PREPPY FASHION and the Classic Look seem to signal that once again Rich is Beautiful. But this trend does not mean that life is easier for the rich. Ostentatious displays--the Reagan inaugural gala, for instance--arouse resentment, which annoys the Chosen Few.
"All of the women here have husbands who have worked hard for what they have. What have we worked for if we can't enjoy it? It's getting a little tiresome to always have to apologize for ourselves." Mrs. John E. Swearingen, wife of Standard Oil of Indiana's chairman, said, while commenting to The New York Times on the classic satin gown, emerald and diamond necklace with matching jeweled earrings she wore to that gala.
Swearingen is mindful of his educational advantages as the son of a state superintendent of schools. We have the Amoco chairman's own word that Swearingen is sympathetic to the poor. When asked by New York magazine in 1977 about the effect of high gasoline prices on lower income families, Swearingen replied, "I'm sympathetic to poor people, but for heaven's sake, let's not ruin our future to take care of a relatively few people....What is a man on relief doing owning an automobile? Let's not let our sympathies run away with us."
Preppy fashion and the Reagan ascendancy have joined forces: Satin is out of the closet, fears of runaway sympathy for the poor locked in. But changing times have led to a new problem more the some still than the eternal defense against the resentment of the envious masses: long sufference of their attempts at familiarity and imitation. Groton-bred Robert A. Humphreville '80, office manager of the Hasty Pudding Club, has lost none of his preppy aplomb in the face of this nouveau nuisance. "I find it slightly tiresome that people who come from different backgrounds compensate by dressing in a way they don't come by naturally," he drawled to Newsweek. "I have a bit of casual contempt for these people."
Undeterred by the threat of Humphreville's casual contempt, nearly a million buyers have made The Official Preppy Handbook a number-one best seller--driven perhaps by a fear of greater contempt were they to wear their background like a heart upon a non-monogrammed sleave.
When it is not merely a bad habit acquired in childhood, the preppy look betrays a pitiable lack of self-confidence. Faith in a designer's name is a poor substitute for belief in one's force of character. An alligator shirt or a madras skirt is the equivalent of a sandwich sign advertising the wearer's shallowness and insecurity. It doesn't take a firm grasp of existential dialectics to see the intimate link between L.L. Bean and Nothingness. Preppy clothes cloak an inner void.
THE WORST "fashion statement' is the plaid skirt, which asserts the wearer's class superiority and gender inferiority. Preppie culture has always been patriarchal. Thorstein Veblen, who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" at the turn of the century, contended that the leisure class woman's function was to display-her male keeper's wealth. "The high heel, the skirt...and the general disregard of the wearer's comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women's apparel" suggested to Veblen that "the woman is still in theory the economic dependent of the man." Despite changes since Veblen's day, uncomfortable skirts and high heels are staging a comeback, and they remain symbols of the female's role among the elite.
Mrs. John E. Swearingen plays her leisure class part to the hilt, explaining that it is proper for the women at the inaugural to dress ostentatiously because they "have husbands who have worked hard for what they have." Her husband revealed his own view of women's achievements when he confided to Women's Wear Daily. "In a man, I value sincerity and achievement. In a woman, it's sincerity and understanding."
Plaid skirts pose a special problem because most men can hardly fail to recognize their uniform ugliness. They are part of the backlash to feminism that brings us Brooke Shields' close encounters with Calvin Klein. Thus does plaid-clad "Bunny" Birnbach promote her success with The Preppy Handbook by claiming to "get a wonderful frisson from dressing preppy while cherishing liberal attitudes and social conciousness."
It is because of this pervading hypocricy that it is distressing to watch preppy fashion pervade Harvard. This vogue would be harmless if it were nothing more than an unsightly Public Display of Affectation. But Prep implies that some of us are more equal than others--by virtue not of intrinsic merit but of money. America must reconcile this obvious inequality of wealth with its professed democratic ideals by dispelling the myth that differences in income reflect personal merit.
While some rich people have done nothing to merit their fortunes, others have accumulated riches honestly, through hard work. But when these various species of rich people all adopt a certain set of peculiar and expensive manners, customs and attire, a pattern emerges. If they can convince the rest of us that their peculiar whims constitute good taste, they succeed in creating the impression that they are superior. Giving status to preppy fashions sported by the rich helps legitimize their wealth, however they may have obtained it.
Such legitimization exists at Harvard. Derek Bok, in his Open Letter on gifts, noted that "There is little evidence that Harvard has been reluctant in the past to accept 'contributions' from donors who are said to have earned their money by immoral means..." If some students seem to be at Harvard because their forebears victimized the forebears of other students, does there not seem to be an element of reparation in affirmative action, despite President Bok's protestations to the contrary in his latest Open Letter. Yet articles continue to question the presence of minority students on campus, insinuating that those who had to over-come racial and income obstacles have fewer grounds for admission than football players, since the latter boast a special talent.
HOWEVER, none of the above arguments seek to prove that preppy students should be ashamed. Their background is not their doing, and preppy fashion might be all they know. On the contrary, we may feel pity that their parents cared so little for them that they ship their sons and daughters off to boarding school; surely we should not scorn them.
We must remember that preppy fashion's value lies in the monetary symbol of its diverse logos. The sole charm of a Lacoste shirt is the Lacoste. The Handbook confirms this: "Subtleties of cut, weave, or color distinguish the merely good from the Prep. A small percentage of polyester in oxford cloth shirt of a lapel that's a quarter of an inch too wide can make all the difference." Only that idle elite can afford to spend time learning to detect such trivial differences and can squander money paying for them. What a pity that the rest of us are not the beneficiaries of a higher education similar to that of Birnbach et al.; we too might learn not to perspire in the shade of palm trees and tennis courts.