Netflix’s ‘The Politician’ and the sartorial history of The Prep

Words by Jasmine Wallis

Get in line, or fall behind.

In a society beleaguered by capitalism, no other group embodies the values of the system as blatantly as The Prep. We see them in boardrooms, in politics and in our pop culture and art. 

Like any clique, The Prep is identifiable by its outfits. While an image of Republicans in boat shoes and Lacoste polos might spring immediately to mind, in pop culture, the uniform is different. It’s the Heathers oversized blazers and scrunchies, Dionne and Cher’s checked skirts and knee socks in Clueless, or Blair Waldorf’s bejewelled headbands in Gossip Girl.

Rooted in late-19th century America, prep culture was a result of the economic boom of the Industrial Revolution. As the middle class began to rise, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant families (known today as WASPs) wanted to distinguish themselves as ‘old money’.

This resulted in privileged families establishing elite, private ‘preparatory’ schools, creating a whole subset of people who wear their grandmothers’ pearls to maths class and can buy their way into Ivy League schools today.

This notion of ‘old money’ within The Prep bleeds into Ryan Murphy’s (creator of Glee and American Horror Story) latest creation for Netflix, The Politician

Like all good shows set in California (and written by Ryan Murphy), it’s about a bunch of rich high school kids. This time, they’re trying to win the student body presidency. 

Main character, Payton Hobart, the adopted son of a billionaire family, is determined to become the next President of the United States, with the student body presidency his first step on the way. Hence, he is decked out in colourful designer suits that reference JFK.

The uniforms of his girlfriend – and future First Lady – Alice were inspired by Jackie O (of course) and Princess Diana. These influences manifest in an iconic combo of pastel cardigans and pearls.

The resident mean girl, Astrid Sloan, dresses super casually for a student rally in head-to-toe Chanel. It shrieks with the hyperbole and campness usually associated with overenthusiastic student politicians.

Like these costumes, the fashion of The Prep is a symbol of power, of social status and of influence. The Blair Waldorfs of the world may seem a little outdated these days, but with a beneficiary of old money holding the highest position in the United States, it’s clear The Prep still hold tonnes of social, economic and political sway. Hence why Murphy decided to create a show about them in 2019. 

The curation of the ensembles becomes a character itself, and it’s apparent that each costume decision is chosen to exaggerate the privilege of these future White House representatives. 

Payton Hobart 

With his aforementioned ambition to become President of the United States, costume designer Claire Parkinson has dressed Payton in a suit in every episode – including up to 15 in one episode, according to the designer.

His suits are a sartorial political spin, part of a disguise designed to make him more likeable while also masking his Machiavellian hunt for power.

McAfee Westbrook

Payton’s campaign manager and advisor is inspired by frontmen David Bowie and Mick Jagger and power women like Gloria Steinem and Katharine Hepburn. The androgynous artistry and stage presence of these figures are a symbol of her drive to win Payton the presidency.  

To match the Wes Anderson-eque sets and, of course, to make sure McAfee is associated with the attire of the prepster, Claire sourced a series of pastel ensembles such as the peach and yellow numbers above. 

Astrid Sloan

The only child to a money-embezzling father and distant mother (also mainstays of The Prep archetype), Astrid vows to avenge her late boyfriend, River, by running as Payton’s opponent. She does it all while wearing Miu Miu pussy-blouses and Chanel handbags.

Her most iconic moment comes in the form of a tennis match, played out in full Tory Burch. Say no more.  

Georgina Hobart

We couldn’t have a prep breakdown without including the prep matriarchs. Payton’s adoptive mother, Georgina Hobart, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is first shown painting in her opulent gardens at home, decked out in an elegant green kaftan. 

This over-the-top look continues for the rest of the show, as she drips around her domestic space in diamonds, red leather gloves and elegant white, silk pyjamas. Claire says that Georgina’s looks were inspired by ’60s socialites and style icons Talitha Getty and Babe Paley. 

As touched on earlier, the fashion in The Politician seems to evolve into a character in its own right and symbol throughout the series.

These aren’t a bunch of middle-class student politicians wanting to change the world for the better. They’re not wearing second-hand statement tees and Birkenstocks to stage a protest at their local town hall. They embody the opulence of billionaires and symbolise the elite of Trump’s America. They are the real-life children of Lori Loughlin.

Hate them if you ain’t them because according to The Prep, you probably want to be them.

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