The Origins of Preppy: John Meyer of Norwich
On view through Sept. 8., Mattatuck Museum, 144 West Main St., Waterbury, mattatuckmuseum.org
Imagine that you have taken LSD and suddenly find yourself inside the Bush family manse in Kennebunkport or the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, trapped inside a paisley and madras and monogrammed nightmare. That's the feeling you get from The Origins of Preppy: John Meyer of Norwich, an exhibition at Waterbury's Mattatuck Museum on view until Sept. 8. It's all here: raccoon coats, plaid shirts, plaid Bermuda shorts, plaid handbags, madras ("the bleeding plaid") slacks, madras hats, madras belts, penny loafers, monogrammed crew sweaters, Lacoste shirts, bow ties, checked Oxford shirts, khaki hip huggers, sweaters casually draped around the shoulders (never actually worn!), Ivy League college pennants: every single item of apparel and accessory a semaphore of social class.
Happily, the exhibition contains only two rooms of this material and it comes with some historical context, so the acid trip is short, albeit instructive and maybe even cautionary.
Preppy style, we are informed, began at Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the 1920s, a "classic and collegiate" look that mixed "athleticism and elegance." Rooted in the Ivy League, it attracted a wider audience through that peculiar American notion that clothes make the man (i.e., dress the part and you are the part). F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise is cited as a preppy bible but perhaps The Great Gatsby is more to the point, especially the scene where Daisy weeps at the sight of all of Gatsby's "beautiful shirts."
One photograph in the exhibition captures the way the world felt before Elvis, the Beatles and Stones rescued us: Four Ivy League gents standing in a circle, each decked out in garb that signifies their status, each trying to look more worldly, smug and superior than the next. They are the pinnacle of entitlement, born on third base yet believing they hit triples. Why anyone outside this clubbish little circle would want to model a fashion sense on a worldview that excludes them — or, rather, renders them invisible — is one for the sociologists. And The Origins of Preppy gives it the old, ahem, college try.
Some of the answers are no doubt found in Paul Fussell's brilliant book Class, his take-down of American manners. Fussell gets to the nub of it, documenting how jealousy and envy are the fuels that drive the engine of commerce, especially in matters of style. But Fussell is not quoted here. Rather, the expert most cited is Lisa Birnbach, author of The Official Preppy Handbook, which made the world safe for snobbery during the Reagan years: "In a true democracy," says Birnbach, "everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut."
John Meyer, a clothing manufacturer in Norwich, Conn., serves as a window into the creating of these styles. A leading early purveyor and even inventor of preppy's "classic look," the Meyer family history is the most interesting part of the exhibition. The Meyers were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Germany who fled to the U.S. in the late 19th century to escape the pogroms. They arrived penniless, without prospects, yet they flourished in New York's garment trade. Isaac Meyer moved to Norwich in 1937 and established G&M Manufacturing Co., creating only men's trousers. His son John took over in 1949. More cultivated than his father, having gone to UConn and the Sorbonne, John pushed the company to aim at "more upscale university clientele" and sold mostly to New England college-town clothiers. After he married the designer Arlene Hochman, the company was the first to provide preppy clothing for women.
Ultimately, people like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren co-opted the preppy thunder and shipped all the manufacturing to unventilated decrepit factories in Indonesia, Bangladesh and China and made billions upon billions marketing the preppy look to everyone, including the hip-hop crowd. One thing to admire in this story is that John Meyer of Norwich Inc. made the clothing at its own factory in Norwich, took care of its employees and provided a high quality product. In a world of predatory capitalism and globalization, this sort of dedication was doomed. The irony, however, was delicious: Downtrodden and destitute people came to America to create the clothes that defined style for the rich and the pampered.
Click on the poster to see a full-sized version
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun