Pink Polos and Khakis: The Preppy Conspiracy

Having once bought a piece of square luggage from Lands' End, I now receive catalogs of their square clothes. I study the catalogs with morbid fascination, as Lands' End is hard-core preppy.

They have your pink polo shirts, your thigh-length Bermudas and your button-down candy-striped oxfords. They have acres of tailored khakis (no baggies, please), and the deck shoes with the malignant little skinny white soles. They have seersucker.

And in the May catalog, Lands' End has a marketing essay by a guest author: Lisa Birnbach, who in 1980 wrote the best-selling Official Preppy Handbook. Birnbach is there to explain why prep, like other bad ideas, just won't go away -- and why you should feel good about it.

She does her chatty best to put a fresh spin on the standard arguments for prep, but these are not convincing. For instance, after admitting that "preppy isn't sexy" (amen), Birnbach writes, "Here's another thing preppy isn't: trendy. Here's what it really is: timeless." (No. The infinite universe, perhaps, is timeless. Retrograde does not equal timeless.)

Well, at least prep helps you to age gracefully, Birnbach argues, because the unchanging style "slows the clock. ... Think of William F. Buckley Jr. He may have a few more lines wrinkling his conservative brow than he did twenty years ago, but otherwise, he looks about the same." (This is admirable? That a man who has made it through life without changing his mind also made it without changing his clothes?)

"Dressing preppy can take you anywhere," claims Birnbach, because "preppy travels well." (Not true. Cram a pile of all-cotton prep clothes into a flight bag and you'll be sorry. You will visit the Louvre looking not only like a dork, but a rumpled dork.)

Amid the drivel, however, one passage leaps out. A passage that reveals the sordid truth behind prep's appeal. There is, Birnbach notes, "an upwardly notion [sic] in the preppy thing" -- so that no matter how low your actual station, you can fool 'em by dressing your "unworthy self" in prep: "In a buttondown shirt, khaki pants, Weejuns or Top-Siders, you could rule the world. You could be an unemployed Libertarian, or a member of the First Family of Kennebunkport. ... What could be more American? More democratic? Or Republican, for that matter."

Aha. Thank you, Ms. Birnbach. To put it more bluntly: Prep is a facet of the right-wing conspiracy. It is reactionary; it is elitist. And though the true elite remain a select few, with names like Bush and DuPont, there are hordes of wannabes who buy the clothing for the same reason they buy the politics: in order to pass.

Viewed from this socio-political angle, the whole nonsensical world of prep fashion begins to make sense. For instance, you may wonder why the polo shirt -- with its annoying collar that looks stuffy when buttoned, and sloppy unbuttoned -- is so popular. The polo shirt prevails because it is an elitist garment, polo being the one sport that is never, ever played in the ghetto. Similarly, the prep style of going sockless in leather shoes is an elitist statement: My feet don't smell.

The horrid pastel colors of prep -- the putrid pinks and livid lavenders, the mutant greens, the biopsy yellows -- come straight from the palette of the 1950s, which was the high age of corporate capitalism. And the prep obsession with cotton has even deeper roots. Cotton is the fabric of empire. Think of bleeding Madras, from bleeding India. Think of the cotton gin, one of the first machines of the Industrial Revolution, and the plantation slaves who picked the cotton for the gins. Cotton is the 19th-century fiber for the 21st-century capitalist.

Which brings us to khakis, those mysterious prep garments that fill no discernible fashion niche. Khaki trousers are too casual for dress wear and too dressy for casual wear; they epitomize the style known as "business casualty." They go with anything but go well with nothing, and flatter no one.

Yet khakis are de rigueur for those who would emulate the ruling elite, for khaki is the material of the tropical military uniform. The very word evokes terror and oppression. Said once ("khaki") it mimics the gagging sound of a torture victim; repeated rapidly ("khaki khaki khaki") it is the automatic rifle.

Worn with a non-matching top, such as a hip black jersey, khakis further evoke those most dreaded of all tropical soldiers, the semi-uniformed irregulars, who answer to no government. And that, my friends, is why the modern techno-capitalist goes forth to conquer the world in khakis. Armed not with a Kalashnikov, but with an M.B.A.

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