If you happened to attend college in the early 1980s, then you probably remember The Official Preppy Handbook. Izod shirts and pastel sweaters were experiencing a fashion moment at the time, and the book arrived as a wryly affectionate satire of a culture where the house wine was a gin and tonic, “summer” was a verb, and a man could appear in public dressed in wide-wale corduroys embroidered with a repeating motif of Irish setter’s heads, and no one would laugh.
Though the Handbook largely concerned itself with the northeastern preppy, the breed’s Virginia cousin was entirely recognizable in the book’s pages and even accorded the occasional nod. And in fact, though we were much more likely to summer at the River instead of Nantucket, and we considered Princeton about as far north as we’d be willing to go for an Ivy League education (or better yet not go north at all when we had better options right here at home), Virginians were confident that we could out-prep the preppiest Groton grad with one hand tied behind our Lily Pulitzer-clad backs.
For one thing, timelessness and tradition are cornerstones of the prep ethic, and it’s not for nothing we named ourselves the Old Dominion. There have been Virginians with a preference for things the way they used to be since the first Jamestown colonists stole a last fleeting glance backward to the receding shores of England—and in most matters your traditional Virginian has always considered it safe to trust in the principle, “What would Mr. Jefferson do?”
And then, of course, we had a cradle-to-grave arc of preppy bona fides. They began with the engraved Jefferson cup at the christening and ended with ham biscuits handmade by your family’s longtime cook for the decorous reception following the funeral. In between, we had debutante balls; we had cotillion; we had fox hunts, and the Middleburg horse set; and Sweet Briar College—school colors pink and green; and Easters Weekend at the University of Virginia, a fraternity party so over-the-top epic that students road-tripped here from Dartmouth like Chaucer’s pilgrims making their way to Canterbury. We had single-sex Episcopalian boarding schools, and seersucker suits in summer, and we never wore socks with our boat shoes. And, let’s face it, there has always been something ineffably preppy about an old Virginia accent, the kind you’d hear from a senior English literature professor at a UVA faculty party or a Garden Club of Virginia hostess during Garden Week.
But that was then. Three decades later, it’s a whole new world—which, as it happens, is the subtitle of True Prep, Birnbach’s cheeky return visit to the Biff-and-Muffy set, published in 2010. If change is anathema to the preppy universe, then the alterations wrought since Ronald Reagan took to the White House, and MTV to the airways, would seem to signify a veritable prep-pocalypse. And though True Prep gamely tries to muster the same carefree air of breezy confidence that marked its predecessor, in the face of a 21st century landscape of McMansions, reality television, and the spittle-frothed invective of the blogosphere, it gives off a faintly shell-shocked quality, like George Plimpton trapped in an episode of MTV Cribs.
Welcome to feral America. Nowadays, it would seem, Tink and Wellington have barricaded themselves in the mudroom with a bottle of Scotch while Wal-Mart colonizes the suburbs, and cable television has swelled to a cacophonous wasteland of bloviating talking heads while our cultural landscape is ever-more dominated by celebrity sex scandals, surgically enhanced Real Housewives and whatever Kanye West just posted on his Twitter feed. And an Ivy League education inexplicably has become something to apologize for; indeed, the only thing the working man is supposed to hate more than the greedy, Yale-educated Wall Street banker is the Harvard-educated socialist (née Democrat) who wants to reign him in.
Simply put, things have changed—and yet life isn’t all bad. Timeless, unchanging values lose a lot of luster if you’re one of those people tradition traditionally has kept outside of the gates, and the intervening decades indeed have seen a welcome diversity enter the ranks of the elite and the powerful. Look at the Supreme Court. Look at your alumni magazine. Look at those Harvard dropout billionaire techno-geeks Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Look at Barack Hussein Obama, the Columbia- and Harvard-educated mixed-race son of a single mother, widely regarded as the preppiest POTUS since Kennedy (never mind those Yalies George and George W.).
And speaking of private education, the prep school was once the unquestioned preserve of the prepster—“prep” being short for “preparatory.” If you’re over 40 and you ever sang “Jerusalem” while wearing a blue blazer, or climbed out your dorm room window after midnight to go joyriding with your day-student friends, then you remember when being a kid with respectable SATs and a decent GPA from a good prep school meant you could expect to gain admission to at least one of your colleges of choice. If you were particularly ambitious, you might spend a few hours practicing test questions from the SAT manual. If your family surname appeared regularly in any of the colleges’ alumni magazines, you could safely start mentally hanging posters in your future room on the freshman quad.
Today, winning an acceptance letter from a top-ranked college or university requires an 18-year campaign of strategizing that begins with getting into the right preschool and culminates in a four-year high school orgy of IB and AP classes, SAT prep, private tutors, and a six-hour nightly homework load married to a grueling schedule of extracurriculars, all carefully calibrated with an eye to appeasing the capricious gods of the admissions office. Last year nearly 26,000 applicants vied for about 1,300 spaces in the Yale class of 2014.
And then you have to pay for it—about $650,000 (more if boarding school figures in the picture) for a 17-year run from kindergarten to an Ivy League degree. And that’s before you add in the contributions to the annual fund and that 10th grade French class trip to Paris. Little surprise that financial aid is now a prominent talking point in the application process, and that boarding schools, in particular, have welcomed a growing number of international students (11 percent last year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools) whose families have the means to pay the bills.
And what of those summery idylls at the beach? Today “summer” is no longer a verb, it’s an anachronism. Daddy’s tethered to his iPhone waiting for an important client call, Mother has to meet with the decorators to order the new Subzero refrigerator and Viking stove for the 1,500 square-foot kitchen addition, and anyway the kids are scheduled out to 2015 with test-prep classes, internships, service projects and field hockey camp.
So where does that leave us here in Virginia? Dare we look? Are Lindsay Lohan and the cast of Jersey Shore storming the gates of the Town & Country Cotillion? Have the fox-hunting fields been paved over and populated with big-box stores? Are people wearing tank tops and Daisy Dukes at the steeplechase races?
The good news, if you hold tight to timeless traditions, is no, no, and no. And the good news, if you don’t, is that everything is nevertheless not quite the same. Virginia may still rank hands-down as the preppiest state in the union, but we are not altogether what we used to be. You might say that the stereotype has loosened its rep tie.
Take fox hunting for example. Riding to hounds is still very much alive and well in Virginia—we not only have 19 hunt clubs (considerably more than any other state), but also the headquarters of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, which is located in Millwood. “It’s definitely as popular or more popular than it’s ever been,” says the association’s director, Dennis Foster. But these days the sport is no longer entirely the purview of landed gentry, he says. Most of its participants are middle-class city dwellers who stable their horses elsewhere and join a hunt club for the chance to get out in the country and ride across private, undeveloped lands that otherwise would not be open to them. Maybe they hunted as kids, and maybe they didn’t. Foster himself took up the sport in his 30s at the invitation of an acquaintance; since then he has participated in nearly 400 hunts in 11 different countries. “I think it’s common now,” he says, that people are starting when older. What’s more, the fox is pretty much out of the picture. What most of the hunts do these days is chase coyotes. “This is an evolution in the last 10 years, because the coyote is taking over,” says Foster, adding, “There are very few hunts that actually catch a coyote. You’re talking about a small wolf here.”
Foster points out that though fox hunting is a tradition that traces its roots to Virginia’s colonials days, today’s fox hunting clubs are also an important force in the very contemporary issue of land conservation—fighting suburban sprawl, protecting the habitats where wild creatures thrive, and preserving the character of Virginia’s woodlands and rolling pastures.
Another institution apparently in no danger of closing up shop is the debutante ball. Blakeley Sisk, a 13-year senior from St. Catherine’s in Richmond and now in her last year at Auburn, was one of 31 young women who happily stepped up to be presented at last summer’s 54th Bal du Bois at the Country Club of Virginia. But these days the debs are called “sponsors” and participating is more about getting together with friends you haven’t seen since high school graduation rather than announcing your eligibility for marriage. Yes, the young women still wear white gowns and master the traditional Bal du Bois dance called the ‘Figure.’ But if that sounds like a laughable throwback to another century, note that the Bal, sponsored by the Junior Board of Sheltering Arms Physical Rehabilitation Centers, raised $100,000 for Sheltering Arms in 2009 (2010’s report has not yet been released).
“This is a tradition with a lot of women and their families,” says Sisk, explaining why she wanted to take part. “It’s not something that defines our society any more, but it’s a really fun experience, and it’s about service and giving back to the Richmond community, and it was definitely something that I had always wanted to do.”
Tradition holds strong in sartorial matters as well. We’ve never stopped wearing seersucker here. It is often paired with a bow tie. Sometimes with a gin and tonic. In Charlottesville, Eljo’s Traditional Clothes (please don’t call them “preppy”) has stayed in business for more than 60 years selling blue blazers, gray trousers, and natural shoulder, two-and-three-button undarted traditional-fit suits.
Myles Thurston, who owns Eljo’s with his son Trent, says, “Most of our suits are the same style that we sold 30 and 40 years ago. Styles change, fashions change, but the traditional, University-style clothing called Ivy League has never changed. And there is no reason to change. It is a classic, timeless look and you can wear it until you wear it out.” But you can also order from Eljo’s over the Internet now; the business has worked with customers as far away as Japan, where the Ivy look, you may be surprised to learn, has enjoyed a cult-like following for decades. And in the past few years, it has enjoyed one of its periodic revivals here in the U.S. as well, particularly in men’s fashion. Outside of its traditional community of wearers, the prep look has gone all post-modern hipster ironic—a little more body-conscious, a little less country club, and, dare we say it, sexier.
You can still expect plenty of blue blazers and Vineyard Vines skirts at our single-sex schools, however. Bastions of tradition, they continue to hold the line in Virginia. If the forces of coeducation have whittled away at their ranks (Episcopal, W&L, VMI), we still have our stalwarts like Woodberry Forest, Madeira, Hollins, Sweet Briar and Hampden-Sydney. “Single-sex schools are—de-facto—way preppier than coed,” avows True Prep—and a visitor to Hampden-Sydney, where the school’s mission is “to form good men and good citizens,” is immediately struck by how quintessentially collegiate the place looks—tranquil and bucolic and stately with its brick buildings and rolling lawns and classical architecture. It is a place where a lively student crowd turns out, in coat and tie, on a Sunday evening, for the weekly debates held by the Union-Philanthropic Society, the second-oldest debating society in America. It is a place where a bell is rung by hand to signal the end of each class. It is a place where you’ll find unrenovated classrooms straight out of the nostalgia book, with glazed-brick and plaster walls, dark wood trim, vintage roll-up world maps, and original slate blackboards from the 1930s complete with dusty wooden chalk trays. And it is where the Career Development office helps sponsor an annual etiquette dinner to prepare seniors to navigate the complexities of formal dinners in high places.
Hampden-Sydney’s director of publications, Thomas Shomo, class of ’69, and author of To Manners Born, To Manners Bred: A Hip Pocket Guide to Etiquette for the Hampden-Sydney Man, which is given to every new student at the college, says that what has remained consistent at Hampden-Sydney across centuries is a clarity of mission. “There are many institutions of higher education that have only the most tenuous connection to their founding purpose,” he says. “Hampden-Sydney College opened in 1775 as an undergraduate, liberal arts college to educate men. The definition of what constitutes the liberal arts has changed, but the college has not.”
Matt MacFarland, a senior from Lynchburg, who is writing his English honors thesis on the myth of Orpheus and minoring in classical studies, says, “It’s the cultivation of tradition that makes this place so appealing.” He notes that it’s impressed upon students that they are responsible for carrying on those traditions—of scholarship, of brotherly comradeship, of honor and civility and personal integrity. The honor code is taken very seriously here, and every new student has to stand up individually in front of a college assembly to sign a card pledging to abide by it.
Still, says MacFarland, even if a football game here “is like a time machine,” doing things a certain way just because that’s how you’ve done them for 200 years isn’t always the right course to choose. And, indeed, the winds of change have reached even unto the distant hills of Prince Edward County. A first generation college student himself, MacFarland notes that despite its perhaps once-deserved reputation as a rich, white, Southern-boy’s school, Hampden-Sydney today has a student body with fewer fraternity members and far more diversity. The college president and the president of the student body are both black, the assistant dean of students is a native of Serbia, and students come from more than 15 countries around the world, including Nepal, Jamaica, Germany and China. Though the men are still men and the women still guests (in the words of a vaguely controversial unofficial school motto) the women are also professors. And the student organizations include the UNITY Alliance, which seeks “to foster a safe and supportive environment for all members of the Hampden-Sydney community regardless of sexual orientation.”
In short, the ideal of “the Hampden-Sydney man” today represents what True Prep likes to imagine the world could be, a place where all are welcome who are willing to embrace those old-school prep values like civility and respect and integrity.
Not to mention the fashion sense. “I never owned a blue blazer before I came here,” says MacFarland. Now he has one, and camel hair and tweed jackets too. And come those warm days of late spring, look for Matt stepping out once again to greet the season in style. In seersucker, of course.