PBS aired a fascinating documentary a few years ago: People Like Us – Social Class in America, taking on one of the most taboo topics in a democracy based on the concept that all people are created equal. The documentary makes the case that there are subtle and not so subtle indicators of class distinction in our society, and that those things have an impact on each of us every day. All people are not so equal – at least not socially and economically. Consider the famous quip by Sargent Shriver, who was George McGovern’s 1972 Vice-Presidential running mate. Campaigning in West Virginia, Shriver gave himself away as upper class when he walked into a tavern full of coal miners and announced, “Bartender, a round of beers for the boys and a Courvoisier for me!” In a Movable Feast, Ernest Hemingway claimed that F. Scott Fitzgerald once told him, “The rich are different than you and me,” to which Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.”
Do money and a privileged position in society determine class, or is there something more to it: manners, education, refined taste and a concern for the common good? What things make one class different from another? These are difficult questions to answer. Certain clothing designers, most notably Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, have built marketing campaigns based on entrée into the upper class – or at least the popular imagination of it – launching the aspirational preppy movement. I think the old fashioned phrase for it is social climbing. But is that really such a bad thing? America is a meritocracy. If you have skill and talent, you can rise socially. You can gain admission to a first rate college or university and mingle with scions of old money. Witness Bill Clinton of lower class origins, who gained acceptance to Yale Law School, making connections that helped put him in the White House. President Obama is another example of rising above one’s origins, attending Columbia University and Harvard Law School, on the way to his history making election. Part of achieving success in the workplace is dressing in a manner that creates the greatest opportunity for advancement and the least resistance. Preppy fits the bill. It is essentially the look of the ruling class. Even though the Northeastern WASP establishment has long since lost its grip on our culture, its unique style and customs still prevail.
For more clips from People Like us, visit the documentary YouTube page.
On Ivy Style, Christian Chensvold has a great prep/class related post, “Poised or Oblivious? The True Essence of Prep,” He writes, “But since anyone today can don the clothing of the power elite, you never know just what the wearer of embroidered trousers may be really thinking. After all, he could be a radical environmentalist with an ironic sense of humor on a noble crusade to save the whales.”
For a very funny critique of the aspirational preppy movement, check out Rob Lanham’s piece, “True Prep: It Is Not the Time for the Preppy New Testament.” He pays homage to Lisa Birnbach’s influential satire The Official Preppy Handbook, while remaining sharply critical of her sequel True Prep, which was published in the middle of an economic recession.