Where I was From

When I was eighteen, I received four copies of The Preppy Handbook for my birthday. I received another five for Christmas. Each time, the gift giver wrote on the card, "This is so you!" I didn't see the connection. Or perhaps I refused to recognize it. My parents were dismayed at the book. "It's a celebration of mediocrity and banal people," they said (mediocrity said with a short "e" as in red). 

But there was something in there that seemed so "them." Perhaps it was the boat models in the dining room. Or my stepfather's white dinner jacket that I used for my prom. He wore it on a teenage tour of all the Debutante balls on the west coast in 1960. I had to admit that my family tree was like the "joke" tree in The Preppy Handbook (although my mother's half ends up at Jamestown; those Mayflower people were late in the game). And, unfortunately, a gang of relatives were in the "Pantheon" section.

By the time I was at CalArts I was as far from "preppy" as one could get. Or so I thought. I bought black jeans and dark colored shirts. But people still said, "You're so cute and preppy." It was a lost cause. No matter how hard I tried to be cool I ended up looking like I was visiting from Connecticut in 1955.

The nice thing about getting older is not caring what others think. I finally gave in and accepted that I liked the same clothes that I wore when I was a child. I didn't need to worry about being cool and not "preppy." The issue here is that my style goes in and out of fashion every twenty years or so. I'll look quite fashionable for awhile and then super un-cool for a decade. I buy clothes in triplicate so when Sperry stops making blue sneakers I will still have new ones in a box. But let me make this clear, the pants with little whales or tennis rackets are stupid. No matter what anyone says.

My "cool-on-preppy" look in college

Me on left in madras shirt and khakis, 1968

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Watching Glass

I have a bad habit of buying the same item repeatedly. It's not as if I decide I need a few of the same shirt. I forget I have these items and keep buying more. I have a massive amount of khakis and blue Sperry sneakers. Each time I see them I think, "Hmm, now those are pretty nice." I have every possible kind of madras shirt, as if anyone would notice one from the other. And I have way too many eyeglasses. There is a store in Pasadena, Old Focals, which is rather like a heroin den would be to others. I keep buying the same few styles of glasses over and over. Just this morning, I thought, "I like those glasses Harry Hamlin wears on Mad Men. I need to go get me some of those." Of course, I already have several just like them.

And why vintage glasses? I can't get on board with some of those groovy new styles. I don't want to look like I'm a DJ or hip-hop star, although it's doubtful anyone would make that error. If sturdy eyebrow glasses were good enough for my grandfather, and thick simple frames worked for Cary Grant, that's good enough for me.

Let's Take an Old Fashioned Walk

Originally, I planned to do this post about modernism done well, and modernism done badly. For example, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe is done well. A black box office building on Ventura Boulevard is not so good. The JC Penney annual report for 1970 is a great example of beautiful and precise modernism. George Tscherny’s design is crisp and clean. The Helvetica is elegant. This is what a Swiss grid and Helvetica can be in the hands of a master. This is, obviously, the intent for the current JC Penney Helvetica style.

But, while doing research for this post, I came across the website, www.wishbookweb.com. It’s a treasure trove of shopping catalogues. The 1970 JC Penney Christmas catalogue has nothing to do with the annual report beside the date. It’s a remarkable time capsule. The clothes are, of course, funny. It’s the odd subtext of the pages that make it such a pleasure. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did see some plaid shirts that I wanted to buy. But you cannot call 1970. Nobody answers, and there were no answering machines.


And now, from high modernism to nifty hats and big pockets on the front of pants.

I don't think anyone looks good in His n' Hers styles. Couples should not match unless they are in a groovy band like Kids of the Kingdom.

This is further proof that matching outfits are wrong. And these simply look illicit.

There is an odd prevalence of men holding women on the ground in this book. It's quite submissive and frankly disturbing. I believe the women should be allowed to stand, especially if forced to wear department store headbands. Even I know that's uncool.

Am I wrong or is this a page of "swingers"? And I don't mean the dancing to swing music people. These are the people who live down the block and invite you to a "key" party. Don't go. It will end badly.

What can be said? First, these are bathmats with holes cut for sleeves. Second, these vests scream, "beat me up! Please!" A nun would cross the street to beat up these kids.

What a Fool Believes

Every 20 years or so, I come back into fashion. I consider my style to be classic, which allows me to buy the same items year after year regardless of current trends. Typically, if I like something, I’ll buy several. I don’t want to be stuck if khakis change and become more “European”. Recently, I’ve seen some articles about the return of “Preppy”. Some may argue, but I’m not preppy, I think I’m just stuck in 1962.

This leads me to some of the atrocities I’ve seen made in the name of “Preppy”. Today, I’ll rant about the embroidered motif articles. I admit I have some motif belts from J. Press. There’s nothing wrong with a nice anchor, American flag, nautical flag, or whale belt. But that’s where it should stop. And I make a point of wearing my belts under an un-tucked shirt. Like my nautical print boxers, only I know I’m wearing them. Let me be blunt here, and I know some will be hopping mad about this; embroidered motif pants on men are bad. You don’t look funny, preppy, or classic. You look like a raging fool.

As for women, classic is good. Grace Kelly, Babe Paley, Slim Aarons, C.Z. Guest classic is correct. As my mother has pointed out, the whale motif skirts, or strawberry motif wrap dresses, simply de-sexualizes a woman. And, yes, you also look like a raging fool.

So my advice is to stop the madness. I don’t care how hip you think the green whale print pants are. Moderation is good in eating and fashion. However, I must point out in fairness, that moderation and drinking is bad for a cocktail party.

Young at Heart, but not with Clothing, Please

One of my least favorite things about living in Los Angeles is the problem of age inappropriate dressing. Last week I was at dinner at Jar (best filet in Los Angeles) and a table of young Hollywood starlet types was at a big table behind me. They all had the same light blonde, shoulder length hair, and tight short skirts. Now if you’ve seen Clueless you know what I mean when I say it was a real Monet moment. From the distance of the door everything looked good, but as I got closer to their table, whoa, it all fell apart. They were, in fact, not young starlets but older Hollywood wives who had visited the plastic surgeon far too often.

I have never considered doing a reality show. People are always telling me, “You and Noreen should have your own reality show. I bet it would be hilarious.” It wouldn’t be. It would be very dull moments of people working on their computers with occasional profane outbursts. I would like to do a reality show, though, where I help people who dress age inappropriately with makeovers. We would shop at Brooks Brothers, J. Press, Chanel, and other sensible brands.

Now don’t get caught up with this being “Preppy” or any other such nonsense. This is just plain good sense that would make the world a nicer place to live.

There are many benefits of growing older: you can yell at people, you sleep less, and you can wear certain clothing items previously inappropriate. These are some of my rules:

1.     Men may wear seersucker before the age of 12, or after 45. Between those ages makes one look foolish.

2.     Men may wear white bucks in the summer, or all year after age 45.

3.     Madras jackets work if a man is over 45, but younger people look like a horses ass in them.

4.     Men can wear bow ties over 45, unless you are a southern politician or Ivy League professor, in which case any age is appropriate.

5.     Ponytails are wrong, wrong, and wrong for anyone over 45.

6.     There is nothing wrong with a sensible bob haircut for women over 45.

7.     Skinny jeans are wrong for anyone, especially people over 45.

More specific rules are listed below. But the point is to stop the madness. When you see an elderly person on the street in tight jeans and a groovy t-shirt, stop them and ask if you can help them to the nearest age appropriate store. Unfortunately, I don’t think my reality show idea will work. As Terry Stone told me, “So you would take mature people and make them look old?” Uh, yeah.

In Praise of Madras

Today it finally warmed up. It’s been awhile since the temperature was in the mid 80s, and it gave me the chance to break out the madras shirts. Some of you know how great this feels, others think I should be more adventurous, and others may be asking, “Just what is madras?” Madras is a soft and lightweight fabric with a plaid design. The fabric is named after Chennai, India (Madras under British rule). This is where madras was born as a fabric to breathe in the hot and humid Indian climate. Madras is not just a plaid pattern. It gets softer and fades with each wash. I can’t imagine wearing anything different when it’s warm.

I will draw the line at madras shorts and blazers. The blazer is fine if your 12, but adult men wearing them just look desperate. And the shorts are fine if you are under 25 and shop at Abercrombie. Otherwise, no, it looks dumb. Yes, I have many rules. It makes my life work. However, feel free to buy madras shirts, ties, or if you are female, dresses.

I have one problem that is my boxer shorts. This may be revealing, but I prefer plaid. Unfortunately, this makes changing in the gym problematic when I’m wearing a madras shirt. The combination of shirt and boxers gives the impression that I’m somehow obsessed or trying to match. When I throw in the madras handkerchiefs, I’m inclined to lean toward obsession. What kind of psycho would try and match all of his or her madras?

Madras blazer, Rogues Gallery, no if over 12

Change is Bad

There's no such thing as too much madras

Many of you have written or called and asked me, “Sean, how do you stay trapped in 1962? Where do you find those clothes?” or “Sean, I’d be more than happy to take you shopping, I’m sure I could help you be more up to date.” The answer is that it’s not easy to stay trapped in 1962. The clothes I buy come in and out of fashion every 20-25 years. So I’m quite hip for a few months every two decades. Since the fashion industry insists on change, if I find an item I like, I buy several and store them. Some items such as Sperry Topsider canvas sneakers have never been out of production, thankfully. The secret is J. Press. They have the same ethos about change (it’s bad) that I do. J. Press is in Cambridge, New Haven, Manhattan, and Washington D.C. and is exactly the right place to find madras shirts and handkerchiefs, whale or anchor motif belts, and good school color repp ties. Of course, I have other sources for non-groovy 1962-wear. But the best advice I can give is to buy multiples. It’s possible that the next time you go to buy classic khakis, they will have been replaced with a cut that some might call “European.”

This is how hanging out on campus should be

J. Press catalogue 1962

Good ties, but you need to order through the time machine

American Graffiti, Ron Howard, good fashion tips

You never know when someone may say, "Sailing?"

Notice how well groomed and neat these students are