When I entered public high school at the age of 16 following a half-decade of home-schooling, what I saw there blew my mind. The year was 1998, and the student body of Raleigh’s Needham Broughton High School encompassed everyone from rich snobs to poor kids from rental housing. What struck me, though, were the very many styles of dress: goth, streetwear, southern-inflected “prep”. At the time, my sartorial choices were guided purely by convenience: I dressed exclusively in loose sweatpants and T-shirts. Much like the home-schooled heroine of 2004’s Mean Girls, I became fascinated by the material markers of my high school’s various cliques. Unlike Cady Heron, though, I wasn’t seeking to master them.
Maggie Bullock, author of The Kingdom of Prep, on the other hand, went all-in on style after she left the American South to attend boarding school. In her book, which covers “the rise and fall of J.Crew”, she examines the history of the company that enabled her to quickly dress in the preppy style of her classmates: flat-front trousers, polo shirts, roll-neck sweaters. A well-worn roll-neck sweater, Bullock writes with nostalgic affection, “had social acceptance knit into its very fibres”.
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Like America, J.Crew sold a paradoxical dream: the top tier of society is exclusive, but anyone can reach it. Its products aped those of Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and J.Press — whose name J.Crew emulated — but retailed for a fraction of the cost. The clothes were still pricey, but could be thought of as an affordable investment; the company was aspirational, certainly, but it wasn’t exclusionary. That is, unless you happened to be a woman who wore a size larger than 12 or a man who wore “XXL” shirts, although the company redressed its skinny-bias in the more obese world of the 2010s.
Indeed, what J.Crew was selling evolved in tandem with American society. At its point of inception, in 1983, clothing retailers played a critical role in the capital-powered construction of self. And J.Crew offered a ready-to-wear identity: a beginner’s guide to prep for those who quickly needed to ingratiate themselves to the establishment. Initially, the company was catalogue-only, but during the late Eighties, founder Arthur Cinader’s daughter Emily steered its expansion into the indoor mall — the place of American identity creation during this period. Being able to buy the prep look straight from a catalogue had been an innovation, but taking it to the mall, where you could browse identities between stops at the food court and the arcade, was a critical next step in expanding J.Crew’s reach.
But the early 2000s saw the beginning of the end of the American indoor mall — with many older malls built in the Seventies and Eighties being abandoned — and so, too, the decline of this iteration of J.Crew. As the company struggled with its identity, young consumers turned elsewhere, particularly to Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2002, I was hired to manage an A&F store at the Streets of Southpoint Mall — one of the elaborate, indoor-outdoor mega-malls that appeared during this period of rapid mall consolidation. At the time, A&F was doubling down on a truly exclusionary aesthetic, marketing clothes solely to people hot enough to wear them. Only a very particular kind of cool young person belonged in our clothes; I was exhorted not to hire anyone who didn’t fit the bill. (When the tide turned, a swarm of online identities — pro-social justice, pro-size acceptance — made A&F something of a punchline.)
The American Dream is a constant quest for an identity that is both recognisable and exceptional, and the divergent paths of J.Crew and A&F expose this seesaw between inclusivity and exclusivity. The Ronald Reagan-overseen Eighties, the true heyday of J.Crew, still held the promise of upward mobility and material success for all. Everyone was invited. Meanwhile, the 2000s were a time of economic retrenchment, eventually leading to the major recession of 2008. The elite felt threatened, and needed to differentiate itself, even superficially, through something like the vision A&F was selling. The effect of economics on the identity of Americans played out through off-the-rack fashion; it seems as if Americans are forever in high school, anxiously buying new looks to fit in with whichever lunch table they find themselves sitting at. This never-ending quest for identity and belonging speaks to a deep-seated, uncomfortable need to navigate the complexities of American society, where class, race, and personal identity intertwine and continuously evolve.
This incessant buying and selling of the product-mediated self fascinated me long before I entered a high school refectory. It probably began with my father, who wore the same half-dozen ill-fitting Brooks Brothers Number One Sack Suits all through his four-decade career as a car dealer. He considered anyone who linked their identity to branded material goods — whether Ford, Chrysler or J.Crew garments — to be susceptible to manipulation by the rapacious, advertising-driven economy. What he sold were ephemeral dreams: were you a Chevy man, an Oldsmobile man, a Cadillac man? The answer didn’t matter to him — they were all quick-to-depreciate “hunks of junk” — but it was this question that could motivate uncertain people to fork out their life savings. Everyone in America wants to be someone else, someone different and better; we can be easily convinced to invest hard-earned money in ourselves.
J.Crew experienced a revival in the mid-2000s and 2010s, when it became the preferred clothing brand for Barack and Michelle Obama. It had managed to successfully blend its old Ivy League staples with hipster trends, but this was J.Crew’s last big money: where could identity formation go in post-racial, post-class, post-patriarchy America? The answer, we would eventually learn, was online, where the process of branded self-differentiation was able to remain in dizzying flux.
I never imagined — and neither, apparently, did the executives at J.Crew and A&F, even as their billion-dollar brands began to struggle — that high-quality clothing would cease to play such a fundamental role in defining a person. The internet introduced a thousand new ways to form an identity, with Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok allowing users to continuously evolve. Some retail companies kept up, at first. Fast fashion companies such as Zara and H&M fuelled a retail apocalypse by churning out new wearable identities in response to viral articles and much-liked Instagram posts. By the end of the 2010s, if a certain influencer was wearing a particular designer shirt, Zara could have a cheap equivalent in its stores a week later.
But eventually, material possessions like clothing became less important in shaping identity, as digital profiles and online avatars took centre-stage — especially with the advent of lockdowns, Zoom meetings and fully remote existences. In this world, upon encountering someone else’s identity marker, the desire to adopt it as part of one’s own “personal brand” could be instantaneously satisfied; adding pronouns to one’s online “bio” is even faster than Amazon Prime. Even the speediest fast fashion purveyor can’t construct you an identity as quickly as a few mouse clicks or carefully angled selfies.
And material products are vulnerable. They rip, and tear and shrink in the wash. Pronouns endure, until the split second you decide to change them. The countless “skins” that can be purchased for your League of Legends characters won’t fade, but can be easily swapped on or off. Each signifies something supposedly unique about the skin buyer, who might have spent hundreds of dollars on these trifles. Pronouns are free but increasingly, in the virtual world, as in the material one, identity is for sale. And clothing companies like J.Crew and A&F cannot compete. While a garment may convey a message, its impact is limited, compared to a video of your freshly-filtered face that gets thousands of likes, or an announcement of your new pronouns that is met with widespread yet ephemeral approval.
Our pursuit of branded identities is a curious one: we are seeking uniqueness in the context of comfortable conformity, looking for the “right stuff” to distinguish us enough to join the clique of our choice. By providing affordable, aspirational style, J.Crew may have democratised fashion to some extent, but even when worn by the Obamas, it also subtly reinforced the class distinctions that are so deeply ingrained in American society. The wearers we are seeking to emulate are, in turn, seeking to appear more like us. But they are in fact part of an American upper class whose true markers of distinctions are subtle or deliberately obscure. A&F, at least, was frank about the existence of an obscure qualification to enter the elite that some will never attain. But online, it’s easy to forget that the carefully-curated versions of ourselves are often amplifying social divisions, pre-existing biases and class structures — rather than challenging them.
What the story of J.Crew teaches us is that our constructed styles, and by extension our constructed selves, are always on the way out. Their expiration dates are getting closer, and the periods of planned obsolescence shorter. The time-limited high school experience serves as an apt metaphor. Individuals strive for both self-expression and acceptance by conforming to an accepted aesthetic, and hundreds of high school movies have ended with characters achieving this tightrope walk. But in reality, it’s impossible to simultaneously break out as a unique individual and be accepted by the masses for adhering to a specific set of rules. Ultimately, our continuous reinvention of style highlights the fact that social politics always reduces, as in high school, to perpetual insecurity.
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