Urban Prep: New Interpretations of American Prep

Curator's Note

The all-American preppy look is a sartorial staple.  It has continued to appear in various forms in fashion and popular culture.  Lisa Birnbach, who first authored The Official Preppy Handbook in 1980, has recently published True Prep: It’s a Whole New World, a reexamination of American prep in the 21st century; Tommy Hilfiger described his most recent menswear collection as “indie prep;” this month Gant reissued its iconic Yale Co-Op shirt once sold at the Yale bookstore in the 1960s; and in the summer of 2010 for the first time in 45 years, Take Ivy, a compilation of photographs about Ivy-League prep, was reprinted in the United States.  But what happens when urban street-wear goes to prep school?  Thanks to bloggers Josua Kissi and Travis Gumbs, this dialectical style is displayed on StreetEtiquette.com.

Based out of the Bronx, the duo claims to proffer an urban perspective on classic menswear.  They aim to reinterpret historic menswear trends with Kissi and Gumbs’s signature aesthetic.  This aesthetic is best described as an urban male’s foray into gentlemanly dressing.  It combines classic menswear tailoring with street swagger, American prep with New York cool, a little black radicalism and some camp.  More a canvas for their own personal style, Street Etiquette touts black gentlemanliness and respectability – it is not gritty street style but a more refined version.

Classic American prep is in danger, but in a good way.  When Take Ivy was first released in the sixties to the American public, it served as a window into the lifestyle of an exclusive body of people.  Now that window has been broken.  Influences of grunge, punk and hip-hop have entered the prep sphere.  With the confluence of distinct cultures and styles magnified by the Internet, the Street Etiquette aesthetic is only one mimetic example of a 21st-century reinterpretation of this American style.  So what happens when prep interacts with the street?  How has the Internet contributed to this shift toward style hybridity?  What was once a clearly delineated style of the elite, prep is now adapted for a modern sartorial democracy.  Is there really "true prep" anymore?


Thanks for introduding me to the Street Etiquette blog, Alex! Very interesting.

I've just finished reading the preceding post, also about African-American men + fashion. It occurred to me that although this urban preppie look refers (or pays homage?) to a privileged class of people, it is actually more economically accessible than "traditional" hip-hop style (baggy pants, newest sneakers, lots of "bling"). I say this because much of the urban preppie look can be purchased through vintage shopping, whereas the hip-hop style insists on having the most expensive/newest/most-brand-identifyable/flyest gear.

Do you think this style of dress is, in some way, a rebuttal to the overt consumerism we see in more traditional hip-hop fashion?

 Thank you for commenting on my piece, Nedda!

There's another clip by Street Etiquette that shows one of the men holding a Yves Saint Laurent bag.  The fact that he is carrying this luxury bag demonstrates how consumerism is still very much at play for this style of dress. I think what we need to consider is the difference between conspicuous consumption and not-so conspicuous consumption, and how does that factor into these two polarized styles.  Although you are right that a subset of hip-hop has these requirements (expensive, new, branded clothes), prep in some respects does as well, but maybe it's not as obvious. 

You do bring up an interesting point about vintage shopping, however.  If this bling-crazed hip-hop trend of the last decade or so has passed,  what does a return to the old signify?  I know that the Street Etiquette men value vintage shopping - that YSL bag is probably vintage - but is it a rebuttable of overt consumerism or a sign of a new kind of fashionable consumption?

Thanks for the post and the links.

I'm trying to mentally sort out the connections between American prep and a revival of dandyism. Prep makes me think of the atrocity that is Abercrombie & Fitch, but some the styles mimiced in the video align more with dandyism. Does dandyism read as camp, in your usage? And if we add swagger...I'm gonna need a flowchart!

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