The last time I impulse-bought a book with “prep” in its title was this, and that turned out pretty well. So I couldn’t resist picking up True Prep: It’s a Whole New World the last time I was in a mass-market bookstore.
A few months ago as I was researching which madras fabrics to wear during which occasions, some searching showed the answers were in this old book called the Official Preppy Handbook. The Official Preppy Handbook was published in 1981 and detailed the fashion, social and lifestyle norms of a very specific subculture, alternately (sometimes derisively) called WASP or old-money or ivy league. Birnbach called it preppy and celebrates it in her books.
Despite the fact that it had been a bestseller for 65 weeks in 1980, finding a copy was difficult. The Official Preppy Handbook had been out of print for years, and sellers on Amazon were selling old copies for as much as $200. Demand for the old text had outstripped supply.
Enter True Prep published in 2010 by Knopf. It’s an updated version of that 1981 classic, with new sections on internet etiquette, cell phones and whatever has changed in the old money world in the past thirty years. Advice is given in blurb-length sections with pithy titles like “Just like family.” or “Uh-oh #4: Mummy is now a yogini/healer/shaman.”
The first sentence of “Just like family?” Your first hire: the cleaning lady.
While the book is an entertaining read and does give great advice at times—“the best fashion statement is no fashion statement”—the entire concept has two primary faults. First, it is difficult to celebrate a dominant white culture without seeming exclusionary at best and potentially elitist at worst. Second, while the book does a good job of highlighting old preppy fashion, it from time to time can turn into something of a shopping blog or series of advertisements.
Efforts to add multicultural people to the staged pictures used to break up the text on the page seem forced. After a lengthy section about which shore or resort town was most fitting for you, Birnbach includes a page on historically black shore destinations. However, she doesn’t really acknowledge why historically black shore destinations exist—the same white preppies that she celebrates were not inclusive in their own seaside towns. There are other examples of “tokenism”—like in the “Pantheon of Preps” the vast overwhelming majority are white. Although there are some inclusions of gay (and Jewish) notables (like Leonard Bernstein) it is always pointed out that the yare a minority.
And come on—I don’t need a two-page spread about every option in the Burberry trench coat line. It looked like a glossy ad in a fashion magazine, but in a (hardback) book I (foolishly) bought (at full price.)