| 1 comments ]

I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Birnbach, author of True Prep, in Toronto this past Tuesday, October 12th. It was an intimate little event at the Cole Haan store on Bloor Street West. Among other things, I was able to chat with Lisa about preppy fragrances (she posited Aramis as a possible successor to Eau Sauvage) and her appearance on The Colbert Report (he cautioned her to remember that "Stephen Colbert" attended Dartmouth, not Hampden-Sydney). I was thrilled when she complimented me on my watch (vintage, by Vantage, a Hamilton second line), and when the conversation turned to the disadvantages of Canadian autumn weather—which sadly all but necessitates the wearing of socks—I even earned a hug for proudly revealing my bare ankles in defiance of the 13°C (55°F) temperature. And as if that didn't make the event memorable enough, notice that the "To Do" list on the book's back jacket is dated October 12! (And yes, that's her handwriting in the picture at left.) I had a truly fantastic time.

And I can also report on the actual substance of the book, since I've finally finished reading it. First of all, if you were a fan of the original 1980 Official Preppy Handbook, True Prep certainly will not disappoint. It contains updated information on essential topics like schools, clubs, vacation destinations, and domestic employees, as well as new coverage of touchy subjects such as adoption, divorce, diversity, death, and scandal. However, if you're new to the whole "preppy" thing, in some ways I don't think True Prep makes quite as good an entrée as did the original OPH. I've heard at least one other person say that there's less explaining being done this time around, and I'm inclined to agree.

Unfortunately, nowhere is this more true than in the section on fashion and style. The original Handbook was invaluable for the excruciating detail with which it catalogued the necessary elements of the prep wardrobe, right down to the fiber content of shirts and the widths of ties and pant cuffs. The sequel, by contrast, paints the wardrobe section in rather broad strokes, with one notable (and welcome) exception being the section on polo shirt logos. I also found it helpful that the authors took the time to give their seal of approval to several brands not featured in the original, both expected (J.Crew, Vineyard Vines) and not (Hermès, Verdura). As for Ralph Lauren: they gave him an entire page to himself (pictured at right), and even apologized for not including the brand in the original!

One thing I found odd about the book is that, much as I've been given to understand that the original OPH was intended to be satirical and tongue-in-cheek, the promotional angle that's being taken for True Prep makes it seem as though it takes itself much more seriously. Sure, there are knowing winks here and there, but I really don't get any sense that the authors view their subject-matter with particular irreverence, or as anything approaching a joke. This makes the book more valuable as a social chronicle, but perhaps less valuable as a work of satire.

Now let's talk about the book's title. True Prep. The closest thing to an explanation within the book's pages is the introductory Manifesto (pictured at left). But this is really not what I imagined when I first heard the phrase "True Prep." To me, true prep would have to be more specific, more pedigreed, and more circumscribed than anything that this book espouses. As I mentioned in a previous entry, one has to question how "true" the prep is if anyone can be preppy. Like Mark Oppenheimer in Slate, I wondered what the difference was between truly being prep, and merely performing prep. To me, true prep would almost have to be inherited, "bred-in" if you will, and would definitely require immersion from birth. I feel like you almost certainly wouldn't qualify if you had ever tried to be preppy, if you were ever conscious of the question of whether or not something was preppy (of which I'm undoubtedly guilty).

The closest analog would be, I suppose, an accent. You can't just start speaking with an English accent halfway through your life. It's only authentic if you develop it naturally when you're young. You either have it or you don't. To cultivate it later in life—how can that be anything other than phony?

I don't know the answer to that question, but then, it's probably impossible to reconcile my conception of "true" prep with the authors'. They seem to posit two categories of prep identifiers: tangible (clothes, houses, vacations, schooling, leisure activities) and intangible (attitude, demeanour, discretion, manners). Neither is sufficient, and both are necessary. And it seems that the intangibles are probably the most important; you can't be preppy if you're a boor, no matter how picturesque your beach house or how salt-stained your Top-Siders. I think that to really live up to its name, the book should have spent more time on the intangibles. It does have an etiquette chapter, but that's only one out of twelve, and it's hardly the beefiest of them all.  But fortunately, you can do something to make up the difference: contact the bookstore of Hampden-Sydney College and order yourself a copy of To Manner Born, To Manners Bred: A Hip-Pocket Guide to Etiquette for the Hampden-Sydney Man. It costs only $4.95 plus shipping.

In the end, though, that's all just a lot of nitpicking. True Prep is a cracking fun read, and a truly enjoyable book. I'm very glad to have my own (autographed!!!) copy.

1 comments

The Preppy Princess said... @ October 15, 2010 at 12:04 PM

Love your review, much of it is spot-on. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!
tp

Post a Comment