Photo by Salt Water New England

Saturday, November 14, 2020

A Reader Question for the Community: The Official Preppy Handbook 40 Years Later


A reader question for the community:

I can't believe it has been 40 years since the Preppy Handbook edited by Lisa Birnbach came out.  I would love to know what your readers think has stayed the same and what has changed over the last four decades?  Which schools, role models, stores and clothes, sports, hobbies, authors, and career paths influence the intelligent, public-spirited, cliquish,  productive, and understated today?

   

59 comments:

  1. I think so much has changed in the world. The US is more international and multicultural. Prep culture was a recognized by the Preppy Handbook in the US and UK (Sloan Ranger) of a life style that had endured since the arrival of the first families on US soil. The style can be adopted by other cultures. I think so many have become posers and superficial preps. Prep is not advertising a label on your shirt or purse with initials, that you change out regularly. It is an appreciation of fine quality of good, natural products that endure for years. Prep traditions are ingrained in you, not something you wear. It's instinctual. It is not something you have to give much thought. Now days many believe that it is something you put on and take off. We live in a much more superficial world. The Preppy Handbook just captured and documented and made a tongue in cheek book for all of us to enjoy.

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  2. I couldn't agree more. I enjoyed Ms. Birnbach's book back then, as much as I also enjoyed the British version, the Sloane Ranger Handbook, as humorous social anthropology, but that is just about it. There was never a need to take it all too seriously. I actually don't like the word "preppy" as, 30 years later, the term is potentially too self-referential, self-conscious, and yes, superficial if adopted by one as to be de rigueur for everything in life.

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  3. I rarely see "prep" clothes anymore even though they were what everyone in my small, southern, very traditional town wore 20 years ago. Now everyone wears black "athletic wear" or sweats. Clothing at church isn't quite that casual but it's getting close. Black is easy - everything can be thrown together in the washing machine. No one seems to want to iron or take the time to maintain the clothes which used to be considered prep. After a year or more of basically staying at and working from home, it's possible people will never go back to "getting dressed" again.

    Last fall I wore an old pair of corduroys, an oxford shirt and wool sweater into a grocery store. The clerk said she didn't realize I was from New England. She was very surprised when I told her I wasn't because she said that outfit looked what she thought people in New England wore. :) After a year or more of staying in and working from home, it's possible people may never go back to "getting dressed" again unless it's for an important business meeting in the baking or finance world.

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  4. Ack - not baking world - banking world.

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  5. One would love to hope that classic styles, and ideas, that have stood us proud for so very long, would continue to do so. No matter of the newer, flashier fly by night trends. Thank you!

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  6. Although satirical, it actually captured with nuanced detail and amazing breadth a world that has largely vanished. I am acutely aware of the changes as I am a product of single sex education, a large commercial bank, wood hulled boats, and the 1928 BCP. Still, there are hints of that era you can find, but they are obviously anachronistic. Even our old fashioneds and martinis seem anachronistic to many of our acquaintances.

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    1. Given the controversy surrounding the current Book of Common Prayer, which has come of age at 21, I wonder what happened when previous editions were adopted, especially the 1928 version. The 1928 version is still used by the breakaway Anglican Church in the U.S., of course.

      The Preppy Handbook, by the way, listed stores that were no longer, so it isn't like the world is coming to an end--or is it?

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    2. ECUSA is so far over due for a new BCP. Anyone who is still an Episcopalian today can surely handle that! And as to chronicles of defunct retailers, the list is very long indeed, Brooks just being, at least for now, an unknown. I still think wistfully of some that were already memories when Birnbach's book came out.

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    3. It's difficult to recall how controversial the 1979 BCP was 40 years ago. When contemplating a revision, the New Zealand prayer book now has many proponents in the US.

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  7. One of the great things about the book, that while tongue in cheek, it did serve as a manual for those who needed "refresher" training on how to dress.

    One of the negatives of the recent pandemic was/is the bankruptcy of Brooks Bros. The positive to the bankruptcy and hopefully the reorganization of BB is that the arrogant, incompetent and venal Claudio Del Vecchio will no longer own the company.

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    1. Yes, but it would be better for an incompetent Italian to own the company than the son of Mao who will certainly purchase it next.

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  8. I thought The Official Preppy Handbook and the Sloane Ranger book were a hoot. I went to a public high school where we wore Villager shirts and dresses, Garland blazers and pleated skirts, and Bass Weejuns. We all wanted to look like Ali McGraw in Goodbye Columbus which was not a preppy movie at all but her clothes were great. I still have two pair of Bass Weejuns. I love traditional classic clothes. Although I'm retired, I love dressing well (pretty much as I dressed in high school and college) when I leave the house. People seem to treat you better.

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    1. Bingo about being treated better. Now retired, I used to fly on business every month. I made a point of dressing in business casual, which was also the work clothes I had when at work.

      I usually got slightly better treatment when travel issues arose, and I'll credit it to the appearance. On the other hand, I have to say it's pretty easy to dress better than the average run of airline passengers!

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    2. Bingo, encore. You are treated with more deference when travelling well dressed.
      Pas de question. It’s amazing how far a pair of shined shoes, pressed pants, a clean collared shirt and a blazer or sport jacket will get you. That’s my uniform. I recall, for example, needing a spot in Venice to rest my weary bones. I strolled into the Danieli and sat down in the lobby, greeted by a nod, a smile, and “buon giorno.” It didn’t take long for a couple clad in jeans and sneakers to follow. They were immediately approached and politely greeted - in English - with a question, “can we help you?”

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  9. I was fifteen when the Preppy Handbook was published. I always took it to be a mix of cultural observation and humor; its primary impact on my public high school was how it influenced clothing choices at the time. The book gave me a slightly better understanding of the small legion of college classmates who came from prep schools, and it had good influence (for the most part) on some of my clothing choices.

    I think a lot has changed since 1980. For example, if you walk the campus of any of the New England boarding schools chronicled in the book today (my niece and nephew attended two of them), the buildings largely look the same...but the faces, the clothes, the feel of the places are very different. More than a few of the retail establishments highlighted in the book are gone or on their way out, replaced to some degree by online providers. While Brooks Brothers suits, blazers and oxford cloth shirts became a shadow of their former selves, online made-to-measure providers enveloped that space (and arguably exceeded the originals).

    There are still plenty of people who embody the preppy mindset, but I think that technology has made it quite a bit more diffuse.

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  10. Who are you if you need a book to tell you who you are?

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    1. To me, the book was just for fun, not a serious handbook.

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    2. Yes. I believe it was satire. Not a fashion guide.

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    3. Well, yes, it was satire. But like all good satire, it hit enough targets square on to be very funny. And anyone who needed a guide could glean at least a few tips on attitude and clothes from it.

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    4. For those of us needing style direction it provided a helpful foundation of American traditional clothing samples. It was also quite entertaining.

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  11. My copy is still around and I get a kick out of occasionally flipping through it. As I wasn't to the manor born, my preppiness, such as it ever was, was an affectation and more the "bohemian preppy" of the various types described in the book. (Years before the book a girl at college once called a friend and me "granola preppies.") My dream then was to live in the West someday and after my Navy career (spent in San Diego whenever possible), we settled in Central Colorado. Consequently my wardrobe isn't much different today than it was in the 70s, except Levi's no longer offers that era's same corduroy jeans. My clothes have taken on a bit more of a Western flair that more than one person has described as "Western preppy."

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    1. I loved those Levi's cords! The LL Bean five pocket cords are pretty darned close.

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    2. "To the manner born," not "to the manor born." The name of the British TV series is a pun.

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    3. Of course it is.

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  12. For preppy food satire 'The WASP Cookbook' beats everything else hands down: http://cookbookoftheday.blogspot.com/2010/06/wasp-cookbook.html

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    1. "The WASP Cookbook" was witty and pretty spot-on. I've met the author a couple of times-very funny woman and down to earth.

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  13. 105 million more people

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  14. I think what made the book such a hit was that just about everybody could see either themselves or close friends or family that fit the mold. For me - it was the khaki pants, blue blazer, Jeep Wagoneer and Golden Retriever and many other traits that made me realize what a "prep" I had become.

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  15. Most of the classic prep watering holes listed in TOPH are long gone, including the greatest of them all, Pedro’s, on East 85th St. in New York.

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    1. I remember Pedro's from my misspent youth! Was around the corner from where a friend lived with a bunch of room mates.

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    2. Picked up that book when I was visiting the Brown Bookstore on one of my many trips up to Providence from U.R.I. I loved how U.C. Berkley was described as having "lots of tortured intellectuals" and the dog at a prep school, "students have given him drugs". T.O.P.H.B. was hilarious and fun with many nice pictures of clothing we already had. The only thing was I only had distant cousins who attended Prep School but my family usually described the type of "preppy" clothing as classic or traditional if we indeed described it at all. Having spent a short time in the U.K. I also owned the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook which was an interesting sociological romp-liked all the tweed field clothes. In later years I was gifted "True Prep" also by Birnbach. Would be curious to learn the forum's take on this "sequel"-I was a little underwhelmed.

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    3. Ah, yes, Pedro's! No name out front. Tiny, one room. Every inch of wall space covered with college pennants. Open 'til dawn (how, I don't know). Before TOPH was published, the only way you knew about it by word of mouth. The best prep bar ever.

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    4. We used to go to a bar which I think was on the Upper East Side called the Voodoo Lounge. It is probably long gone. Spent hours and hours dancing and drinking there in the 1980s. Avoided Dorrian's Red Hand especially after it become notorious -- believe that may be still open.

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    5. Upper East Side prep hangouts I remember from the late 1970s that turned up in TOPH a few years later were Swell's, the Sugar Mill, the Mad Hatter, J.G. Melon and, of course, the legendary, haut prep Pedro's. All gone except for Melon. The Upper East Side in those days was prep heaven; it was as if the Sixties never happened.

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    6. Michael McCarty inter alia destroyed a good many preppy brain cells in NYC, PB and NPT.

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  16. Light blue oxford shirt, Bean khakis and Sperry Topsiders worn to near oblivion (and probably one of them with a duct-taped sole). That was the NE uniform of my youth. It was built for economy, comfort, utility and almost universal appropriateness. Take away the duct tape and it would serve most of us fine today, even make us slightly overdressed. But that's the beauty of the coterie who relish traditions, as most who read this blog most certainly do.

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    1. Duct tape — or smudged white athletic tape? The latter is what I remember being used to hold scuffed penny loafers together. At least at my school...

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  17. The main thing that's changed is that people now want to spend their time and money on ways to look and act like they're from the ghetto or the Appalachians. Aspirations are different.

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    1. I really am from the Appalachians and I've spent the last fifty years trying to look and act otherwise. I can't quite shake the accent, though.

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  18. I live in a very preppy town (mentioned in the book) where in the traditionally prep neighborhoods people still adhere to the tenets of that lifestyle including behavior, attendace at one of the many prep schools and understated, functional, classic clothing though fleece has replaced wool and yoga pants have replaced corduroys. Interestingly, docksiders and Bean boots are now a trend for many again. Prep here is not just about clothes but a product of one's lineage and socioeconomic place as well as an attitude.

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    1. Might the yoga replacement pants be worn by both women and men? Is a man in yoga pants considered “understated” in your town?

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  19. Some years ago I read an article that assigned 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree Prep to people that went something like this: 1st degree Prep WASP, born in New England and went to a boarding school, 2nd degree non-WASP, born in New England, went to boarding school, 3rd Degree non-WASP not born in New England but went to a boarding school. Sound familiar to anyone?

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    1. "!st Degrees" also have summer homes on the coast of New England and spend winter vacations in the mountains. Their sports are mainly the the exclusive, expensive, elite non-stick-and-ball ones (except for golf and tennis): skiing, sailing, crew, horses....

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    2. There’s not much to know about “degrees” if you’re a skier. Somewhere around 32, sometimes at 33 or 34, precipitation turns, gratefully, to snow. The thermometer must register a little lower for the snow-making to start. One who is enthusiastic about snow (and ice!) sports begins watching the weather at a young age. That must make place such enthusiasts among the “elite.”

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  20. I once went to a church meeting in Charlotte, NC, and I sat next to a man in his 70s wearing cords, two button down oxfords layered over one another, and blucher mocs. He didn't even have to open his mouth before I knew that he was from New England.

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  21. I should add that the aforementioned church meeting was in an Episcopal church.

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  22. And there was the "The Daily Prep"...

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  23. I understand the general idea of the question but am not sure I’d use the terms “intelligent, public-spirited, cliquish, productive, and understated.” I’ll grant cliquish and in some specific ways public-spirited, but I never thought of preppy as necessarily synonymous with intelligence, and as for productivity, I’ll let you know once I’ve finished my martini. Understated can be hard to pull off when you’re wearing lime green trousers with little whales on them.

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  24. Loved TOPH, which came out when I was 10. I grew up in a Black family that wasn't traditionally prep (of course, you might say) but had some hallmarks of the lifestyle. My parents enjoyed tennis and skiing, and we vacationed in the Hamptons or on the Cape or the Vineyard. When the book came out, I found it thoroughly entertaining -- I got that it was satirical, and laughed a lot -- and felt myself perfectly suited to the style and the ethos. I still feel that way today. Enjoyed Birnbach's more recent follow-up, "True Prep," but it wasn't nearly the same lightning-in-a-bottle instant classic.

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  25. An enjoyable complement to TOPH is the fun book TIPSY IN MADRAS: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO 80s PREPPY DRINKING. Its "Selected Bibliography" is very relevant too.

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  26. My father (Horace Mann School ’56, Princeton ’60) once said to me “son, I’ll never be OUT of style because I was never IN style. Aesthetically, you could wear anything in the Preppy Handbook and walk comfortably in any of the towns on pg. 188, islands on pg. 207, or clubs on pg. 209. As this blog is a testament to, some things don’t change.

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  27. I remember reading TOPH shortly after graduating high school and being amused. There was finally a "definition" for many people around me. When I read that my VW Rabbit was "in", I thought oh dear I am going to be labeled as "one of them". By no means am I a card-carrying WASP or "prep". I am me. I am quite content as such. Cheers!

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  28. For those of us from the cultural and sartorial desert of Los Angeles, it provided guidlines for how to look civilized before we ventured north and discovered Cable Car Clothiers.

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  29. My son, a California boy, is only just out of college. When I asked him if college on the East Coast was any different than going to college on the West Coast (he transferred his junior year). He said it was much more formal. That people sort of dressed-up to go out on Friday nights. "So no surfer culture?" I asked. As someone who spent his first two years at college wearing only shorts (literally), he laughed for about twenty minutes. So, I think the more formal vibe (as translated into that book as "preppy") still exists. I would also say that although working from home destroyed Brooks Bros., it was on its last legs, which is a direct result of Silicon Valley culture where tee-shirts are as formal as it gets.

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  30. I was too young to be aware of the book when it first came out. I came across it for the first time when I found an old copy in our Episcopal Church's rectory basement (clean up day). I found the book very amusing, especially since I was wearing reds from Murray's, topsiders, an OCBD shirt and a Bermuda Race cap. As far as I could tell, the sensibility and humor aged well.

    Another similarly amusing read, for those of us with a certain life experience, is The WASP Cookbook by Alexandra "Ali" Wentworth. Ridiculous, but very, very familiar.

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  31. To paraphrase the great Steely Dan, way back when in 1980-81, my 8th and 9th Grade girlfriend, the daughter of an anthropology professor at our local state university, took the book as gospel and patterned herself accordingly. Even at the relatively callow age of 14 or 15, I thought she was missing something somewhere, and that the whole thing was kind of silly. Wasn't the book intended as something wryly tongue in cheek?

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

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  32. My cronies and I sniffed when the book first came out but of course we eventually read it and realized it was pitch perfect. We all thought, “Am I really such a type?” The answer was of course yes.

    Today, that type no longer exists. You can spot a few in the 40s just west of Grand Central Station in New York or in some of the older resorts in Maine. But sad to say most of the “schools, role models, stores and clothes, sports, etc.” are no longer the same. Birnbach’s sequel, True Prep, was a terrible book (unfunny) but it did catch this one truth.

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