The Price of Prep

Why and how University of Virginia students are breaking free from the traditional uniform of prep. 

written by Sophie Bergquist, West Bogese, Sydney Umeri // images by Sophie Bergquist

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On a sunny spring morning, the lawn at the University of Virginia is buzzing with the energy of students on their ways to class. On the way  to New Cabell Hall, a student passes wearing pastel blue shorts with embroidered whales. To his right, a student headed to lecture is sporting her Birkenstocks and distressed denim.

Over the years, University of Virginia students have been known for their preppy wardrobes, but recently, more and more students are choosing modern styles and self-expression over the traditional U.Va. uniform.

Prep is pricy, and as the University sees increasing socioeconomic diversity, the student-body’s allegiance to prep wear is weakening, surveys of local businesses and students show. This trend is making room for more diverse styles in student wardrobes.

A Long History of Prep

Since the first class of 123 young men arrived at U.Va. in 1825, the University has upheld a standard of style that is characteristically preppy. In the early years of the University, students almost exclusively hailed from Southern, white, and wealthy families.

The classic suit and tie prepster look remained a strictly adhered to U.Va. staple into the late 1970s. Even as wide sweeping cultural movements like the hippie movement infiltrated college campuses around the nation, U.Va. remained relatively homogeneous in its standards of style.

Counter-culture fashion was not widely accepted at the University at this time. In the 1960s, according to Virginia Magazine, a student who decided to go against the traditional prepster look “went out of [his] way to prove one [could] be grungy even when wearing a coat and tie, (e.g., dirty shirt with frayed collar, rancid wheat jeans, and the usual nasty sneakers held together with once-white adhesive tape).”

Prep style was not usually strayed from, according to a 1967 Cavalier Daily article, “The University’s coat- and- tie tradition, not enforced by rules but voluntarily adhered to by generations of Virginia men, seems to have served to place the everyday dress habits on a higher level than they might be elsewhere.”

Since the 1970s, this homogenous and elitist attitude surrounding everyday style at U.Va. has diversified — though the mantra “guys in ties, girls in pearls” to describe attire for formal and sporting events remains well-known among students.

Prep retailers such as Natty Beau, Southern Proper and Country Club Prep currently have shops in Charlottesville that cater to U.Va. students, and the dress code for events like football games and the Foxfield Races is, by and large, bright, printed Lilly Pulitzer dresses and pink bow ties.

The Problem with Prep

The cost of wearing a preppy, U.Va. traditional wardrobe is high. The price ranges of local prep retailers are expensive, making the styles they provide unaffordable for many students.

However, according to many Charlottesville retailers, prep isn’t going anywhere. Businesses known to cater to the wardrobes of customers that embody the classic U.Va. style continue to provide a market for prepsters.

Vineyard Vines, Country Club Prep and Natty Beau have all established new retail locations in the Charlot- tesville area in the past three years and have seen success in their sales.

Skye Stansbury, a store clerk at Country Club Prep and fourth-year College student said students frequent the retailer’s Stonefield Shopping Center location. Stansbury also mentioned there is a wide range of customer interests. 

“It’s anything from first years coming in to buy a Foxfield dress to fourth years who need something for graduation,” Stansbury said.

Upon first glance, it’s clear the price range of the store is geared towards students with greater buying power, with items ranging from $28 key chains to $350 blazers. While items like these sell to many University students, it also can be a source of economic stress for other stu- dents.

So what does this mean for U.Va. students?

In the past decade, the University has seen a shift in the amount of students receiving need-based financial aid. Between 2004 and 2013, this category of students in- creased from 24 to 33 percent, increasing the number of low-income students from 6.5 percent to 8.9 percent, according to Inside Higher Ed.

According to a strategic assessment commissioned by the University in 2004, the “elitist, preppy, and homog- enous” stereotype of U.Va. may be the “same cultural dimensions [that] turn off many desirable prospects across all subgroups of the University’s prospect pool.” The increasing socioeconomic diversity of the University and the implications of this for students have recently been addressed by several groups on Grounds.

Sweater Vests as Tank Tops is a group founded by third- year Engineering student Shota Ono. Ono started the group in an effort to encourage students to showcase their own styles, beyond the boundaries of U.Va’s ste- reotypical — and expensive — preppy wardrobe.

“The mission of SVATT is to open dialogues on fashion inclusivity on Grounds,” said Ono. “Our core values are confidence, acceptance, and fashion inclusivity.”

This March, University organizations United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity and Sweater Vests As Tank Tops held an event titled, “Heard it Through the Vineyard Vine,” in which students were invited to discuss how the fashion norms at the University affect students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

First-year College student Ellis Champion says that the mission of SVATT is being accepted and style at U.Va. is becoming more diversified.

“I think that there is definitely a mix of styles,” Champion said. “You get some people that are really preppy with button downs, colorful shorts, Jack Rogers, but then you also get the other extreme which is alternative and ‘hipster’. I think we are moving away from the typical Southern preppy vibe.” 

A Style Shift?

As an on Grounds observer may notice, in recent years, students are beginning to branch out more and more from the stereotypical and overtly preppy Virginia wardrobe to a modern style that is based on self expression.

Even at events that encourage a preppy uniform, students are becoming more willing to incorporate bohemian pieces or hipster styles.

Duo, a Charlottesville based clothing store offering affordable prices and modern styles, is an alternative shopping option for many University students. Greer Johnson, owner of Duo, said that her inventory has evolved since opening in 2007 as a result of a change in student trends.

“Students are becoming more boho, more trendy,” said Johnson. “There’s still a core group that is very preppy, and I think that will always be there. But right now, we are carrying more boho styles than ever before.”

While counter-culture fashion has always been present at U.Va., today’s fashion shift among students more widely accepted than ever before. This shift can be partially attributed to an awareness of national trends and students’ newfound ability to express themselves through style.

“I think it’s [an increased] influence of music festivals and celebrities, of course people want to emulate that,” said Johnson.

With this change in style, students are freer to express their individual styles when coming to the University.

But what other, more University specific, changes can be attributed to this trend of diversified student style?

Wayne Corzart, Vice President of the Alumni Association and Development Director of the Jefferson Trust said, “With [each] class of 3,750, there are enough communities that one can feel comfortable in way of which one dresses.”

Corzart attributes the changing trends at U.Va. to the socioeconomic shift the University has seen in the past decade. He said a result of this shift is University students feeling less pressure to dress in the preppy, homogenous style that is a part of U.Va.’s history.

Since the University is still growing and is currently experiencing a socioeconomic shift, this less homogenized style could continue to diversify student fashion in coming years.

“As we continue to grow and we continue to attract a much broader audience [to the University]... there are more influences than just that particular [preppy] style,” Corzart said.

At events that are known for “guys in ties, girls in pearls” uniforms, such as football games, students are becoming less likely to adhere to the traditional dress code of prep. This shift in culture is affecting the style mantras of students around Grounds, allowing for a more inclusive way of shopping and dressing.

“I pretty much wear what I want and what I feel comfortable in,” Ellis Champion said. “I feel like I’ve seen everything in the books from walking around Grounds.”

With a more diverse student body, a broader range of styles is being introduced to the University, allowing for affordable options to become trendy. Stores like Urban Outfitters, and others that provide a cheaper ‘fast fashion’ reputation have prominent followings within the college community. Urban Outfitters’ social media ambassador Emily Meads said these clothing options appeal to young adults.

“Although their products can be very fun and different, they also have more of a sophisticated feel,” Meads said. “I think they are trying to bring out the youth and the fun in people while sticking to that modern feel.”

The history of University fashion is fascinating. From the time that prep culture dominated at the University’s beginning, U.Va. has seen its fair share of changes in regards to fashion as socioeconomic diversity has increased and al- lowed for the acceptance of individual style.

Ultimately, there comes a point where the price of prep be- comes an overwhelming prospect for students. Based on the surveying of local businesses, students and professionals, University students are coming to realize that being a student at the University of Virginia is not dependent on having the same wardrobe as your classmates.

What is becoming more important to students is their ability to express themselves through personal style. For some, that may mean wearing Vineyard Vines. For others, noth- ing but a sweater vest might be just fine.