ralph lauren
Fashion

We Can’t Get Enough of Ralph Lauren's Ads from the ’80s & ’90s

Prep is back.

Just as soon as you officially declare something "out," it's cool again. Though headlines championing the "Decline of American Prep" have circulated as recently as 2020, it seems the younger generations view the styles as fresh and new in typical ironic fashion. Between sweater vests and loafers, tennis ensembles and blazers, "American prep" is everywhere.

While TikTok-ers often lean towards an early-aughts-era version full of skintight polos and low-rise miniskirts, look a decade or two prior and you'll find a more relaxed variety. Lest we forget to credit the harbinger of the initial tides of preppy style: Ralph Lauren, of course. The all-American designer wooed clients with his easy take on sportswear. Lauren, née Lifshitz (as you'll likely remember from the recent Halston biopic), was one of the first designers to sell us a lifestyle as opposed to simply clothing.

An entire Instagram account dubbed @oldralphlaurenads has surfaced in tribute to the brands' advertisements. Founded by Fredrika Sjöö as a source of escapism, the grid depicts the yuppie style Ralph Lauren embodied. In one image, oversize silhouettes and a USA logo sweatshirt dress down fancier elements like a tie-bound pink shirt, khakis, and a camel coat. Others reveal familial crews clad in all-white tennis ensembles, who appear to be heading to the court—if not for the pearls. One simply depicts Lauren himself in a white t-shirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat drinking what looks to be a beer in an effortless style that strikes us as wholeheartedly, quintessentially American.

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Toeing the line between minimalist and maximalist, the clothes are simple with a dose of utility and a prominent sportswear influence—notice hints of tennis, rugby, and, of course, polo. Often a tad patriotic, not only in style and hues, the American flag and "USA" often make an appearance. Add a dash of Western, and you've got yourself a look.

As many styles that stand the test of time do, Lauren started in menswear prior to assimilating that same ethos into his slightly more feminine counterpart. So there's an abundance of great shirting and some top-notch layering present in the styling. A throwback to the heyday of American sportswear, you'll find elements of the same ideas in ultra-desirable though more contemporary collections from the likes of Rowing Blazers, F.E. Castleberry, Sporty & Rich, and Aimé Leon Dore.

The antithesis of the grunge movement where high-end designers put their luxury stamp on streetwear, this is more so streetwear reinterpreting luxury leisurewear. And unlike the yuppie, predominately white connotation of the 20th century, now it's ripe for anyone's taking. "I think that in many of Ralph Lauren's ads there's a connection to the American dream or the lifestyle of the rich and famous—or what we believe is the lifestyle of the rich and famous," hypothesizes Sjöö. "I guess as people we have always longed to see or know or be what the rich and famous are."

There's even an ironic dash of a punk spirit present, especially in this modern reinterpretation. It's prep with an edge, subverting the idea of the cultural connotation of those who originally dressed like this. As Castleberry says, "The better you dress, the worse you can behave."

Sometimes a rarity in fashion, these images depict clothes that are made to be worn. They show us ways to layer so-called "basics" in a way that isn't basic at all. "The fashion might be from the '80s or '90s, but it's all classic pieces that easily could be worn today, too," says Sjöö, alluding to the timeless styling that served as Lauren's modus operandi. "Style is very personal," Lauren says. "It has nothing to do with fashion. Fashion is over very quickly. Style is forever." The designer, whose label has surpassed its golden anniversary, embodied luxury in the form of timeless elegance versus an exclusive "it" item. As I am writing about images 20 or 30 years after the fact, it seems to ring true.


Shop the Look:

Polo Pony Polo Shirt

Polo Ralph Lauren
$124

Isla Tailored Trousers

The Frankie Shop
$229

Whitney Weejuns

G.H. Bass & Co.
$110

Polo Cardigan Sweater

Aimé Leon Dore
$350

Block Stripe Rugby

Rowing Blazers
$195

Polo Player Hat

Polo Ralph Lauren
$45
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