A nostalgic look back at the early eighties and the unparalleled impact of the Official Preppy Handbook on the author’s life. Foreshadowing not only a middle age spent in the comfortable embrace of Ivy-classics but harping back also to the author’s father’s time as a Pan-European Americanophile in the 1960s.
Growing up in 1980s Berlin – then a city with lots of “cool” but very little elegance – I caused quite a stir when I came to school in my new pink Lacoste shirt. What struck people as curious was not only the color of the shirt unavailable for boys at the time but also the colour of the crocodile : blue (a few years later a rather camp shop assistant would enquire of me whether my crocodile was drunk).
My school was snobbish enough for Lacoste shirts to be a status symbol, but only those of the ordinary French variety. It took some haughty explanations on my part to make clear, that no I was not sporting a fake , but something way more exclusive than could be bought in Berlin Tennis shops: An Izod Lacoste imported from New York. It had as a matter of fact been imported by my father, who had bought two pink ones in Brooks Brothers, one for himself in size “Patron” and one for me in size “ Jeune Homme” (an interesting attempt by Izod to refrenchify the licensed version, as the original Lacoste sizes went in numbers, back then I was a 2 now I am a 5). The preppy-bug had been planted in me quite thoroughly a couple of years earlier when my father had imported that invaluable bit of American pornography: the Preppy Handbook (I had of course already put around class the one applicable dictat,: as far as Lacoste was concerned it was strictly : “two-button version, never buttoned”).
Few Preppy-originals where available then in Europe, which meant that if I wanted new I was reduced to wearing Timberland docksides instead of Sperry and Benetton madras shorts rather than Brooks. The second-hand vein was richer and had been around since at least the early 70s. The best being – as unknown to clothes-civilians – the thrift shop on the main US-Army compound in West-Berlin. Obviously not all items available there fulfilled Ivy- Standards but my mother had succeeded in bringing back the odd desirable item: a madras jacket, a high-collared LL.Bean button-down (with a high Polyester content) and I seem to remember even an Arrow- shirt, a remnant of an earlier wave of European Americanophilia: The 60s, particularly in Paris, had seen a wave of Ivy-philia that had come straight after a vogue for English- inspired tailoring. The “ Minets”, who had earlier sported very high-armholed, very waisted suits inspired by the long line of British hacking -jackets had taken to the more casual American classics as the 60s wore on. Seersucker- jackets, Madras Shirts, corduroy Levis and above all Shetland- Sweaters (which curiously wore worn shrunk and waist-short sometimes even shorter). My father had spent a couple of semesters of his medical studies in Toulouse and worked a few weeks in an Anglomania inspired clothes-shop called “Ted Langley” : Though he got a discount a significant portion of his salary went on a bright red- high-buttoning cardigan and a skinny “old Rugbieans” tie (only when years later I tried to replicate that tie in a London shop and the sales- assistant asked me whether I had actually gone to Rugby school, I realised the significance of that tag).
Photographs from the mid- to late sixties, already with me on one arm then, show my father in immaculate Ivy-fashion when not suited ( where he preferred his Italian bespoke jobs) : Cardigan, Button down shirt, skinny beige chinos with tiny turn-ups worn over white crew-socks with one blue and one red stripe which in turn were clad in chunky Sebago Penny – Loafers. His Ray-ban aviators had to be bent out of shape to accommodate prescription lenses as the teardrop shape was not then available in Germany.
Forward to 1981 when my father took me on a trip around France starting in Paris. In my memory we spent a significant amount of out stay in the city of light hanging around outside a shop called “Stanley Spencer” or such like which stocked Alden. What was bought in the end were however not Aldens but a pair of oxblood Cole-Haan tassel-loafers at Sulka, Rue de Rivoli for my dad and later on in Cannes a more reasonably priced version from a lesser manufacturer for my still growing feet. It took me a trip to an Italian cobbler, some months after, to get the tassel spread exactly as in the Cole Haans: it seems most manufacturers even Alden arrange the tassels in a limp loop, while a simple sailor’s knot will achieve a proud spread that provides a good counterpoint of the relatively elongated shape of the tassel loafer.
After having lived in London for almost thirty years, and a few more or less uncomfortable bespoke suits and quite a few tightly fitted and “bullet -proof” tweeds later, I have now returned into the easy folds of my first serious clothes- obsession. eBay and a kindly American aunt have allowed me to amass quite a collection of American classics from 3/2 Sack Blazers to engine turned croc-belts and yes a pair of the unaffordable and unwise Aldens that I desired in Paris in 81.