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Prep’s family tree: The Garden Un-even

On the connection between prep fashion and Eastern Suburbs gardens.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

Prep in Australia, generally speaking, is dead. In a country colonised long after the establishment of the British and American colleges where prep fashion was derived, the many bastions of prep fashion have faltered. Qualities such as age, parentage, and cultural proximity to the Ivy Colleges have lost their draw in a country two steps and several centuries removed from prep’s source (the Preparatory schools of England). Even the University of Sydney, inarguably the country’s preppiest tertiary educator (Vampire Weekend’s photoshoot on the campus tennis lawns comes to mind), maintains none of the cultural cohesion of universities such as Yale or Oxford. The ivy on the Quadrangle’s walls is just for show.

Private schools, understandably, are one of the few alcoves that allow prep breathing room. Students dressed in the mainstay iconographies of prep —“blazers, collared shirts, ties, hats, shorts, long socks, and sturdy black shoes” as outlined by Anu Lingala in her essay on the history of prep — form a coalition of traditionally dressed yuppies. The single-gender policy and religiosity of these schools also conform to the attitude of “manliness and godliness” established by Donald Leinster-Mackay. The colours of rugby jumpers run into each other in polychromatic clashes during weekend sports, and the brutally high cost of tuition ensures single-minded exclusivity. But, school uniforms are just that, and after their signatory function ends they are replaced by hoodies and T-shirts.

Moving from the logical locus of the popped collar, the eye moves to the coast. Here, in the outskirts of Sydney, is where prep should be found. Rose Bay has two golf courses within two hundred metres of each other, Sydney’s wealthiest 10 suburbs have a combined spending power higher than fifty countries, and each jutted finger of the geography commands its own sailing club.

Yet, interestingly, it appears that the salmon-pink shorts of American Prep have failed to make the voyage across the Pacific. Activewear replaces the uniform of wealth. The few attempts at prep are slouchy, new, or insecure (all antithetical to prep’s spirit). The hem of a Ralph Lauren polo suffocates, tucked into the waistband of a pair of cargo shorts. Leather shoes shy out from mid-wash denim. The stomach churns. There is none of the self-awareness built-in to prep, no interest beyond the bare minimum. Simply wearing an expensive brand is not prep. There needs to be humour to it. Where are the go-to-hell lobster print pants? There is a clear consideration of the aesthetic of the American WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), though the extent to which this cross-cultural contamination has successfully integrated into Australia’s world is uncertain. The RM Williams boot is the lone emblem of Australian prep. Incontestably linked with high prices and a settler-colonial history, it accords to the crass idealised values of traditional prep.

If prep is not found in Sydney in a blue sweater thrown over the shoulders after a rowing regatta, it must belong elsewhere. Amongst the homes of Vaucluse, bristling through heavy metal gates, rises a new form of preppy presentation- that of the garden. 

Rostam Batmanglij, once-member of the aforementioned Vampire Weekend, remarks: “One thing I always liked about preppy clothes is that they have really saturated colors. When I think of Lacoste I think of that rich green, deep red, radiant yellow.” Staring at the metres-high walls of Vaucluse, one can observe the Lacoste colours in the crawling vines, elephant ears, bromeliads, or tight-knit hydrangeas. 

Conceptually, the garden serves its purpose as a hyper-exclusive presentation of wealth. But, as the form changes, so must the rules. The allure of the worn-in elbows of your father’s rugby jumper does not translate one-to-one into the new arena of the garden. What becomes important is size, cost, and how effectively it forms a visual barrier between house and street. These spaces constitute hours of upkeep, a team of green thumbs deliver already-grown plants into the front yard of an otherwise ecologically illiterate owner. The maintenance, too, is beyond the owner, who hires others to take care of their yard.

Visually, the garden sits atop or behind a large (usually sandstone) wall, a thick scarp of hedgerows sitting battlement straight, shoots of Kentia palms exploding over the enceinte, their trailing firework limbs framing a balcony or entryway. Optionally, there may be croppings of flowering plants such as birds of pleasure or roses. The cost and construction of these places conjures immediate visions of enormous riches. These are not the cute or cozy gardens of Balmain (a suburb of somewhat comparable wealth). There is a forceful illustration of affluence, a neighbourhood-wide conformity, a codified image that projects the same implication as a Ralph Lauren bear or Lacoste alligator, though with less preppy frivolity.

This is not a love letter to prep. The exclusionary attitudes that calcified a cultural uniform do not deserve the widespread presence that a logo enables. Prep’s proponents appear to realise this. Ralph Lauren alternates between acknowledging groups such as the Lo Lifes and marketing to their core customer base; Rowing Blazers’ collaboration with the NBA indicates a promising porosity to prep in the fashion world to come. Prep’s mass commodification has led to mass adoption, diluting the look’s concentration. While there may be more shirt collars at The Golden Sheaf than at Birdcage, boat shoes are found at neither. As prep becomes more streetwear-oriented, and as the walls collapse, perhaps it’s only natural that the WASPs cling to the seclusion of their gardens.