Author Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd
With the release of True Prep only four days away, here's a quick update for those who haven't been following the latest buzz on the book's Facebook page:

And finally, an item that's three months old, but obviously not very well-publicized, since I just stumbled across it the other day: publisher Knopf has posted an 11-page sample from the book on Slideshare. (Download the PDF version here.)

I found the piece in Slate to be the most interesting and insightful of the bunch. Like many, when I first heard about the book, I wondered about the significance of the title "True Prep." (What exactly is "true prep"? Presumably the book is going to tell us. But how do the authors know, anyway?) So I was intrigued when reviewer Mark Oppenheimer said:
It's clear that, at least as far as Birnbach and Kidd see it, the leavening earnestness is gone: It's all irony now. There are no true preps, to be both admired and needled—instead, we're all just performing prep.
This Obama-era preppiness (he is preppy, too, according to our authors, as is Michelle) is a problem, because the appeal of preppiness, indeed its very inclusivity, depends on an outward exclusivity. The club should require a little effort to join. If everyone who has ever gone to a private school is preppy, then ultimately prepdom is just about money, which actually places preppiness out of reach for most people.
The authors are far too careful to [not] make preppiness identical with money; they don't present McMansions as preppy, or cruise-ship vacations. But in trying to make prepdom accessible, Kidd and Birnbach have made it less desirable. It's noteworthy that the great prep designers, from J. Press to Louis Pearlstein to Ralph Lauren to André 3000, have been non-WASPs trying to master the code of the WASP; in mastering it, minorities continue to define it. (It is entirely unsurprising that this book is by a Jewish woman and a gay man.) But if they define prep too broadly, they diminish their own success.

This time around, I do not think that Birnbach and Kidd are being prescriptive so much as descriptive. That is, they may not be leading prep fashion so much as responding to it. After all, is there a cohesive prepdom any more?
True Prep is an enjoyable but maddening wake-up call that we are watching a culture unravel, one lambswool thread at a time. If we don't snap to attention, throw on our duckboots, thread the duck's-head insignia belt, leash up the English setter, have a Pimm's Cup, and figure out what this culture is, it will be gone.
I would have said that the concept of "true prep" did require some sense of exclusivity; that's what makes it desirable to be preppy. But to hear Oppenheimer tell it, the book seems to democratize prep to nearly the point of meaninglessness. Birnbach herself said, in a different interview with Amazon from the one linked above: "Everyone can be a preppy. There’s no barrier to it. You want it? We’ll let you in."

From what I can tell, there seem to be two elements to Birnbach's "true prep": the clothes, and the lifestyle (which includes important things like discretion and manners). I gather that the point is that both of these can be acquired at any time if one doesn't already possess them. And apparently you needn't have actually attended a prep school or "one of your corduroy-jacket elbow-patch colleges" (to borrow from Stephen Colbert) to be "truly" preppy. You can see this in an interview that Birnbach did for Ivy Style back in April:
IS: One of the things that’s changed since 1980 is the commodification and parody of preppy — as in the Smirnoff “Tea Partay” commercial. In the OPH you’re describing a certain Northeastern upper middle class tribe or caste that was largely hidden from the general public. But in the last 30 years preppy has become so mainstream as a fashion style. Is there such a thing as authentic preppy anymore? And what is the significance of the new book’s title “True Prep”?

LB: The first book was a big giant reveal of a private tribe. There was a little bit of discomfort with the code being shared. I totally get that, but so be it. There wasn’t a lock and key on it. In every city I visited, I heard, “Oh, I had the idea to do this book.” It was a tempting Baedecker to create. And even when I was first working with Workman Publishing, they wanted to call it the “Preppy Catalogue,” and to be just about stuff and clothes. But there was no good way of explaining stuff and clothes without explaining context and worldview.

Is there a difference between someone wearing a polo shirt, khakis and a belt, and a preppy who went to St. Paul’s who’s wearing the same clothes? Sure there is, but it doesn’t fit the 21st century to keep people out. I can understand why someone from a certain restricted population might not want to share, but that’s really passé.

Personally, I feel the tension. On the one hand, "preppy" is valuable to me because it connotes a certain exclusive, upper-class, privileged way of life that's highly desirable. But on the other hand, I have to recognize that I myself would not qualify if the strictures of "true prep" required education at certain institutions, or a certain family pedigree. And if you want to be preppy because you like these upper-class/exclusive connotations, it diminishes the value of being preppy if anybody can do it. It's a genuine case of "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

I'll reserve judgment till I've read the whole book. But for now, colour me concerned, and a bit confused.

UPDATE: Read my review of True Prep.


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