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How TikTok is Reinventing the ‘Preppy Aesthetic’

Preppy fashion is back in the spotlight.

Preppy aesthetic TikTok
Credit: styledbyvienne / Instagram

Amidst the countless aesthetics that circulate online, one has its origins from a time long before TikTok: preppy.

Not sure what the preppy style is? Picture chinos, polo shirts, anything Ralph Lauren, tennis skirts, loafers, and headbands, and you’ll probably recognize the preppy style.

Despite being a style that has existed in upper-middle-class areas of the USA since the 1960s, the aesthetic has been adopted by Gen Z and popularised across all social media platforms. Dressing preppy is no longer reserved for those destined to attend an Ivy League school. There are countless Instagram pages and Pinterest boards showcasing outfits and where to get preppy clothes from.

The term ‘preppy’ was originally used to refer solely to a student at or a preparatory school graduate. A preparatory school is a private school preparing students primarily for elite colleges such as Harvard and Yale. As these schools are private and require fees, they are generally only accessible to those from an upper-middle-class background. The preppy style takes influences from the fancy uniforms required by preparatory schools.

Get the look: preppy edition

Whilst prep or preppy still refers to those who attended a preparatory school, the term has been broadened online. Preppy now encompasses a general aesthetic inspired by the fashion and lifestyle which was once exclusive to those who attended a preparatory school. Anyone who has the means to do so (as prep clothes are usually expensive and branded) can dress preppy. Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest showcase preppy outfits that allow people to get inspired and recreate them.

Preppy fashion, according to the aesthetics wiki, includes items such as tennis skirts, chinos, horse-bit loafers, cardigans, cable-knit sweaters and polo shirts. It also lists specific brands as preppy essentials, such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and Vineyard Vines. Unlike other popular aesthetics, the preppy aesthetic covers both male and female fashion, which are distinct from one another.
Credit: styledbyvienne / TikTok

The preppy aesthetic has several variants

Although the term preppy has become broadened, there are several accepted subtypes of the general aesthetic. Preppy style depends on whereabouts in the US you live. New England (also called East Coast) prep and Southern prep are the two main variants. New England prep has a muted, natural color palate and sometimes features nautical elements. The fashion is heavily inspired by New England preparatory school uniforms. New England has a cool climate, sweaters, knee socks, trench coats, and scarves are common clothing items in this style. The Dead Poets Society is a source of inspiration for the New England prep aesthetic online.

Credit: angemariano /TikTok

Southern prep is much more colorful than New England prep, with hot pink, lime green, bright yellow, turquoise, and orange being popular colors. Southern Prep is more casual and doesn’t resemble a school uniform. The style also allows for more skin to be shown due to the hotter climate of southern states.
Credit: angemariano / TikTok

Why is preppy becoming popular again?

In comparison to some of the other popular aesthetics Gen-Z is into, the preppy aesthetic stands out. it has much older origins than Barbiecore or emocore and looks less like ‘alternative’ fashion and more formal. Instagrammer and TikToker Vienne (@styledbyvienne) shares her preppy outfits with her 18.2k followers. When asked why she gravitated towards the preppy style, she said:

“I’ve always felt my most conifendent self wearing the preppy style…For as long as i can remember i’ve been wearing those types of outfits. I’ve also taken inspiration from shows like Gossip Girl and the movie Clueless”

The preppy aesthetic has become popular, like most aesthetics, thanks to social media. it started trending back in 2020, and high street and online stores began stocking preppy-inspired clothing. Vienne also commented on how TikTok and Instagram have introduced the preppy style to many people.

“I definitely think the preppy style has gotten more popular due to apps like TikTok and Instagram. I noticed a lot of preppy outfits everywhere back in 2020- argyle, sweater vests, and tennis skirts were constantly showing up on my For You Page.”

Credit: styledbyvienne / Instagram

Social media’s influence on popularising the preppy style is strong, but another element is drawing Gen-Z to the aesthetic. Alternative fashions like emo and goth are so popular now that dressing in a more sophisticated and formal way is more alternative than dressing in those styles. Vienne described the preppy style as “polished and timeless”, which makes it stand out against current fashion trends.

Dressing preppy is positive for the planet

Another element of the preppy aesthetic popularity is its sustainable element to it. Gen-Z is an incredibly eco-conscious generation who understands the devastating impact of fast fashion. Vienne commented that the preppy style “encourages you to invest in pieces that you can re-wear and keep for years to come” rather than buying “trendier, cheaper pieces which won’t last as long”. Apps like Depop and Vinted are fantastic for finding second-hand clothing items to build a preppy wardrobe. Buying second-hand and vintage is also cheaper, making the style more accessible now than it may have been in the past.

Overall, the preppy style isn’t just another trend that will disappear. It has a classic and timeless look, appealing to those sick of chasing the ever-changing fashion trends. Just as cottagecore did, the preppy aesthetic encourages buying second-hand and reusing clothes. This makes it appealing to Gen-Z as it doesn’t rely on fast fashion. Could preppy fashion and other vintage styles be the way forward for being on trend and saving the planet?

Written By

English student at Queen's University Belfast

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