"Wake up, Muffy. We're back." So reads the tagline of the Official Preppy-Handbook follow-up, True Prep.
For her part, June Thomas, writing on Slate, certainly is. As an emigree, she says Lisa Birnbach's manual became a deadly-serious template for her new American existence. Well, to an extent. "I didn't crack the dress code right away," she writes. "I misunderstood the Handbook's endorsement of chamois shirts and purchased an orange fleece CPO shirt from the International Male catalog that made my hair stand on end, and I never learned to walk in duck boots."
Of course, within the hallowed walls of Ralph Lauren and in certain enclaves where crab-emboridered pants are sill de rigeur, unironic "prep" never died, but for the rest of us, the world moved on. Whit Stillman's hard-drinking proto-yupsters morphed into the fashionistas of Gossip Girl. James Spader got kind of creepy. And George Plimpton, a living link to prep-speach, died.
To the same people who mihgt have flocked to the trend a generation ago, it's become another hallmark of Reagan-era 80s decadence - referenced ironically, if at all. And the biggest proponents of traditional WASP chic, certainly hereabouts, are gay fashionistas, who wear rugby sweaters and top-siders with a chic elan never seen 20 years ago.
All this is probably why the new book hits a somewhat false note. The premise is the preppy in the modern age - its adaptation, if you will. Now the clothes are smaller and the Internet is invoked, but somehow the magic is gone. Not that it isn't a cute read, but it doesn't feel exactly...relevant. And then too, its attempts at inclusivity feel, at times, arbitrary: the author may name the Obamas "haute prep," but whether the landscape has changed that much is debatable. (Or not, I guess, if she's the arbiter.) As the New York Times's Janet Maslin wrote in her review of the book, "
True Prep" makes a point of flaunting the sexual, racial, ethnic and class diversity that were in short supply the first time around. And when Ms. Birnbach has to address anything tricky, she gets someone else to do it for her. (In a guest essay Edmund White calls Yale "definitely the gayest" Ivy.) Ms. Birnbach is best suited to the shopping guide and flagrant product plugs that are a large part of this book's raison d'être.
Perhaps part of the problem for the modern reader is that we've seen the original formula adapted so many times, from the Hipster Handbook to the Bohemian Manifesto. Now we're used to classifying and taxonomy in a way that was novel 25 years ago. Then too, to a degree the "Preppy" is a victim of its own success: as soon as the book came out, the genuine article slipped away and was replaced by this tongue-in-cheek monument to our perceptions. And even a sequel can't oust those.