The Tower (Princeton, New Jersey)
The stereotypical Preppy Boy isn’t afraid to wear colors, especially pastels—just look in his wardrobe and you’ll see baby blue polos and salmon shorts. A cardigan is an essential part of every outfit, either tied around the waist or knotted around the neck. Each step he takes in his boat shoes is full of confidence, letting the world know that the clash of colors was planned accordingly and that it is fashion. At PHS, many of the students frequently sport a similar ensemble. However, clothing isn’t the only aspect of prep culture that is seen at PHS—summer houses at Cape Cod, vacations to the Caribbean Islands, multiple private tutors, and frequent skiing trips—these are all aspects common to the lives of many PHS students. Prep culture barely involves fashion: it is a way of life and an indication of socioeconomic status.
If the loud patterns fail to dissuade the average consumer, a quick glance at the price tags of Lilly Pulitzer or Patagonia will merit enough cause for reconsideration. It is clear that certain brands are not just niche styles—they are marketed solely toward wealthy customers. In 2013, Lululemon Athletica was harshly criticized for limiting its customer base to thinner clients after the founder, Chip Wilson, was quoted in an interview for Bloomberg saying that their products, specifically yoga pants, “don’t work for certain women’s bodies.” According to the Food Research and Action Center, wages have an inverse correlation to body mass index, showing that those who earn less tend to have heavier bodies. This isn’t an example of causation; rather, those with lower levels of income have less access to healthy food. Low-income neighborhoods lack full-service grocery stores and organic farmers’ markets that supply local, high-quality products. Without a household vehicle, many less-privileged families resort to buying prepackaged, processed food in bulk to avoid extra transportation costs—resulting in a poor, innutritious diet. Therefore, not only did Lululemon alienate its low-income customers through astronomical pricing, but the company also demanded an ideal weight of those who wore its apparel, cutting off customers who weren’t as fit or slender as some of its wealthier patrons.
The prep culture is deeply rooted in the prestigious Ivy Leagues; developing specific decorum and dress tend to instill exclusivity within the various institutions. Surrounded by Princeton University and five rivaling private schools within a 15-mile radius, the local community has inevitably adopted some of the preppy customs associated with high society. Currently, the Princeton upper class comprises of both established families and well-off couples who pay the property taxes for Princeton’s reputable public school system. In spite of this, PHS is not exclusively for the wealthy. A study conducted in 2013–2014 uses a proxy of the number of students who require free and reduced lunches (12.2 percent) to show the amount of lower-income families in the high school community. This number is significantly greater than the amount of students requiring free or low-cost lunches in surrounding schools such as the West Windsor-Plainsboro high schools, as 3.4 percent to 5.4 percent of the students at each school in the last ten years have come from lower-income families.
While those receiving the lunches are still in the minority, the number of students from less privileged families is strikingly high for a district that has so many affluent students. The stark juxtaposition between the different groups of students exposes the estrangement faced by those who are less wealthy. As an inherent component of prep culture, money, or a lack thereof, can dictate which activities are accessible to students of varying backgrounds. For example, certain sports teams or clubs require equipment that can cost hundreds of dollars, making it impossible for less privileged students to participate alongside their wealthier peers. While this single example may seem trivial, the problem of accessibility extends to many other social and athletic activities.
Prep culture is not inclusive, but rather a societal belief that only those who can afford the ideal standard of living should be readily accommodated. It perpetuates a dangerous pattern of catering to the rich and isolating the minorities. By placing an emphasis on wealth, prep culture creates an atmosphere in which money permeates throughout all aspects of life, ultimately preventing the people who have less money from receiving equal and deserved opportunities.