Prep Schooled: Deborah Paul on the Trend’s Return

Popularized in the ’80s, the button-down lifestyle is back—and I can’t figure out why.

Back in 1980, when we weren’t watching Three’s Company, 1.3 million of us were reading Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook, published 35 years ago this month. It was the definitive compendium of all things upper-class, from what pastel print to wear to which private East Coast schools to attend to where you should “summer.” Country-club memberships were paramount, as were pink and green. The book cover, trimmed in plaid, displayed Mummy and Daddy, crossed tennis racquets, and a synopsis of guidelines including “How to Be Really Top Drawer.”
I was this magazine’s managing editor at the time, and the editor-in-chief asked—nay, required—that I parrot the book, localizing the author’s directives. I wrote “Indy’s Guide to Prep” in 1981 under the pseudonym “Lynn Dorman,” my middle and maiden names. This half-truth must have occurred either because the article defied my journalistic sensibility or because, due to the small staff, I wrote most of the magazine, a professional embarrassment to the owners. The cover shamelessly imitated the book’s, featuring a couple standing on a sweeping lawn in Williams Creek with two young children, one of them the editor’s daughter, the other my 8-year-old son. Bad enough that I penned the darn thing, but I had to go and drag my kid into it, too.

Looking back on the piece, I’m more ashamed now than Lynn Dorman was then. Not only was the content silly, but catering to the upper-class lifestyle these days makes me cringe. The top 1 percent, to whom much of the drivel was aimed, aren’t so deified in today’s economy.

Now the Kim Kardashian look is all the rage. Maybe the return of prep isn’t so bad.

For some peculiar reason, though, preppy is back, and I can’t figure out why. Nobody is talking much these days about squash clubs or the lacrosse at Connecticut’s Cheshire Academy, but the suburban look is nevertheless taking hold in our increasingly urban world. The alligator insignias we once coveted have been replaced by the whales of clothing brand Vineyard Vines, which makes pricey gingham and polo shirts, cute sleeveless and eyelet dresses, quarter-zip pastel sweaters, and ties decorated with mint juleps and black Labs. In big cities, the stores command prime space in high-end malls. Here in Indy, we pay homage to the trend with shops such as Kate Spade and Sperry, and local bloggers boast of their preppiness. Whether the fascination is fueled by nostalgia or a desperate attempt to be “in” remains a mystery.

In any event, no one is more qualified to offer historical perspective on the trend’s return than Lynn Dorman. Perhaps a look back at her ’80s observations is in order.

Clothing. Ivy League attire was all the rage, the kind featured at Roderick St. John’s in Glendale mall. Add to that Bermuda bags with button-on covers, circle pins, and blue oxford-cloth shirts with button-down collars. I myself, an avid shopper at “Rod’s,” had a closetful of heather-toned wool A-line skirts, cardigan sweaters, and knee socks. In fact, during my freshman year of college, I lucked into a blind date with a cool guy in a cool fraternity who heard I was dating two pledges and assumed I must be hot. When I showed up in the dorm lobby in my newest Villager outfit, he drove me to Frisch’s Big Boy for strawberry pie and promptly took me home. Preppy may be a lot of things, but sexy isn’t one of them. Now the skintight Kim Kardashian look is all the rage. On second thought, maybe the return of prep isn’t so bad.

Lifestyle. In “Indy’s Guide to Prep,” schools such as Park Tudor, Culver, and Brebeuf got the nod. Considering the current state of public education, I assume kids today attend those same private institutions more for reasons of advanced learning than for prestige. Golf at Meridian Hills was hailed, as well as boating at the Indianapolis Sailing Club and attending the Clay Courts tennis tournament. Attitude, I wrote, how to behave in search of the good life, is equally as important as attire.

Restaurants. Youthful preps apparently frequented The Greenhouse (gently falling water) and Dalt’s (cute waiters), while preppy oldsters favored Dodd’s Townhouse (ask for Betty). St. Elmo and Shapiro’s were mentioned, making me wonder what Lynn Dorman thought was preppy about a T-bone steak or corned beef on rye. Those last two are the article’s only surviving restaurants, which proves, I guess, that true classics never go out of style.

People and Places. “Bitsy” and “Ginger” were names of choice, although Lynn Dorman herself never knew anyone called either, nor did she ever refer to her own mother as “Mummy.” She told readers to buy jewelry at Rost and Goodman’s, both now a memory. The right merchandise could be found at Ethan Allen, Gattle’s, and Dreyer and Reinbold, and do-gooder preps volunteered at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Garden Club. Our most celebrated prep was then-Mayor Bill Hudnut, once a captain of the Red Team at the prestigious Darrow School in upstate New York. Today, one wonders who might command the local honor of top prep. Mitch Daniels graduated from Princeton, but I once saw him wearing a ball cap at Marsh; maybe that disqualifies him.

Lynn Dorman’s article stated that true prep style is well-worn. “Drive a hole through the elbow [of that new Shetland sweater] with the family’s sterling silver icepick,” the piece instructed. I suspect the line was penned by the editor, who, with her lush garden and beautiful antiques, fit the image far better than her lowly scribe.

If classic is the benchmark for prep, however, the disappearance of “mainstays” cited in the article speaks volumes. Perhaps most locals had—and have—better things to do.

Email Deborah Paul here.

This article appeared in the October 2015 Issue.