How Jewish Designers Helped Invent Preppy Fashion

by MR Magazine Staff

The recurrence of some unmistakably preppy outfits in the recent fall collections conjured up memories of The Official Preppy Handbook, Lisa Birnbach’s satirical 1980 how-to manual on the art of pink Polo shirts, twinsets, and Brooks Brothers blazers. But the real origin story of preppy fashion actually goes back much further. It’s a tale as old as American fashion itself: the unlikely history of how Jewish American designers descended from immigrants helped transform WASP style into an international uniform that endures today.

The most recent chapter in this story is illustrated by Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Surprisingly, it’s the first time the museum has devoted a show to a fashion designer, though Jews have always been the backbone of the American garment industry. In the mid-19th century, the Lower East Side was settled by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many were experienced tailors and seamstresses, if only by default—since the Middle Ages, Jews in that region had been barred from owning land, which led to many congregating in urban centers and cultivating trades. Early arrivals such as Levi Strauss and Lane Bryant (a.k.a. Lena Himmelstein) founded apparel empires that are still thriving today. Read more at The Atlantic.