The Prep Test

A large problem within the world of fashion is that many people try too hard. Specifically, instead of creating a look that is applicable to one’s own life, many people simply try to masquerade a particular image or “look”. They are wearing the costume of a person they wish they were, without actually living the life around it. This can take all the creativity, individuality, and authenticity out of one’s image. 

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When considering adding a certain item to your wardrobe, someone asking “Is this preppy?” may be trying too hard to adopt a predefined image, instead of curating their own, using the fundamental guiding principles of men’s style.

Instead of asking if something is “preppy”, here are the questions worth asking to help develop your own style:

  • Where was this made?
  • Is this made to last?
  • What’s is it made out of?
  • Is this timeless? (or will it go out of style?)
  • Am I paying for quality? (or am I paying for a logo?)
  • Is it practical?

Where was this made?

To be more specific, this question is essentially asking “Was this product made in a sweatshop?” Since the globalization of textile production, a staggering percentage of clothing purchased in America is manufactured in developing (third-world) countries with deplorable labor and human rights standards. Along with this massive ramp-up in the volume of production, the overall quality of clothes has dropped significantly from when much more clothing was domestically sourced. Generally, items made in the UK, Europe, and North America are going to be of substantially better quality than those sourced from Asia and Central America. A shirt from H&M, Target, or countless other fast-fashion brands isn’t cheap because they magically unlocked a alternate universe where textiles are cheap, it’s because the companies producing these items are happy to externalize the costs associated with manufacturing. Why install filtration equipment in a factory when it’s easier to dump dyes directly into rivers (as was the case in America for much of the industrial revolution) polluting waters downstream? Why pay a livable wage to unionized workers instead of paying only dollars a day to child laborers? 

Made-in-America products are almost always going to be more expensive , but with this comes higher quality standards, and supporting local industry, including unionized American labor. We are looking for high quality products with a higher level of craftsmanship that will last a long time. The region of manufacture is going to be a good first step when analyzing the quality and appeal of the product. 

 

Is it made to last?

JPressLogoIMG_1604This question runs very closely with the first. The reason we want higher quality items isn’t to be able to say we paid more for them- It’s so that they will last and won’t need to be replaced every year. Clothing has become part of the throw-away culture, which hinges on boundless consumption with little care for what goes into landfills or the byproducts of production. The continual cycle of “buy-use-trash” ensures that you won’t find too many brands offering actual quality items in the year 2016, unless you know where to look.

In the long run you’ll actually pay less for the higher quality, buy-it-for-life items. “Quality” as a concept is slightly subjective, however there are quite a few indicators and metrics we can use to our advantage to determine an item’s relative quality. With shirts, we examine the stitch count, the thread count of the fabric, the quality and materials used for the buttons, the attention to details, the thickness of the fabric, and even external factors such as a brands reputation to customer service in the event something does go wrong. Companies such as Allen Edmonds are happy to completely recraft a shoe- extending it’s life by many years, because it is initially built in such a way that this is possible (a Goodyear welted sole) as opposed to the cheap, glued soles found on many inexpensive dress shoes.

When it comes to something like a suit, there are thousands of stitches and intricate layers of fabric that will never be seen from the outside, yet contribute greatly to the overall look, feel, and durability of said suit. This is what differentiates a $300 suit from a $2,000 suit – The attention to detail on the inside, whereas a run-of-the-mill mall retailer is going to try to sell you the cheapest possible item to produce, while tricking you into thinking it’s “good enough”. In the long run, that cheap suit might look ok for a couple wearings, but will begin to sag and lose its charm after only a couple of wearings, whereas a fully-canvassed, hand-stitched, 100% wool suit can look like it’s new for decades if well cared for.

The best items are those you can hand down to your little brother, or inherit from your father- with years of life still left in them.

What’s it made out of?

WoolSweater00213This speaks to the quality of the item in question. Does this product use only natural fibers like wool, cotton, silk, linen, and cashmere or does it include synthetic materials? Natural fibers are usually preferred, though there are exceptions to this rule, such as raincoats and outerwear.

Synthetic fibers are usually dirt cheap to manufacture – and they have been steadily replacing natural fibers in a variety of garments since their invention. While synthetics have some positive qualities (waterproofing, for example), they don’t belong in certain items, like a dress shirt or a blazer. Think about it like a plastic grocery bag. Would you wear one of those? I didn’t thing so either, but if you slap a “Alfani” label on there, you could probably sell it for $60 at Macy’s.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that some investigation beyond reading the label is often required here. Companies love to draw you in with phrases like “Cashmere blend” when in fact, the garment might only contain 5% of the sweet stuff. You will also want to learn about the different weaves and knits of cotton and wool.  There are major differences between Merino, Shetland, Cashmere, lambswool, and Angora and other types of wool, despite them all being wool. 

Not all materials are created equal, so learn the differences and reap the reward of knowing which are superior, and which are cheap approximations of the real deal. 

This also applies to certain additives or processes which can further alter a garment. These can be good (as in, the waxed cotton of a Barbour jacket) or “bad” such as the non-iron coating on many dress shirts. Materials is one of the biggest factors you should be paying attention to when making a purchase. If it’s a cheap product, there is no incentive for a maker to use high-quality materials. On an expensive product, the maker still might try to pull the wool (or should I say lycra?) over the consumers eyes, if they think they can get away with it. Be vigilant!

Is this a timeless, classic look, or will it eventually go out of style?”

ties01IMG_6720You can always pull off a classic, traditional look that’s been around forever. Fashion, on the other hand, is ephemeral. What looks trendy now will look ridiculous in a few years (take a look at the 1970’s if you don’t believe us). Companies LOVE to sell things that are “trendy and stylish” because it ensures their customers will need to come back for the “newest thing” when these fashions go out of style within a year or so. This is decidedly, the opposite of what it means to embrace prep ideology. 

When investing in your wardrobe, you want to spend money on pieces that will look as good today as they did 20 years ago, and 20 years from now. If you ever look at old photos of yourself and cringe at what you were wearing, it’s probably because of breaking this rule. The best part about the classics, is they are nearly impossible to mess up.

 

Am I buying quality materials and workmanship, or just a logo?

2015-01-04 14.01.02As the traditional, preppy style has seen a resurgence recently there are lots of companies trying to cash in by making a button-up shirt and slapping some sort of fish/dog/whale/etc. At the same time, we see a quite a few established “luxury” brands lowering their quality while keeping prices high, with the basic idea being that people will pay just to associate with that logo on their chest, or on their bag. Eventually, this will lead to the company’s fall from grace (a good example of this being Coach). Some of these companies make high quality products and some don’t. Some make a mix of higher and lower qualities products- aimed at capturing different levels of consumer with the same allure of luxury status. As a general rule of thumb, buy your products based on quality, not because you want to show off the logo. An established brand is typically one you can trust, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent for even the best of makers (such as Brooks Brothers) to slip in a line of cheaply produced stuff, that will sell just because it’s got the well-established brand name attached. Some brands take this a step further with specific diffusion lines, such as Brooks Brothers Factory Stores, J.Crew Factory, and lots of the stuff sold at off-price retailers such as TJ Maxx or Nordstrom Rack. Just because something purports to be from an esteemed brand, don’t assume it’s always well made.  

Is it practical and functional?

This is probably the most important question on this list. It’s also where you may run into some contradictions to preppy “rules.” Yes, generally natural fibers are preferred. However in certain situations it makes more sense to go synthetic. Buying a rain jacket? You’re probably going to want to make sure it’s waterproof and durable. Are you trying to add layers because you think it’s preppy without taking into account the actual weather you’re dressing for? A peacoat over a sweater over an OCDB may look good, but you better believe I’m wearing a shep shirt and a tee shirt if it’s more comfortable/practical for the weather. Dress yourself for the conditions you’ll face, not for the WAYWT post where you can show off how “preppy” you are.

Additionally, this is where we run into issues with adaptations on the classics, such as oxford shirts with shrunken collars (making pairing them with a tie impossible) or a sweater emblazoned with little whales – they might gain fashion points, but lose practicality points, such as the ability to wear the item to work or to a serious function.

Fit is another important factor here- items that are too slim or form fitting are impractical, unless we are talking about a wet suit. Fit is absolutely one of the hardest concepts to master, it may take many attempts to “get it right”, especially if you are still growing. That being said, a quick trip to the tailors can resolve many of the issues you will encounter, such as shirts being a bit too baggy or the inseam of your trousers running a couple inches too long.

Now, GTH (or “Go to Hell”) items can break this rule, but do so selectively, with the wearer knowing where and when they are appropriate to bust out. It’s better to master the basics of subtlety before diving headfirst into a sea of patchwork madras and bright pastels. Weaving in a loud or otherwise “obnoxious” item can be a way to add a sense of fun and youthfulness into your attire, especially when you are definitively off-the-clock. Using these items as the backbone of your wardrobe however, is a sure way to be mistaken for a circus clown on a regular basis.

Practice Exercises:

Item 1:

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The Brooks Brothers Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt

  • “Where is this made?”

The classic Brook Brothers oxford is made right in Garland, North Carolina. While they have quite a few Made in Malaysia and China options, it’s no secret why this particular model is a favorite among many. 

  • “Is this made to last?”

Yes, Brooks Brothers oxford shirts last many many years. This can be confirmed by countless online sources, and the fact the product has been on the market for a very long time, building a devout following. It’s not uncommon to find vintage Brooks Brothers oxfords that have been worn 10, 20, even 30 years, and still have lots of life left in them.

  • “What’s is it made out of?”

This particular shirt is made from 100% Supima (Pima) Cotton, which is a specific type of extra-long staple cotton, which is both durable and soft. The cotton itself is also grown in the USA.

  • “Is this a timeless, classic look, or will it eventually go out of style?”

Yes. The Oxford shirt first was introduced over 100 years ago and continues to be one of the preeminent shirt styles for men. The button-down collar has strong connections to the American style of dress.

  • “Am I paying for quality, or am I paying for a logo?”

It’s well regarded online that the Brooks Brothers oxford is of substantial quality. That being said, Brooks Brothers is somewhat of a luxury brand, so the price is not low. The shirt doesn’t feature any visible logos, and especially when purchased on sale, is thought to be a good value.

  • “Is it practical?”

Yes. This shirt can be worn both casually and formally in many different situations and needs. It can be paired with a tie, or worn on it’s own. In a wide range of colors it remains one of the foundations of a solid wardrobe.

 

Item 2:

RM00008_BLUE

Brooks Brothers: Madras with Tropical Print Motif Sport Coat

 

So, here we have an item from the exact same brand, that is going to have a very different breakdown.

  • “Where is this made?”

Made in China.

  • “Is this made to last?”

The quality is probably not terrible (Considering it is at least Brooks Brothers) but I am guessing by the negative reviews on the website that it’s not too great either.

  • “What’s is it made out of?”

Made from Cotton, which is not the best choice for a casual jacket.

  • “Is this a timeless, classic look, or will it eventually go out of style?”

No. If this was a plain madras jacket, it would have plenty of historical precedence. However in this case, the designer has decided to add tropical leaf patterns which completely ruin the aesthetics of the jacket, probably trying to cash in on some fleeting fashion trend.

  • “Am I paying for quality, or am I paying for a logo?”

This jacket isn’t cheap at $398 (before it went on clearance), but given the materials and cut, it’s likely not made much differently than one that only costs $50 new.

  • “Is it practical?”

Definitely not. You might be able to wear this once before it gets tiring, and that’s only if you happen to attend poolside cocktail parties that require blazers on the regular, which, I have a feeling you do not. This is about as impractical as you can get, hence, a giant waste of money.

Bringing it back to the basics, we now understand that “preppy” is not just some moniker a marketing team can apply to an item and just like that – it is. It takes the item having character, fulfilling a certain purpose, being made well, and looking timeless while doing it. It’s not an easy task, and even the most prominent makers today seem to struggle with making clothes that uphold this level of authenticity. The most important thing to take away from all of this however, is that there are so many qualities that can be examined when it comes to clothing, and the more knowledgeable you become, the more apt you will be at picking the ones which will not only last you many years, but provide both unmatched comfort and style while doing so. Like anything worth doing, it’s a skill that takes time to develop, but will benefit you immensely in the long run.

 

 

Navy Peacoat

This pseudonymous writer is originally from the suburbs of the nation’s capitol. He enjoys spending his free time in either a gym or a bar and quotes American Psycho in casual conversation entirely too often.

3 Responses to “The Prep Test

  • Brody Mandelbaum
    2 years ago

    So what about Vinyard Vines which is more of a new age preppy. Their clothing is good quality. It has character. It follows most of those ideals except timeless. They did however have clothing like this in the 50s but mostly in grenich

  • Navy Peacoat
    2 years ago

    There’s actually a pretty good guide to Vineyard Vines on the sub, though I disagree with what the poster said about ties being “too wide”: https://www.reddit.com/r/NavyBlazer/comments/471o4e/guide_to_vineyard_vines/

    That being said, all of these same rules still apply. It looks like most, if not all, of their products are imported, but there are still plenty that I’ve had good experiences with. I absolutely love Shep Shirts, though I’ve been through three of them so I can’t say they’re made to last. Granted, I wear the shit out of them so I probably wear them down faster than most, but either way you’re not passing one of these down to your kids. They’re extremely comfortable though so I would still highly recommend them.

    Here’s how I would answer the questions posed in this article with regards to VV:

    Where was this made?
    -American company, but products manufactured elsewhere
    Is this made to last?
    -Not particularly
    What’s is it made out of?
    -most products seem to pass this test
    Is this timeless? (or will it go out of style?)
    -some of their products are, some aren’t
    Am I paying for quality? (or am I paying for a logo?)
    -Lots of people buy VV simply for the logo, however there are plenty of quality products to be found. Some are worried that VV is trending more towards a “buy the logo” company ($75 swim trunks and $100 tote bags, etc) but time will tell
    Is it practical?
    -They have plenty of practical products, as well as some that are less practical (party shirts come to mind)

    At the end of the day, go for it. Just don’t end up with a closet full of nothing but VV.

  • Will Barrett
    1 year ago

    A thoughtful post, and I am very happy to have discovered this site. You create an unforunate binary choice, however – deplorable sweatshops vs. unionized factories. It’s never that simple. For all of its faults, globalization has increased the material well being of millions and helped to bring their countries in the 21st century. Furthermore, it’s simply false to assert that every made overseas is garbage – that might be true depending on the brand, but we’ve all got items made overseas that have lasted a very, very long time. On the other hand, the idea that only unionized shops are making quality products is laughable. Indeed, one could argue that unionization is in part to blame for so many shops moving overseas. All the same, there has been tremendous growth in other parts of the US – almost all of it without unions, and I would daresay that the workers are not being exploited.

    I do agree that some -perhaps much – of overseas goods are made in terrible conditions, and I prefer to buy items that are made domestically. But let’s not create a false dichotomy in the name of a worthwhile cause.

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