Preppy Chic Makes a Comeback

Alex P. Keaton would be thrilled.

Michael J. Fox's character from the 1980s sitcom Family Ties personified preppy: button-down shirts, Izod socks and an obsession with capitalism. Well, bust out the bubbly.

Fashionistas say penny loafers aren't just for squares anymore. Many of today's trendsetters are wearing polos, khakis and loafers. And they're calling it "preppy chic."

"It's a total '80s revival," says Cara Shapiro, fashion editor for Seventeen magazine. "It's taking the nice, conservative preppy vibe and making it young and fun and fresh."

But the look isn't just for the elite anymore. "I think it's a way for a lot of groups of people, more conservative people, to be mainstream. And for kids who are more funky to try the style without going 'society' style."

Funky? Perish the thought. WASPs all over are probably cringing in their golf shoes, wringing well-manicured hands and straightening their collars at the mere thought of the masses soiling the classic prep school look.

Not so, claims Tana Sherman, director of public information at Phillips Academy, the exclusive prep school in Andover, Massachusetts.

"We know that image exists, but the kids don't dress like that at all," she says. "Our kids look like kids at any other high school. The only things you don't see are bare midriffs. They are more respectful."

Before the dress code at Andover was dropped during the 1970-71 academic year, students — including both the current and former Bush presidents — were required to wear a jacket and tie.

Preppy chic comes on the heels of a series of fashion flashbacks, from the '70s Charlie's Angels glam look to '80s punk.

"People were looking for other trends that happened at that time," says Shapiro.

In fact, urban hipsters who've co-opted the conservative style have added some punk to their prep.

"We're doing a version of mixing a punk look [with preppy]," Shapiro said. "It's like the yin and yang."

Urban Outfitters, the mainstream arbiter of cool, is among those mixing and matching retro fashion looks.

"We mimic more the punk appropriation of the upper class, and then we dress it down," says Rachel Li, production manager for the retail giant. "A lot of people are taking preppy and making it more sexy."

But fear not. The classic collared shirt is still available sans unseemly accoutrements. The Gap, perhaps the best guide to everyman fashion, is overflowing with the looks that Biff and Buffy used to wear.

"Polo shirts are ubiquitous, but it’s not the polo shirt you had in the '80s," says Anna Lonergan, spokesperson for the Gap. "It's an old, favorite idea with lots of new possibilities."

But does dressing like a prepster mean you should live like one? Not really, unless you're particularly drawn to backyard tennis courts and summers on Martha's Vineyard.

"I don't think it's about a specific lifestyle," says Lonergan.

Fashion experts agree that while label-lust and social status fueled the '80s obsession with preppy, this time around the look is just another nostalgia trend. Even Izod, the must-have brand of the '80s with its ubiquitous alligator icon, has lost its cachet.

"Last spring or summer we brought in Izod for men, and it didn't do well," says Li. "People aren't trying to express money by saying they only wear the brand Izod. They are going after the style… If people want to express money, they express it with all the season's gold or with expensive jewelry."

Like most retro fads, it's a throwback with a twist.

"I think it's a return to classic and clean dressing, but it’s not boring," Lonergan offers. "You don't feel like you're pulling the same clothes you wore out of the closet from 1984."