Saturday, April 5, 2008

Prep Personae

Lisa Birnbach edited and co-wrote The Official Preppy Handbook in 1980, revealing the then-secretive traditions, mannerisms, etiquette, and dress code of Lacoste-wearing old-money elites who prepped at Choate, summered at the Vineyard, and spent their golden years playing doubles at The Bath and Tennis Club in Palm Beach. The book lounged at number one on The New York Times bestseller list for 38 weeks and launched a fashion craze in the eighties that popularized everything from Sperry Top-Siders in land-locked locales to those persistently unflattering turtleneck dresses from Talbots, even in decidedly un-preppy places like Flint.

Today, the preppy look inexplicably reigns supreme once again. Kanye West favors pink and green argyle sweaters in concert; collar popping is still an embarrassing trend, and J. Crew has apparently become the official outfitter of the entire
unimaginative nation.

Here's an interview I conducted with Birnbach for one of my low-paying freelance assignments:

First question...GQ is pairing rep ties with rugby shirts this month, L.L. Bean now stocks an all-black version of their classic boat and tote bag, and Marc Ecko is selling a nice little kelly green sweater with a pink skull and crossbones on it. Did you ever think preppy fashion would come to this?

I’m not surprised. Preppy is a palate cleanser between trends. It’s the true American aesthetic. It all comes from sportswear or athletic gear and that’s what we do best in this country in terms of style. And to throw in a little skull and crossbones, oohhh, that’s kind of tricky and dangerous. Or to wear a black thing instead of a pastel thing, ahhhh, that’s kind of naughty. Preppies need to express themselves, too.

Carol Wallace, one of the co-authors of the preppy handbook, has written that she’s not exactly sure why it was so popular. What do you think?

There were a lot of secrets revealed in that book. Nobody had codified a whole worldview like that before. But to be glib, it was a very cheap laugh. It was $3.95. It looked yummy because it had a cover with all these different elements on it rather than one central graphic. It was easy to read; the chapters averaged two hundred words. And if you read the book and found it funny you were in on the joke. And if you read the book and took it seriously you were becoming a self-help reader.

I grew up in Flint, Michigan, in a house with aluminum siding, yet I'm ashamed to say I wore pink button-downs and ridiculous patchwork pants to high school in the eighties. How do you think true preppies feel about having their look usurped by the masses?

Some hereditary preppies were probably offended, but I think it also validated people who had been out of the loop sartorially. Preppy was never fashionable until the handbook came out. Suddenly, because you were sloppy and had tape on your shoes, you were actually being looked up to by people who never really thought you had any sex appeal.

One of the “Basic Body Types” in the preppy handbook is The Aesthete. (“Tortoise-shell glasses; absence of body hair; abundance of freckles.”) It seems like a precursor to the geek chic that emerged during the nineties in places like Silicon Valley.

Absolutely. Preppies are the forbearers of the people and the indie rock people. There would be no bands like The Eels without the preppy handbook.

I’ve read that Generation X by Douglas Copeland was pitched as a preppy handbook-style guide, but the publishers made him novelize it. What was the original vision for the preppy handbook?

The publishers wanted an illustration and photograph-heavy catalog of preppy stuff. It wasn’t going to unveil the life and philosophy behind it. But it didn’t seem feasible to just display preppy items like gifts at a wedding without explaining why they were important in the context. So it grew and became a more ambitious project.

Do you have copies laying around the house in Manhattan, sharing space with antique duck decoys and Brown University yearbooks?

I think there’s a few in a storage bin somewhere, but I didn’t have any at home for a long time. I finally had to go out and get a few copies. I bought them used on the internet.

You and your husband have three children. What do they make of The Official Preppy Handbook?

My kids are very proud of it because all their friends are very impressed that I wrote it. One girl even told my daughter that I was her idol.

The preppy handbook has numerous imitators profiling everyone from evangelicals to hipsters. If you were going to write another one today, what type of person would you cover?

I haven’t ruled it out, so I don’t think I want to talk about it.

This is a little awkward, but what are you wearing?

Right this minute? Why I’m wearing nothing.

Really? That doesn’t sound very preppy.

OK, I’m wearing a pair of blue jeans from Seven for All Mankind. And I’m wearing the darkest, purplist cotton piquet polo shirt that you have ever seen that I got in Europe.

What about shoes? Weejuns? Espadrilles? Tretorns?

I happen to be barefoot at the moment.

Alright, Last question: Do you...

And cotton underwear.

OK, I was trying to move on before we reached that point.

And no tattoos.

Got it. Now do you care to make a few predictions on what’s next in the world of fashion?

I’d like to pose a question rather than make a prediction. If the “It” bag every season is at the $1000 threshold, how high are they going to go in the next couple of years? Who really should be spending $1000 a season on a handbag? I look at all these young women carrying them and I think they’re not eating to afford this thing, or they’re going on heavy credit card debt, or it’s a copy. It seems like a bad use of resources if you’re in your twenties to spend that kind of dough on a purse.

Is this the notorious frugal gene of preppies coming out?

Oh, you got me.

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