For as long as there have been preparatory schools, there have been preppy people. Admit it, everybody knows at least one. For most of the 20th century, those who identified with the preppy stereotype existed peacefully and received very little media attention of any kind. There were novels written about the preppy world, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Louis Auchincloss’ The Rector of Justin, but almost all such books were memories written by notable prep school alumni.
This changed, however, in 1980 when young journalist Lisa Birnbach published The Official Preppy Handbook, a literal handbook carefully detailing all things preppy. On the cover were the words “Look, Muffy. A book for us.” This work carefully detailed basic preppy elements such as which private schools and colleges to attend and which designer labels to wear. It even advised its readers where to spend their summers and what sort of dog breed to own. Co-authored by Jonathan Roberts, Carol McD. Wallace, and Mason Wiley, this book spent an impressive 38 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.
People still debate whether or not The Official Preppy Handbook is satire. Birnbach has given plenty of interviews, but she has remained fairly coy on the subject. We can’t say for sure if it should be considered satire, but we do know one thing; this little handbook helped inspire an entire generation. It made it ‘cool to be preppy.’ The decades that followed saw the release of films such as Dead Poets Society, School Ties, and The Emperor’s Club, which accurately depicted prep school life throughout the ages. Birnbach served on the Dead Poet’s Society set as a technical consultant.
A scene from ‘School Ties’. Look at all that prep! Image courtesy of HotTeaHotBooks.
Some of the bigger names in the fashion industry revived the preppy fad, as it led to a sharp spike in business for stores such as Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Lacoste and many others. One particular item that Birnbach played homage to in the handbook was the Norwegian Sweater from L.L. Bean, a now iconic item that she equates with being notorious with the preppy New England crowd. Her handbook’s popularity endured for so long that in 2010, Birnbach published a follow-up title True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World, which was available for sale exclusively at Brooks Brothers, one of the biggest names in preppy fashion.
A look inside “True Prep”.
Picking up exactly where her first work left off, this book opens with the phrase “Wake Up, Muffy. We’re back” It features article on topics such as choosing the right type of loafer and how to get even with country club rules. It even features preppy recipes and cocktails. Perhaps the best part, though, is the square on the first page, which states “This book was borrowed from ___ who prepped at ___ after being kicked out of ____. No need to return it-we got six of them at graduation.
Birnbach’s works are both entertaining and strangely informative. Whether or not Birnbach ever intended for her work to be taken seriously remain up for discussion, but we do know one thing; the power that one slim volume can have over an entire generation can surprise us. Whether you’re spending the summer at your family’s beach house on Cape Cod or your Christmas holiday skiing at Jackson Hole, Birnbach’s work has something for you.
Featured image courtesy of Eat Geek Play.