BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JUN 10
Featured in
Issue 132

Get Smart

An updated style bible heralds the return of the preppy

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JUN 10

Courtesy: Workman Publishing, New York.

‘The rich are different to you and me,’ declared F. Scott Fitzgerald. ‘Yes,’ replied Ernest Hemingway, ‘they have more money.’ Few statements emanate so much wisdom from the very fact of their being so shallow. The same thing could be said of The Official Preppy Handbook (1980) which is being updated this September as True Prep, edited by original co-author Lisa Birnbach and graphic designer Chip Kidd.

The OPH was a compendium of the ‘tradition, mannerisms, etiquette, dress codes [and] the family’ of those who had attended American private – or ‘prep’ – schools who they identified as a wealthy, Anglophile type. It included detailed chapters on such preppy quintessentials as Madras fabric, knitted sweaters, preferred breeds of dog and vocabulary, the last summed up most neatly in the chapter, ‘Summer is a verb’. If it all seemed a bit laughable that was only natural: the book states (and the Oxford English Dictionary concurs) that the original meaning of the word ‘preppy’ means silly or preposterous.

Tart in its specificity and loving in its thoroughness, the gentle satire of the book was aided by Birnbach’s tongue-in-cheek insistence that anyone could be preppy: ‘In a true democracy everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut.’ Yet Birnbach’s tongue was not firmly enough in her cheek, for the book was hailed almost immediately not as a descriptive triumph but as a prescriptive one. People bought it to find out if they were preppy, how they could become preppy and whether their neighbours were preppy. The OPH became the ultimate social-climbing crampon. (The same was to happen to The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, published in 1982 by Peter York and Ann Barr, and which dealt with the preppies’ English cousins: the Sloanes.)

One can see why. The OPH depicted less a subculture than a sur-culture. People wanted to be part of it not to belong but to be above everyone else. In an increasingly splintered society in which everyone seemed to be part of one tribe or another, the preppy’s insouciance was a blessed relief from all the posing. The joke was, of course, that it’s impossible to try and be insouciant – the trying always gets in the way.

Of course, there were dissenters who had the same problems with the preppies as people have always had with hermetic groups – be they mods, hippies, pagans or punks. This was largely a matter of exclusion. The only difference was that this time the people doing the criticizing were the liberal, educated intelligentsia who would normally defend minority groups from such attacks.

The OPH shone a light on every part of preppydom but, rather like a vampire, illumination may not have been the best thing for it. Bits of its fashion were appropriated here, snippets of its speech were appropriated there, until the term became diluted and commodified. Preppiness, which had never exactly been a forward-looking style, became culturally static. By the middle of the 1980s it was everywhere and nowhere at all. This was never better encapsulated than in 1983 when Gary Portnoy, songwriter for Dolly Parton and Air Supply, penned an off-Broadway musical, Preppies. The first song went: ‘People like us / Go for loafers or ducks / Cotton, Madras and khaki are key / But flaunting a sable / Or flashing a label / Seems terribly tacky to me.’

Preppy was turning up in places it shouldn’t have been. For example, during the boom years of the 1980s, as America was awash with money, a new group of people – financiers – chose preppy to signal their new-found cash. Aided by increasingly casual workplaces, khakis and loafers, the preppy wardrobe became the de facto uniform of Wall Street. (It’s an interesting coincidence that the sequel to the quintessential 1980s film Wall Street [1987] is about to be released in the same year that The OPH gains a sequel too.)

Ultimately we are left contemplating a paradox. The original OPH was formulated in the midst of an economic recession and offered its readers a safe conservatism to turn to. As the conditions that first prompted handbook return, and discussions of preppiness intensify, is the preppiness alluded to today true prep or just a sordid dilution of the old style? Are the schoolgirl vanities of soap Gossip Girl, which is set in a private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – New York’s preppy heart – genuine prep or only Lacoste-shirt-deep? Is the band Vampire Weekend, with its references to sweaters and summering in Cape Cod, simply a skilful appropriator of prep? Is it even possible for preppiness to change and adapt or does that go against what is its fundamentally traditional and sceptical nature? Then again, in The OPH, Birnbach writes that anything old is preppier than anything new – ‘that’s just a rule’. Perhaps repackaging the past, no matter its content, is in fact the ultimate expression of preppiness?

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.