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Sloanes vs Preps
Marta Szczerba explores the rise of upper middle class cool on both sides of the pond
Marta Szczerba on Friday 22nd October 2010
Sloanes versus Preppies: the rise of upper middle class cool Ah the lifestyles of the rich and privileged. Whether it's The Gossip Girl, pictures of Kate Middleton in Hello! magazine or movie The Social Network ,we cannot resist observing the world of (almost) have-it-alls. Two social groups of upper middle classes have particularly captured the imagination of thousands, prompting the production of numerous books, articles and aspirational clothing. They are the British Sloanes and the American Preppies. Exclusive, wealthy and well-connected, Sloaneys and Preppies may seem superficially similar in their lifestyles. However, scratch the surface and you quickly realize that the conservative and intellectual bunch of Preps is miles away from the "casually cool" set of Sloaneys from Kensington and Chelsea. First things first – it's all in the family So you'd like to become a Sloane? Not so easy, dahling, unless you want to become one of those goddam awful self-created aspiring creatures. The true Sloanes have their status firmly imprinted since birth and they signal it in a suitably cultivated posh drawl. They have incredible self-confidence in themselves and their superior places in the world. Those who have the money live in Chelsea, South Kensington or Notting Hill, and split time between their lovely townhouse and their even lovelier country estate. Though if you really, really did try to join the gang, providing you have enough money and connections, it's just about possible. Look and learn from Steve Hilton, Cameron's right-hand man and the son of a Hungarian émigré who from humble beginnings is now a key part of the Notting Hill crew. In contrast, you do not have to born into prepdom. Yes, having 'old money' and living on the East Coast of US definitely does help, but more important is an appropriate lifestyle (and the ability to maintain it). You see, it's about ease and confidence. It's about fitting in when you do and even if you don't. It's about the ability to tell a story, be the fourth – for tennis or for bridge – or somehow come to the rescue of the social situation. It's about knowing some literature, some history, some sportsmanship and that a tie will do when you can't find your belt. It's about prizing your family as an institution above all. Preps know that family is an accident for birth or luck. And, for that, they are mostly grateful. Education: that's where my dad went to school In both Sloane and Prep worlds, you have to go the right school. No self-respecting Sloaney can even think of going to something like a dreary, old local comprehensive. The £25,000+ price tag for a year of boarding school is totally worth the connections, status and the entry ticket to world's best Universities. It's of course Eton, Harrow, Radley for boys and Marlborough, Godolphin and Latymer and Cheltenham Ladies' for girls. However, the path to academic greatness is definitely not the destiny of all Sloaneys. Yes, some are at Oxbridge, but many more are at Bristol, Brooks or St Andrews. Those that are bright have the attitude of being above it all (you would never speak to a Sloane about their degree. I mean, what degree? Work? Ah, they casually do it in two days when you have to slave away for a week) and usually study History of Art or other humanity subject. Sciences are just not cool. It is worth adding that the 'gap yah' is now part of every Sloaney's ritual. As one of my friends described, "They will have smoked lots of drugs and had lots of sex, almost entirely with their friends from home somewhere in South America and/or Southeast Asia." Sounds like fun. In America, fewer than one percent of the secondary-school population board and they define the meaning of preppy. American private schools such as The Hockaday or the Lakeside School are similar, if not more wealthy, to their English counterparts: they have impressive art galleries, new science centers, vegan meal plans in dining hall and choirs touring around the country. They teach anything from Latin to Contemporary Intellectual History of African America. Mandarin Chinese has replaced German as the hardest language to learn, and it has replaced French as the most popular language to study. Although the Ivies have their share of preppies, the true prep colleges are places such as Colby, Williams or Hampden-Sydney College. In the latter, the 94% white, all-male, mostly protestant student body is given a book called "To Manner Born, To Manners Bred: A Hip-pocket Guide to Etiquette for the Hampden-Sydney Man" and is compelled to take a Rhetoric Exam. Preppies are at heart intellectualists and they are not ashamed to flaunt it. The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it Not all Sloaneys are rich, but most tend to be affluent, usually through inheritance or banking wealth. Sloanes do not have any problems with spending money – indeed, the weekly lash at Boujis and neighbouring clubs reveals tendencies to the contrary. Some Sloanes will fancy themselves as hot shot City types, and will generally get there with Daddy's help. More and more are becoming entrepreneurs, such as Ben Eliot and his uber successful company Quintessentially. But the edgy industries are PR (where David Cameron started off), media (Jemima Khan) and art (e.g. running an art gallery). Sloanes shun anything that relates to science and engineering. Come on, that is all a bore. It is not for lack funds that preppies hew strongly to the concept of thrift, though it can be. Preppies are proper, nature-loving puritans who enjoy the tradition of passing the used garments down the line. The most preppy of Americans source their wealth from steel, oil, gold and land and give it to charities, their alma maters or hospitals, naming a room, hospital or object after their name. It is worth pointing out that Preppies, more than Sloaneys, realize the society's need for enterprise. They go to college with an idea of a career planted firmly in their minds and that is why quite a few of them go to Law School. Development Officer, Decorator, Contributing Editor, Real Estate manager are all jobs that get a yes in preppy circles; Computer Scientist, Research Doctor, Sex Worker and Fact-Checker a deeply resounding no. All work and no play makes Henry a dull boy For both Sloanes and Preppies, sports and second homes are an integral part of the lifestyle. Sloanes love entertaining in country homes in Suffolk, having lunch dates off King's Road and play tennis or lacrosse. Kids probably had ponies when they were little (which have since been traded into Mulberry bags). Holiday destinations include Scotland, Cornwall, south of France and Monaco. But what about our own Sloaney Oxonians, congregating in Chch, Magdalen or Brasenose? You'll find them at Law Soc Champagne and Chocolates, VIP areas of Bridge and Kukui, sports ground of their college, Jericho and occasionally plays, if their friend thinks he's the next Hugh Grant. And, as one third-year Christ Church student explained, all female sloanes play lax and derive a sense of superiority from it. As she recounts, "It was in the Bridge VIP area. A poor unassuming non-Sloane stands at the bar, she is approached by a Sloane who informs her that she has been at 'Lacrosse Cocktails' (lacrosse is a must for the female Sloane). A friend of the Sloan asks the poor non-Sloane 'And does one play lacrosse', when hearing the negative response she replied 'Darling, poor you', before turning on her (ugged) heal and walking away in disgust without a hint of irony." Classy. Don't look for Preppies in the city on the weekends. They are not there. They go to the country, to their second home to cook, go antiquing, nap, recharge batteries and socialize in country clubs. They are sporty and with a natural competitive streak, but their preferred sports are, well, clubby. Golf, sailing, tennis, squash, polo, biking, fishing are sports preps adore. Preppies are active types who use their free time to bounce around from sport to sport, from lunch to cocktails, from small talk to more small talk. Or to a book club, which is a la mode among preppy moms. You're likely to see a prep holidaying in Martha's Vineyard or in Europe (England, France, Italy, Switzerland, just in that order). Fashion rules Oh Sloanes are so above fashion. I mean, can't you see it? For females, the casually coiffed blonde hair with a side parting (bun is also ok), heaps of stash representing the netball/lax/hockey team and strutting around in Jack Wills or pyjama bottoms reveal it all. Men wear open-necked shirts or polos with the collars turned up, flip-flops in whatever the weather, grow curly locks of hair (which they backcomb) and wear traditional coats like Barbour. However, some say that in these times Sloaneys have adopted a post-recessionista chique, opting for 'Primani' as their shop of choice (known, for us mere mortals, as Primark). In a remarkable contrast, "Preppies wear classic, long-lasting clothes you can wear forever that never go out of style – nothing trendy or cheap-looking," explains Alyssa Grossbard a Connecticut-born American studying at Oxford. Thus, Prep's brands of choice are L.L. Bean, Brooks Brothers or Vineyard Vines. Ralph Lauren or Fred Perry will do as well. Preppies dress conservatively (no underwear showing), generally underdress, own blue blazers and make sure that all clothes are well-tailored and look incredibly chique. Preppies scorn the messy look often worn by Sloanies. As the True Prep handbook states, "Sweat suits are for sweating. You can try to get away with wearing sweats to carpool, to pick up the newspaper, or to drive to the dump, but last time you were at the dump, the drop-dead-attractive widower from Maple Lane was there, too." Conclusion Although both social groups epitomize upper middle class on both sides of the Atlantic, Sloanes and Preppies would not get along. Of course, like in every social group, it is extremely hard to generalise, but one reminds me of an overly spoilt, if sometimes perfectly nice, rich brat that spends most of the time partying or lunching around in the country; whilst the other epitomizes square, White, Anglican, Protestant hard-working values. Preppy boy, please take me to dinner. Sloaney, I'm afraid you're a bit of a bore.
Photograph: Araminta Wieloch