrite your nonchalance, an aversion to effort is hardly a strategy for success. Which may explain some of our national woes.


teresa said...

I almost always agree with you, Elena Maria, but I've got to disagree with this article. I graduated from law school in 1983 and have lived my professional years through that "yuppie" era and its aftermath, and that's just not what I saw.

Instead, businesses and law firms were demanding more and more hours of work each week from the attorneys, especially from the younger ones. With the images of JR Ewing, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart as role models, there was an expectation that the more successful employees could get by with 5 hours of sleep a night. Some law firms were known for having divorce rates of 100% because nobody could keep a marriage together working that many hours a week. A 6 or even 7 day work week was the norm at some of the firms that paid the best. And a lot of people were pressured by employers to spend every dollar they made to buy expensive clothing, haircuts, and cars to make the firm look prosperous, leaving nothing in savings, especially for young employees with student loans to pay off. People went into debt to look the part with the hope of being promoted so that they could make enough money to pay off the bills.

But there's always that carrot in front of the nose. People work long hours to reach a goal, and then there is another goal, and then another goal.

If you're working all the time, you want to look like you have something to show for it. So people didn't save money. With the drop in the stock market 10 years ago, a lot of people started putting every dime they could into the real estate market, buying the biggest house they could get, with a mortgage they could barely afford.

But also, around 2000, we started hearing about balance, which is hard to find in a competitive business environment. You have to say no to the carrot in front of your nose. There's more interest in it now, but the church-going, family-oriented culture that used to support it is gone.

elena maria vidal said...

Teresa, thank you for your feedback. Your experience was similar to mine. In the early to mid '80s I was getting by on a few hours of sleep a night because of the course load at school and working 2 or 3 jobs as well. I drove an ancient Dodge dart; nobody just went out and bought things on a whim the way they do now. We had to save first. Everyone in my family drove beat-up old cars and we were fairly well-off compared to many people.

Karina Fabian said...

The kids who adopted the preppy look were inevitably the ones who were getting the good grades and participating in extra-curriculars. I thought "preppy" was synonymous with "overachiever." (For those that could afford the preppy look, that is.)

elena maria vidal said...

I never could afford to wear docksiders or whatever they were called; I remember wearing my old saddle shoes from parochial school into high school. I bought all my preppy clothes at thrift shops and outlets, except for the things from my grandmother.

Aron said...

I am a little confused...So, is preppy the same as "wuss" and being "effeminate" and lazy? (For a guy that is.) That is the impression that I have always had anyway. <><

Archduchess Maria Carollton said...

I hear you, Elena. I also had a very spartan wardrobe in highschool. It may not have helped me any in the popularity department, but I think my parent's restraint toward spending provided a strong foundation and has helped me in many ways.

The 80's did see a whole new generation focused on such superficial things as clothing labels, and outer appearance.

And we are seeing the results. A whole generation where manners are considered quaint, and even odd. Mothers who care more about having 400.00 blouses than the welfare of their small children.

I also appreciate your point about how class and high-standing was once based on more than managing to purchase high dollar clothing.

elena maria vidal said...

No, Aron, "preppy" just meant dressing like someone who attended a prep school and living like country gentry, or at least pretending to do so.

Thank you, Archduchess, you describe better than I could what I was trying to say.