The evolution of British Preppiness

The evolution of British Preppiness

Despite the fact that 'preppy style' seems to almost always reference Ivy League campuses, it was actually the British who came up with the style ('prep' meaning the preparatory schools of the British elite, whose children were being 'prepared' for the rigours of boarding school). This menswear aesthetic recognisable for its blend of classic sporting silhouettes and casually tailored garments dates back to the early mid-19th century, when the oarsmen of British college rowing clubs would wear bold coloured jackets (and often stripey) in order to be better made out by the crowd watching them race from a distance on the river banks.

From there, students began to wear the very same jackets to attend social functions in a form of rebelliousness against the more boring suit alternatives.  It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that this style paddled its way across the Atlantic to the Ivy League institutions who so greedily gobbled it up. For the Americans, it symbolised class and upper-class privilege, and was famously parodied in Lisa Birnbach’s seminal books, The Official Preppy Handbook, and True Prep.

Brook Shirt Rutherford Beige

Brook Shirt
Rutherford Beige

Pleated Trousers Halifax Brown/Charcoal

Pleated Trousers Halifax

Solovair x Oliver Spencer Brown Suede Gibson Shoes

Solovair x Oliver Spencer Brown
Suede Gibson Shoes

The key element to British preppiness then is that sporting aspect. Traditional British style was always very formal but the advent of preppiness was a breath of fresh air, and the first real iteration of what we call 'athleisure' today. Sports such as rowing, cricket, polo and tennis were the British reference points, before the Americans of the East Coast incorporated equestrian, sailing, tennis, and golf elements. 

Brook Shirt Warland Green Multi

Brook Shirt Warland
Green Multi

Fowey Bomber Jacket Ellbridge Green

Fowey Bomber Jacket
Ellbridge Green

Solovair x Oliver Spencer Brown Suede Monkey Boots

Solovair x Oliver Spencer Brown
Suede Monkey Boots

Patterns were clashed, silhouettes were expanded, tones were made bolder and brighter. The 'British' part of preppy disappeared in the 50s as American culture took over the world. The cult of the celebrity accelerated the look, with the likes of JFK and Miles Davis being exemplary proponents back then, incorporating windbreakers and seersucker suits respectively. Ivy League style became a 'thing', and something to export. Meanwhile back in the UK, our subcultures were more focused on smashing up the establishment. In 70s France, there was also a preppy movement going on called 'BCBG' or 'bon chic bon genre', which was a smart, 'well-behaved' look adopted by students after the riots of '68.

 Solms Jacket Deakin Cord Beige

Solms Jacket
Deakin Cord Beige

Blenheim Jumper Colwick Navy

Blenheim Jumper
Colwick Navy

Pleated Trousers Fairview Black

Pleated Trousers
Fairview Black

In many ways, Ralph Lauren kept British preppiness alive and well thanks to his successful commercialisation of polo and his anglophilia. Certainly his Purple Label today has all the hallmarks of British tailoring and country sophistication. But British preppiness has changed. While the sporting references are still there in the OCDBs (which were the original polo shirts worn by polo-playing colonialists in India), sports coats and blazers, the look has evolved to incorporate a number of workwear silhouettes such as overshirts and chore jackets, as well as pinching a few American icons such as the bomber jacket.

Grandpa Coat Combe Green Multi

Grandpa Coat
Combe Green Multi

Mock Turtle Neck Jumper Elswick Light Grey Donegal

Mock Turtle Neck Elswick
Light Grey Donegal

Solovair x Oliver Spencer Black Suede Monkey Boots

Solovair x Oliver Spencer Black
Suede Monkey Boots

So many cultures inform 'Britishness' today, that of course British preppiness follows suit. It's no longer an aspirational aesthetic, but rather a style that is embedded in the inextricable blend of comfort, sportswear and tailoring.This season at Oliver Spencer, we were inspired to create a preppy wardrobe that paid homage to the classic elements such as cardigans, straight-leg trousers, heritage knitwear and sporty jersey, as well as unstructured suiting and essential flannel shirting. It's a collection that can exist all on its own or be easily worn with your current favourites because at its core, that's what preppy means to us - youthful versatility and a bending of the rules.

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