The preppy look has been on-and-off catwalks since runway season began. Originally conceived by Oxbridge dandies and cultivated by the Ivy League nouveau riché in America, it’s a style that has never completely disappeared from the fashion radar. The classic shirt and chinos combination has been a success since the 1950s, and proves to be a winning formula when tackling that tricky ‘smart casual’ dress code. Prep pioneers, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, cemented the look into the mainstream fashion consciousness, providing innovative and unique spins on the traditional format season after season.
However, the two academia-crazed designers were not alone this autumn, with many other brands championing the prep-school trophy. Acne took a tailored and clean-cut direction, with a plethora of lightweight jumpers and structured blazers. D&G injected a heavy dose of vibrancy into the usually neutral prep palette, bringing pastel pinks, charred reds and mustard yellows into an eye-catching collection. And as for Etro, they provided a distinct edge with less-restrictive bomber jackets and loose knits featuring an unparalleled emphasis on texture.
The price-tags of such big names, however, are less appealing than the garments they’re churning out. There are several shortcuts to achieving the prep look on a budget – utilising every inch of sales, retail and brand knowledge you’ll pick up on the way. You can achieve that coveted old money look without a fraction of the damage it usually demands on your wallet – the high street, online retailers and lesser-known websites are offering some fantastic bargains this season.
Before we start, I want to show you a collection of images that encapsulate the American Prep look perfectly. These will be our source of inspiration for the outfits we create and the inspired by budget picks at the end of the article.
The Budget Lookbook: American Prep
So, without delay, feast your eyes on a series of looks that come in around £100: you’re sure to ace every style exam the fashion institutions throw at you. It’s all about combining the high street with the discount and lesser-known brands to perfect a key look that’s perfect for you.
Note: Of course, I was set out with the challenge of creating multiple looks for around £100; this meant picking up 4 or 5 pieces at a time in order to create full outfits. You do not have to stick to this appraoch, this article is to simply to show you that there are suitable budget pieces that you can incorporate into your existing wardrobe.
You might like (or have the means) to spend slightly more on key items such as blazers or your footwear, but it is possible to combine these with a cheaper pastel Oxford shirt from Matalan or Asda. See what works for you and your budgetary requirements.
Prep Outfit 1
First off, we have a Matalan long-sleeved shirt for a shockingly cheap £8: I would recommend the eggshell blue, pink or white option to hit that crisp preppy look on the head, and such a piece works well whether oversized or tucked-in. A pair of chinos are an essential for any males wardrobe (not just the Oxford-inspired amongst us) and this offering from New Look is an absolute bargain for a mere £19.99. The simplicity of the trousers are ideal; I often find that heavy detailing (extra pockets, cuffed ankles, drop-crotch etc) immediately cheapens a look.
Looking the prep is ultimately focused upon a traditionally basic style, so if in doubt, keep it simple. The blazer of this look is undoubtedly the statement piece, but also the priciest. At £59.99 from Zara, look the part in key navy checks (also available in burgundy) which scream ‘Harvard Afternoon Tea’. A perfect blend of smart-casual, the blazer can be worn either way and will never fall into the realm of unfashionable; suit jackets and tailored pieces often cost that little bit extra, but usually last a lifetime.
Searching for the ultimate preppy shoe on a budget may seem difficult initially. Leather brogues, deck shoes and loafers don’t come cheap if you want anything half decent. Canvas pumps are the more affordable option, but until recently, the majority were cheap-looking, nasty and usually disgraced by unnecessary features (neon shoelaces and ‘urban’ motifs). So, to complete this look, we utilise some staple plain white toe cap plimsolls for a fantastic £12 from ASOS, and a plain leather Burton belt as a subtle accessory for £10.
Grand total of our first look? A cool £109.98. Not bad for a range of pieces that can be mixed and matched with other trends whilst still pioneering a classic style.
The textured navy tie is optional and costs just £8 from Topman. The texture adding something extra to your outfit, and taking inspiration from the traditionally smarter Ivy League looks.
Prep Outfit 2
Our second look is a little more ‘holidaying in Cannes’, (or as close as is physically possible in mid-December) totalling £97.99.
ASOS never disappoint, featuring this classic Breton stripe shirt that can be worn whatever the season. Team with cable knits and duffle coats in the colder months, and when the weather warms up, it’s versatile enough to combine with shorts and hoodies. These multi-seasonal buys are a particular favourite of mine, and clocking in at £28.00, it’s style and quality that you’re paying for.
Topman skinny trousers always fit well, and these burnt mustard threads for £28.00 are prep at the very core. It’s also useful to rope in a little vintage when making reference to classic styles – many accessories are the authentic pieces from the prep-defining heyday. For instance, take this tobacco-hued shoulder bag from thrift giant, Beyond Retro, priced at £22.00. Sure, it might not carry a revision guide to Shakespeare and a classical literature anthology like the true Oxbridgers, but there’s no harm in pretending, right? A dash of second-hand practicality always completes a look that references fashion history, and vintage incorporations are bound to go down well.
Cap it all off with a pair of classic deck shoes, found at a discounted sales price of £19.99 from value footwear giant, Deichmann. Don’t be put off by the brand identity. Whilst there are many items that won’t be to everyone’s taste, there are a few hidden treasures at amazing prices. As always, I’m shopping on a budget, so leave brand snobbery on your doorstep before you hit the high street.
If you are a regular reader of the site, then you will probably already own a navy blazer – as we have continued to wax lyrical about its importance when building a versatile wardrobe. For those that do, it is a key piece that you can layer over the top of this look that will smarten up the whole aesthetic and also reinforce the underlying nautical tones.
Alternatively, this blazer from Matalan is great value for those who want to get in on the action; at just £39, it is one of the cheapest on the market at the moment. You could opt for white or even a pastel blue/pink blazer within this look – but as we are focussing on investment, you will get much more continued use out of a navy version.
The clubmaster sunglasses are iconic – and these replicas from ASOS are priced at just £10! Another key accessory that will allow you to flit between both Preppy and Nautical in an instant.
Prep Outfit 3
Finally, we composed a classic prep look – timelessly embodying the perpetual aesthetic of Ralph Lauren, Hilfiger and Barbour. The sporting champion has always been at the very heart of the old money, university lifestyle, and it is also one of the key looks for the trend this season. Who cares if you’ve never been the star player of the school rugby team? This look is for everyone seeking something clean-cut and traditional.
A basic white shirt for £20.00 from Topman is the bread-and-butter of any smart outfit: I urge you to invest ASAP, as I can guarantee that at one point in your life, a white shirt will become a mandatory piece. Team this with a discounted Gunn & Moore cricket jumper, available at Amazon from £18.59. Coming in green, gold, navy and red, the fashion heavyweights recently transformed the typical cricket whites into runway territory. This is a piece that will add true authenticity to a classic sports inspired outfit.
Chinos, once again, are a compulsory piece for this look, and this olive pair are in the sale for £12.99 at H&M. Bottom half colour should always be an earthy or neutral tone: avoid colour blocking and largely stick to one theme. Too many style references will look over-planned and about as subtle as a graphic tee featuring a scantily-clad Amy Childs.
Finally, complete the look with supermarket giant Tesco’s take on the classic blazer, selling online for £45.00. At a total of £96.58, it’s our cheapest look but also the most faithful to quintessential preppiness, channelling both the athlete and the valedictorian.
As with any Preppy or Ivy League inspired appraoch to dressing, the humble tie (or bowtie) and pocket square will never look out of place. This brown silk pocket square fits in perfectly with the earthy colour palette we are adhering to, and the opportunity to purchase a genuine Mr. Start high quality silk version for just £12.50 doesn’t come round too often!
Brogues are now an essential part of any fashionable males wardrobe, but this vintage leather pair from George at ASDA are perfect for those who have not yet invested. Priced at a ridiculous £25 for a pair of leather shoes, the burnished effect only adds to the vintage aesthetic we are trying to honour.
Inspired By Budget Pieces
Hopefully the outfits above will have provided you with some inspiration and the motivation to get out there and search for bargains that will not only help you achieve this iconic American Prep look, but also provide the versatility to hit multiple future trends.
If you are looking for Preppy/Ivy League inspired bargains, then focus on heritage pieces and anything remotely university-inspired. By this I mean school blazers, turned-up chinos, sporting jumpers and the like – not popular and modern Abercrombie and Fitch or Franklin and Marshall. There’s a very distinct difference between classic prep and private school ‘rah’, so remember the pre-established references.
The fine details define this look: simple ties, weaved belts, crest brooches, and accessories should be understated additions rather than key features. Use the big names as inspiration behind the rail-trawling and web-surfing to perfect your own prep interpretation. You might not be able to roll with the intellectual heavyweights, but you can at least look as if you would provide some stiff, stylish competition.