Saved by Corduroy

How the original Preppy Handbook changed my life.

You can’t blame Lisa Birnbach for revisiting her greatest hit, The Official Preppy Handbook, which climbed the best-seller lists in 1980. But True Prep, a sequel that arrives in bookstores next week, doesn’t compare. It simply isn’t helpful enough.

Thirty years ago, while still an undergraduate in England, I got my hands on a copy of the original Handbook, and it changed my life. I’d always been obsessed by America—I was majoring in American studies at the time, and I spent most of my waking hours trying to finagle my way into a U.S. graduate school—but my vision of the place was mostly gleaned from Hill Street Blues and the Mamas and the Papas. I thought everyone dressed in uniforms or kaftans. The Preppy Handbook clued me in.

The first sections of the book were somewhat alarming. All that talk of governesses and private schools (so that’s what prep meant) had me worried that America was just a newer, larger version of class-obsessed Britain. But the second half was more practical, teaching the preferred terms for drunk, how to perform a dancelike movement known as Gatoring, and how to pronounce the “ou” in drop trou. I learned about khakis, Oxford shirts, and worn-out shoes held together with tape.

When I did make it to America—to study at the University of Delaware, which, for some reason, does not rate a mention alongside Hamilton and Princeton in the Handbook’s list of preppy colleges—my colleagues at the foreign-student orientation seemed jealous of my advantages: As a native speaker of English and a Caucasian, it would be easy for me to “fit in.” Little did they know that my real leg-up was my familiarity with the small print of the Preppy Handbook.

Its first gift was reassurance. In England, my lack of pedigree and my Northern accent meant I was just another working-class oik. In America, it seemed, I would be a WASP. I hadn’t “prepped,” though I did go to a school with a Latin motto and strictly enforced uniform regulations. No one in my family had ever had a middle name, much less a preppy monstrosity like Crowninshield (Ben Bradlee) or Beekman (Garry Trudeau), but since preppies were raging Anglophiles, with the help of this book, I could totally fake it.

The Handbook’s most useful advice came in the clothing section, which is exactingly prescriptive. When it comes to Lacoste shirts, for example, “Only the all-cotton model will do, the one with cap sleeves with the ribbed edging, narrow collar and two-button placket (never buttoned).” That’s the level of detail a new arrival requires. They need to know which pants to buy, the feet of which animal your winter boots should resemble, and when not to wear socks. It helped that so many of the original must-haves were available from the L.L. Bean catalog—True Prep is much more reliant on Prada, Burberry, and Thom Browne.

I didn’t crack the dress code right away. I misunderstood the Handbook’s endorsement of chamois shirts and purchased an orange fleece CPO shirt from the International Male catalog that made my hair stand on end, and I never learned to walk in duck boots. Even now, I can’t bring myself to wear ribbon belts and critter trousers, and I didn’t feel confident enough to pull off pink-and-green-patchwork madras until last season. (Oh, but when I did, I adopted the hell out of it. Now the prospect of going solid after Labor Day fills me with monochromatic dread.)

I often wonder whether I’d have taken a different career path if I’d missed the wise counsel of The Official Preppy Handbook. Although True Prep singles out “Contributing Editor, Vogue” as a “prep career for the new millennium,” the entire field of magazine journalism is full of Skips and Mollys (though few of them are classic WASPs these days). This makes perfect sense. The virtues of a good editor are all to be found in the “preppy value system.” These include consistency (we call it following the style guide); effortlessness (a reader should never see the hand of the editor); and discipline (just as a true prep should never raise her voice to the help, a good editor should never lose her temper with an author, no matter how exasperating he is). And these days, it certainly doesn’t hurt that we don’t mind wearing old shoes.

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