Actually, the Preppie subculture has been with us since about the late Twenties or early Thirties, if my family history and memory serve me right: my grandmother's and great-aunt's living rooms are and were terminally Preppy in that they favored Federalist Revival furniture in appropriately styled clapboard houses, my grandfather was a fond collector of hunting prints (he also was good at billiards, but preferred outdoor pursuits), my uncle was a passionate golfer, and all of these people, including my mother, dressed in the way we associate with "Preppie" today.
Sociologically, the Preppy subculture exists mostly among Establishment families in the Northeastern corridor, with a few outposts in such places as Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, Charleston, the Florida Coast and even Honolulu. Economically, they're all over the map, though clustering in the upper-middle to moderately affluent classes. Although they are sometimes thought of as being "idle rich", many Preppies aren't at all wealthy, and almost none are idle: my grandfather was a well-paid machinist, and even among the trust fund set, it's almost essential to have some kind of job, or failing that, a pursuit, even if it's something as tenuous as writing poetry or "taking care of family affairs". Springing up in New England, a cold climate with little natural resources, Preppy style is incredibly nonmaterialistic in that there is very little glitz or glitter: rather, it's modest, restrained and can be almost monastically austere, glorying in substance over style...you could say that Preppies have nothing to show for their money BUT money. (In this way also it's somewhat reminiscent of the Scotch Enlightenment and the samurai culture of Japan, both triumphs, in their day, of the middle class.)
Specifically, in clothing, the preppy look is marked by the use of classic American designs, utilitarianism, sports themes, and clean-lined simple shapes in natural fibers executed with an attention to detail and workmanship. Signature pieces include the Brooks Brothers suit, oxford-cloth shirts in pastels or stripes (including the "fun shirt" made of patchwork stripes), blue blazers and khaki slacks/calf length skirts, the Lacoste polo shirt and ties and/or scarves with small repeating patterns of sporting motifs.
The four pillars of Preppie culture (in no particular order) are work, socializing, sport, and learning. As indicated before, work is something that almost everyone does: paid, unpaid, at home, in an office, or simply as part of living. They like their jobs, and usually do things they enjoy, whether it's carpentry, being a top lawyer, or running a household, you'll find very few Preppies who dream of running away to a tropical island and being a beach bum, mostly because the ones who would like to do so already have, and have turned it into being a surfing instructor, or running a clam shack for other, vacationing Preppies. Mostly, though, you'll find Preppies as teachers, administrators, lawyers, and archetects, with another concentration in information technology and engineering.
Almost from birth, Preppie children are taught the importance of good manners and social graces: even the most nerdish Preppy male knows how to set a table and tie a Windsor knot, even if he never wears a tie otherwise. Emotional restraint is another shibboleth: you'll seldom see a Preppy woman obviously lusting after anyone -- but you won't see them get angry or jealous, either. Whether in private school or simply in a good area for public schools, Preppie kids are encouraged to be and do things with friends or relatives, rather than to stay home or alone: it's a true Preppie family indeed if there's only one TV, and pretty much no one watches it. If preppies seem to spend more time at school socializing than studying (though they also do that, often with avidity) it's because they know that friendships can be more valuable than transcripts in the job market and beyond. It's just not true that we act superior: there's just something about the sometimes unreadable Preppy blend of calm and friendliness that tends to make most non-Preppies slightly uneasy.
Sport and fitness is another obsession: while every Preppie woman remembers field hockey and her horse as a girl and every male either playing football, lacrosse or hockey or wanting to, she will more than likely be a lifelong tennis player, and he will most likely play golf or squash. Both will more than likely know how to handle a sailboat and/or ski; if they're just a little hippie (there's always been a crossover), they'll know a bit about hiking and/or kayaking as well. Less strenuously, they'll know about social dancing (from lessons as a teen), and both can play a good hand of cards. Viewing sports is mostly confined to tennis, college football, and, now and then, some esoterica such as fencing.
The last pillar is learning, which is, again, a lifelong passion. Preppie homes have lots and lots of books: at least one set of encyclopedias, both Mom and Dad's books from college, at least one landmark hardcover best-seller, a clutch of mystery stories, and often a large stock of oddball books inherited, along with some well-worn classic clothes, from various relatives. Everyone reads: Mom, whatever cookbooks and mysteries are in the pipeline right now, Dad, something about current affairs, Skipper, Harry Potter and/or something involving swordsmen and classical warfare, and Muffin can quote the Oz books chaper and verse (though secretly lusting after the next installment of GossipGirl). Whether they're subscribers to the Opera, or casual picnickers at the Concert on the Green, Preppies are the people who keep civic symphonies playing, live theater emoting, art galleries in white wine and crackers and classic film festivals rolling, as audience, organizers or participants, and will do it even if they're too young (or too old) to have much money. Pretty much any kind of hobby that requires a lot of expertise is a natural for the Preppie way of life, from connoisseurship of Oriental rugs to wine tasting, likewise, you'll find Preppies more often traveling to Santa Fe for the Chamber Music Festival or to the Great Barrier Reef on an ecotour than you'll find them gambling at Foxwoods or jetting down to Disney World (and if they do, they'll stay at one of the theme resorts with the funky features and actually enjoy Epcot).
Not that it's not unknown for them to travel to somewhere touristy: they adore flocking to places other Preppies hang out, like Cape Cod or Maine --in the summer-- or Bermuda or Florida--in the winter. But here again, it's the low-key parts of all this that attract them: why stay, for example, at the deluxe five-star hotel, when there's the perfectly good guest house down the road, run by that cool couple who'll let their cat in your room and get their orange juice off a tree in the garden? (Better yet, stay with friends, or have your own place and move the wife and kids in for the season...) Likewise, at home, why go to Wal-Mart when you know a nice old hardware store where your family has dealt with their family for years? Or buy cheaply flashy clothes, which will just fall apart, and have to be replaced, when you can have natural fibers, good construction, and alterations to make your clothes look good for decades, and last even longer? Why live any other way?
Preppieism would have gone on its gently eccentric way had it not been for a pair of posters (Are you a Preppie? and Are you a Preppette?) distributed around Northeastern campuses in and around 1975 by Tom Shadyac, who was then itching to break into the National Lampoon. To a populace weary of hippie squalor and campy drag-queen nostalgia, the couple seemed like a gentle breath of fresh air, and a year or two later, Lisa Birnbach, an aspiring advertising executive, wrote the Preppy Handbook, a book-length cheat sheet on how to dress, speak, eat, work, play, live and die in the manner of the Northeastern Establishment, touching off a firestorm of interest.
It seems as if, unawares, there was a huge groundswell of young professionals looking for a little more polished look than leisure suits and John T. Malloy's drab, man-tailored womenswear. All of a sudden, as with Queer Eye these days, it was a liberation to cast off your doubleknit polyester (in ochre, bittersweet, and avocado) dashiki, and bellbottoms in favor of navy blue, true red, and yes, pale pink and bottle green. It was clean, it was fresh...and even your mom approved. Loafers! Salad forks! Ballroom dancing! Economics!
The only problem was, the new breed never got the joke. The true Preppy attitude is to play through life as a "first among equals"...if they seem to love doing tough things, it's because there are things money can't buy, such as expertise, polish and relationships. To a Yuppie, the object is to use money and hard work to claw their way into a (percieved) aristocracy by buying the correct labels.
It's never been the same since. Abercrombie and Fitch used to sell canoes, and camping equipment. There's still camping going on, but it's not the same kind.