When Lisa Birnbach’s “The Official Preppy Handbook” was published in 1980, the tongue-in-cheek “field guide” to preppy behaviors became a generational phenomenon, spending a year on the New York Times bestseller list and inspiring American fashion for decades to come.
Now Birnbach is back with “True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World,” an updated guide, written with Chip Kidd, to the polo-shirt wearing, gin-and-tonic drinking, Volvo-driving coterie, which looks quite a bit different than it did 30 years ago.
Birnbach, who is Jewish, spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the globalization of preppyhood, why materialism doesn’t go well with sweater sets and pearls, and giving speeches at country clubs once closed off to Jews.
Why did you decide to return to the subject?
Well prep has been coming back, with or without me. Fashion has been turning back this way, with a return to American sportswear, over the last year. I have seen it in magazines, and I have people calling me for comments. There was also a stealthy campaign to get me to update or re-release a new preppy something. Not quite like what Betty White got for “Saturday Night Live,” but it was there. As a giver, I decided to do it.
Who are today’s preppies?
The new preppy is anyone who wants to be, and not necessarily someone who is a WASP or Daughter of the American Revolution or something like that. Being preppy to me means you share certain aesthetics and values. And prep is inclusive now — there are Indian preppies, Muslim preppies, a lot of Black preppies, Jewish, Catholic, everything. Now, with globalization, it is all over the world.
Why do you think preppy style is back?
Well the best preppy clothes are the things you already have. So it is a way to stay frugal, and the absolute opposite of fast fashion. Thirty years ago I was at an event in Beverly Hills and I wore Bermuda shorts, a button-down, espadrilles, and some nice pearls. I looked like someone’s younger brother compared to everyone else. But I am not about fashion; preppies aren’t about fashion. Over the last decade Americans became crazy materialistic — the “Sex and the City” thing — and women will spend $1,000 on a handbag and then wear it for three months, literally burning money like a hobby. And there is so much branding, the big logos, the giants C’s, the giant DG’s — well this is the opposite.
As a Jew, what was it like being the authority on this culture that has WASP roots?
Well not only am I a Jewish woman, I am a very Jewish woman. So it is droll, I suppose, that I became a preppy authority. And particularly droll when I address a club that used to be restricted. I grew up in New York with one foot in Jewish life and one going to private school. I wore uniforms and curtsied during the week, and went to bar and bat mitzvahs on the weekend. But I think being an insider and outsider helps. If you are a total WASP, you probably can’t see the humor in it. And if you are totally on the outside you might get offended by it. But at halfway, you get a great perspective.
And I know a lot of Jews like me. It’s not some delicate balance; it is who we are. My rabbi gave a sermon about assimilation once, and he said that without it, the Jewish people never would of survived. We just reinvent ourselves wherever we go.