There was a time, not too long ago, when the word "prep" actually meant something. The year, apparently, was 1980, and an entirely self-aware manual was devoted to dissecting the ins-and-outs of the flippantly luxurious upper-crust culture. The Official Preppy Handbook has since become a cultural touchstone, referenced cheekily by pundits who like to hearken back to the days when the preppy, square-jawed student was the bad guy in every John Hughes-inspired '80s movie. As the style went mainstream, the look has become "so entrenched, disseminated and adopted" that it's now nearly unrecognizable from its "original" incarnation.
Which makes the new, semi-ironic book True Prep—by Lisa Birnbach, one of the original manual's authors—a timely release. With the culture, style, and society having changed so much in the past three decades, she attempts redefine what, exactly, prep is and, more importantly, what it isn't. Critics appear to like the direction Birnbach takes with the pseudo-sequel.
- 'Preppy 2.0 Isn't a Caste System. It's a Value System.' observes Adam Tschorn at The Los Angeles Times. "The once-insular WASP nest has been busted open like a piñata," and with it, there's now room for gay preppies, black preppies and all sorts of folks who adhere to the "corduroy tent of prepdom." One of his favorite commandments in the book? The "High-heel rule: You must be able to run in them -- on cobblestones, on a dock -- in case of a spontaneous footrace."
- Don't Expect This Book to Skewer Snobbery cautions The New York Time's Janet Maslin. But if you are along for the ride, it's an enjoyable work filled with contradictions: "First Ms. Birnbach explains that job titles in the prep household have changed: the cook is now a chef, the chauffeur a driver. Then she writes about 'The Cook's Day Off' anyhow. She writes that oceans are preppier than lakes 'because they are natural and uncontrollable.' Three sentences later she writes that oceans are controlled: 'by jetties, the moon and the club's beach committee.'"
- 'In the 21st Century, Prepsterdom Is Pervasive' finds an amused Spencer Bailey at The Daily Beast. There are preps in every single demographic, and in the workforce too! "Gone are the prep-proof jobs of yore, such as the assistant editor, the media escort, or the fundraiser. 2010's post-recession economy calls for new preppy careers, some of which True Prep describes candidly. Sure, several classic routes remain: the alumni director ('for the good of your school'), senator ('for policy wonks'), ne'er-do-well ('Uncle Tony'), and ski bum ('self-evident'). But the book points out that there are growing fields as well: the serial entrepreneur, say, or the vineyard owner ('ultimate career move'). Not-for-profit jobs, in particular, are prep."
- This Time, the Handbook Is 'Too Knowing' explains Slate's Mark Oppenheimer. Make no mistake, the book does get a lot right in updating the original: "For example, it's absolutely true that the biggest innovation is prep style is 'fleece' fibers, like the ones in Patagonia clothing. Prep clothing used to be defined by natural fibers, but now the ultimate prep material is a synthetic." But the tone of the book appears, well, "both a sequel to the original and a slightly embarrassed commentary on it."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.