This September sees the publication of Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd’s True Prep, a sequel to Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook, which according to the New York Times has sold 1.3 million copies since 1981. I was not one of those 1.3 million—I bought my copy years later in a used bookstore—but I read that thing constantly for months, joined the cult, earned the T-shirt (pardon me, the polo shirt). And I’ve spent too many hours thinking about how I would update Birnbach’s funny and too-true dissection of the world of Lacoste, squash, and boarding schools.
The good news is that Birnbach, who more recently has written less scholarly works (like 1,003 Great Things To Smile About), and Kidd, well-known as book-jacket designer, novelist, and natty dresser, have produced a book as witty as, and more thorough than, the original. The sad news is the way their effort suggests that prepdom is irrelevant.
I found my copy of The Official Preppy Handbook in the early 1990s, 10 years after the book’s publication and several years into my own happy but somewhat bewildered experience at Loomis Chaffee, a Connecticut prep school. I was astonished that such a book existed. Instantly, I recognized that Birnbach had captured my mixed feelings about the world I inhabited every day. Like many anthropologists, I was in love with the culture that I was trying hard to understand. I was not alienated, more bemused and curious.
Birnbach provided a manual for how to be preppy, written in language that gently made light of prep culture—language that, one cannot help but say, took the wind out of the preppy’s sails. Her message was, Don’t be intimidated by prep, because it is mostly an aesthetic—a grand aesthetic, in fact, and easily copied!
So I was glad to have The Preppy Handbook as a user’s guide, one that explains, for example, how prep-schoolers achieve the right look (gaffing tape on the Top-Siders, the importance of madras, etc.) and how they pick a sport (the smaller the ball, the preppier the sport—hence squash, not racquet ball). The book can be splendidly utilitarian. There’s a helpful guide to the right stores in different parts of the country: Murray’s Toggery Shop on Nantucket; J. Press in New Haven, Conn.; and Cable Car Clothiers in San Francisco. There is a list of the right postgrad fellowships. (If you can’t get the Rhodes, the Keasbey “is the best-kept secret in the world.”) And there is a “prep pantheon” to provide models, including Katharine Hepburn, John Lindsay, and Elliot Richardson.
Even for people in prep schools, these codes, modeled by the most confident, and often wealthiest, students, are difficult to break. It’s not immediately apparent why frayed clothes are preppier than new clothes, or the ways in which George H. W. Bush was preppy but Gerald Ford was not. Here was a book that explained it all.
But I was equally glad that The Preppy Handbook did not take the rules too seriously. Birnbach’s tone is affectionate but ironic, in the manner of a stern prep-school master who has seen enough of these trust-fund babies to know how quickly they’ll squander the money. In her advice to the preppy college graduate touring Europe for the summer, Birnbach writes that “sooner or later, depending on the amount of graduation-present money Daddy gave you, you’ll be forced to return and get a job. So, while you’re waiting in line in Victoria Station for your first InterRail Pass journey, consult the following list of careers … to pay for your dry-cleaning and Jeep repair bills.” That’s a trifecta for Birnbach: Daddy’s money, rail pass, Jeep—all dead on, like a skeet shot taken by a marksman wearing Orvis.
The new book, True Prep, is positioned as an updated version of the old, but the tone is more knowing—in fact, too knowing. It’s both a sequel to the original and a slightly embarrassed commentary on it. The book is subtitled “It’s a Whole New Old World,” and on the first page it announces, “Wake up, Muffy, we’re back.” Right there, the true fan of The Preppy Handbook has to be disappointed. It’s clear that, at least as far as Birnbach and Kidd see it, the leavening earnestness is gone: It’s all irony now. There are no true preps, to be both admired and needled—instead, we’re all just performing prep.
True Prep does get a lot right in updating the original. For example, it’s absolutely true that the biggest innovation is prep style is “fleece” fibers, like the ones in Patagonia clothing. Prep clothing used to be defined by natural fibers, but now the ultimate prep material is a synthetic. Bull’s-eye, I say. The authors have added a welcome section on vintage stores, and they have updated the prep pantheon to include the late, exceedingly preppy novelist Louis Auchincloss. The prep reading list, which in the last volume was a discerning mix of the obvious ( The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace) and the overlooked (Richard Yates’s A Good School) has been expanded to include Evelyn Waugh, Evan Connell, and, quite sportingly, Paul Fussell’s Class—a book so penetrating about prepdom that it makes all the others, this one included, look junior-varsity.
There is so much to admire in Birnbach and Kidd’s assiduous catalogue of prep-school alumni—Huey Lewis went to Lawrenceville! Steve Carell went to Middlesex!—that one can forgive their referring to “Phillips Academy Andover,” an over-explanation that would offend all alumni of Andover, and their mistakenly giving a Taft School diploma to Lisa Kudrow, who attended Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. And I am so grateful for the dig at donors who put their names on buildings, thus violating the prep preference for public subtlety (“When Stephen A. Schwartzman, a Yale graduate, donated $100 million to the New York Public Library in 2008, negotiations on signage were extensive”), that I will overlook the author’s strange inclusion of “TV anchorman” in the section “Prep Careers”—a section that lists “fact-checker,” the preppiest job ever, under “Preps Need Not Apply.”
The most important change from The Preppy Handbook to True Prep is the more capacious sense of who is preppy. Everyone knew that the prep look had been perfected by Anglophilic white people, many from New England schools, and in that spirit The Preppy Handbook is tactfully silent on matters of race and religion. That silence, along with the many photographs of very white people, said it all—in an understated, and therefore preppy, way.
I don’t imagine that Birnbach was exalting the very pale, Protestant nature of the preppy world, but neither was she going to pretend that wasn’t the case. True Prep, by contrast, is as noisily inclusive as The Preppy Handbook was quietly exclusive. The list of prep school alumni includes minorities galore, even when there is no reason to think the particular people are otherwise preppy: Eli Zabar went to Fieldston, we learn, and M. Night Shyamalan went to Episcopal Academy.
But preppiness was never about school ties alone. Even more than Birnbach’s original book allowed, preppiness was a deep aesthetic, shading into an ethos, displayed in clothes, language, and hobbies. In that vein, the new book tells us that yoga is now preppy. So is apple pudding. And the lemon. “The Preppy Mix Tape” includes Thelma Houston and Laura Branigan (but apparently not Dave Matthews, who is the entire soundtrack on some prep-school campuses). Burberry is preppy, the authors say—well, maybe, although these days it is probably too high-fashion to be preppy. But Prada shoes? I must dissent. According to Birnbach and Kidd, Sergey Brin and Larry Page are preppy. Paul Rudnick is preppy—this must be an in-joke about a friend of the authors’. Rachel Uchitel, Tiger Woods’ most famous mistress, went to Nightingale-Bamford, we learn. Does that mean she is preppy? Unclear. If Eliot Spitzer’s call girl had gone to Hotchkiss, would we read about it here?
This Obama-era preppiness (he is preppy, too, according to our authors, as is Michelle) is a problem, because the appeal of preppiness, indeed its very inclusivity, depends on an outward exclusivity. The club should require a little effort to join. If everyone who has ever gone to a private school is preppy, then ultimately prepdom is just about money, which actually places preppiness out of reach for most people. If Stephen Schwartzman, gauchely negotiating the signage to honor his mega-donation, is preppy, then I’ll eagerly resign from the club.
The authors are far too careful to make preppiness identical with money; they don’t present McMansions as preppy, or cruise-ship vacations. But in trying to make prepdom accessible, Kidd and Birnbach have made it less desirable. It’s noteworthy that the great prep designers, from J. Press to Louis Pearlstein to Ralph Lauren to André 3000, have been non-WASPs trying to master the code of the WASP; in mastering it, minorities continue to define it. (It is entirely unsurprising that this book is by a Jewish woman and a gay man.) But if they define prep too broadly, they diminish their own success.
This time around, I do not think that Birnbach and Kidd are being prescriptive so much as descriptive. That is, they may not be leading prep fashion so much as responding to it. After all, is there a cohesive prepdom any more? When the first President Bush was campaigning, he did not shed his chalk-stripe suits; yet his son fashioned himself as some sort of rancher. We have lost great preppies like Claiborne Pell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and William F. Buckley Jr., and who has risen up to take their places? Styles move and shift so quickly these days, and I do not trust that young preps have anything like the commitment they’ll need, if they are to be worthy of their heritage (to allude to the Deerfield Academy motto). Subcultures are less coherent and less fixed than they were 30 years ago: It’s harder than ever to spot a true hippie or a true goth.
If there is any hope, it will come from outsiders. (Nota bene: Moynihan and Buckley were Irish Catholic.) Perhaps young black and Jewish academics will take cues from their unrepentantly preppy elders, like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Willard Spiegelman. Surely gay men will continue to do the tradition proud, and I suspect they are responsible for the current vogue for “heritage” clothing, which leads prep away from Anglophilia and into a rugged American past. As will conservative journalists: George F. Will, Tucker Carlson, Seth Lipsky. (Although female prepdom is beyond the scope of my expertise, I have noticed that hard-core preppiness among women has become hard to find, in part because preppiness is about what is old, and women do not wish to be identified with traditions that recall a more sexist era.)
Perhaps there is a renaissance around the corner. After all, as one Harvard alumnus recently wrote, “I’m not sure that anyone in Regency England would have seen the Victorian era coming.” But for prep to live on, it must mean something. True Prep is an enjoyable but maddening wake-up call that we are watching a culture unravel, one lambswool thread at a time. If we don’t snap to attention, throw on our duckboots, thread the duck’s-head insignia belt, leash up the English setter, have a Pimm’s Cup, and figure out what this culture is, it will be gone. That may be unavoidable, but the manful thing to do is put up a good fight.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.