Photo by Flickr user ejchang.
Photo by Flickr user ejchang.

I thought I understood the general order of Lawnparties: live music, free food, and somewhat unsettling numbers of drunken upperclassmen at ten o’clock in the morning. When a roommate first let me in on the “preppy” dress code, however, the tradition struck me as strange. While I knew Princeton was widely considered to be among the “preppiest” of the Ivies, the label had always held a negative connotation to me, and I puzzled as to why students would actively work to perpetuate that stereotype.

The World English Dictionary defines the word “preppy” as “characteristic of or denoting a fashion style of neat, understated, and often expensive clothes, but classic: suggesting that the wearer is well off, upper class, and conservative.” Fifty years ago, the words “well off, upper class, and conservative” accurately described a substantial portion of Princeton’s student body, and, to some extent, they still do. Princeton is an elite Ivy League university, rooted in the same elite academic culture that traditionally “preppy” brands like Brooks Brothers and Polo pay tribute to with their high-end suits, polo shirts, and argyles. The word itself is a reference to college preparatory schools, or “prep schools,” competitive and often expensive private high schools that pride themselves on sending students to equally competitive and expensive universities. It follows, then, that “preppy” culture should be prevalent at a school like Princeton.

The word “preppy” also denotes exclusiveness. Most prep schools did not admit students of color until the second half of the twentieth century, and many students associate the word “preppy” with a predominantly white demographic. Additionally, as the dictionary definition notes, preppy dress suggests a degree of wealth. “Preppy” labels such as Polo, Brooks Brothers, and Lily Pulitzer are expensive: A full suit from Brooks Brothers can cost upwards of 1,200 dollars. A genuinely “preppy” outfit, therefore, is as much a show of one’s status as of his or her commitment to academia.

Half a century ago, one’s financial status and the quality of one’s education were practically inseparable. “Preppy” culture dominated campus. Over the past few decades, however, the increased availability of financial aid and scholarships to high-achieving low income students have diversified Princeton’s student demographic.

As I rifled through my closet for a sundress, I couldn’t help but wonder why students would still cling to a tradition that now alienates a large portion of the student body. Upon leaving the dorm, however, I found my answer in the eclectic ensembles around me. While certain students had taken the theme quite seriously, the vast majority of outfits were thrown together in jest. I admired one boy, who completed his Bermudas-and-polo ensemble with a polka-dotted bow tie and neon wayfarers. Outfits like these invited laughter. Students seemed to be mocking, rather than celebrating, the exclusive center of privilege that Princeton used to be.

I found this lighthearted response to Lawnparties somewhat heartening. Princeton is very much a place of tradition, as time-honored events such as arch sings and the P-rade, not to mention the continued popularity of eating clubs, stand to prove. At the same time, however, Princeton’s student demographic has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. Striking a balance between the polar forces of tradition and change can prove challenging.

In students’ tongue-in-cheek Lawnparties outfits, I saw a witty union of tradition and progress. On the surface, we continue to honor the Princeton of fathers and grandfathers, sporting the polos, vests, and bowties that characterized their style of dress. By piecing these articles together in a way that suggests a costume, rather than a formal outfit, however, we remove the stiff, exclusive sentiments that might permeate a genuinely “preppy” event.

Lawnparties costumes came from Brooks Brothers and from iParty. For some students, these outfits were comprised of genuine formal attire. Others borrowed clothing they would never wear again. Altogether, Sunday’s Street was a crowd of diverse individuals, at once celebrating and laughing at their university’s impressive and imperfect history.