That’s Not Who I Am: NY Times On The ’80s Preppy Craze

Our run of ’80s-themed posts continues thanks to the New York Times, which ran an essay on the OPH yesterday. Writer James Poniewozik links the book to a brief moment of transition in American history out of the dark ’70s and into the era of Reagan, “Dynasty,” Alex P. Keaton and popped polo collars.

Writes Poniewozik:

I never owned a copy. I’m not sure I ever saw it outside a mall bookstore. All the same, it was everywhere. I knew it secondhand, through its resonance in news features and on TV and in the pastel-and-khaki transformation of the popular kids. That was all I needed to know that I hated it and everything it stood for.

…“Handbook” was one of the first touchstones of an era that celebrated coveting, from the bubbly home tours of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to the upscale-aspiration of MTV’s early videos. It was O.K. to want stuff again. This was a shift with broad social and political implications, even if at the time, I saw those reflected mostly in my classmates with their dumb alligator shirts.

… In 1980, the “Handbook” was a fun lark. Read today, it’s an ambivalent document of a transitional moment, when the blue-jean populism of the 1970s was giving way to designer-jean materialism, eventually ushering in a capitalism more rapacious and untiring than the blue-blood leisure Birnbach’s prepsters aspired to. It reads especially quaint and wistful now that the cultural markers it delineates have been scrambled, with conservative self-described anti-elitist “deplorables” pledging fealty to a country-club owner.

… I didn’t know about any of those nuances at the time, just as I didn’t realize how much of the anti-snob comedy I loved — “Doonesbury,” “Animal House” — was in fact created by alumni of Yale and Harvard. I didn’t really understand the American class system that the “Handbook” described and that the mass-market preppy fad elided. I thought of my public-school classmates, buying boat shoes at the mall, as preppies. Had I read chapter six of the “Handbook,” about life in the suburbs, I would have known that “What Preppies don’t need are good public schools and a shopping mall.” (Ouch.)

When it came to prepdom, I didn’t know what the thing was. I just knew that being not that thing was key to being who I was.

Check out the piece here. If you get blocked by a paywall, use a different browser and make sure you’re logged out of Google. — CC

24 Comments on "That’s Not Who I Am: NY Times On The ’80s Preppy Craze"

  1. whiskeydent | August 7, 2019 at 2:25 pm |

    This guy takes himself and the OPH way too seriously. It was a parody, not the manifesto this idiot seems to think it was.

  2. Charlottesville | August 7, 2019 at 2:43 pm |

    Whiskeydent is right, of course, and I also note that reflexive recoil from perceived privilege gives off its own whiff of snobbery. At least I hope we can all agree that Animal House, cited approvingly in the article, was one of the best documentaries on college life ever made.

  3. The author says that back in the 80s he had a T-shirt that said “Anti Prep.” He was very prescient to predict the grunge era.

    Nowadays, prep suggest elitism and white privilege. Nobody does punk prep better these days than Ralph Lauren. If you go to the new arrivals section of you’ll see shirts and pants with graffiti scribbled all over them, grungy sweaters, and deconstructed jackets. It’s the 90s all over again.

  4. Greg Lauren deserves credit for the prep revival too. A while back, everyone thought he was crazy and labeled his fashion show a prep apocalypse.

    Now all those fashion editors are eating crow.

  5. As whiskeydent points out, the book was a satire. That it became a bible for so many is sad.

  6. whiskeydent | August 7, 2019 at 4:25 pm |

    I think it became an anti-bible that gave self-loathers someone else to hate. It’s quite all right to see yourself as an outsider, but it ain’t cool to use it as a battering ram on others not in your group. Get over yourself.

    Hell, I had a tee shirt that said “damn liberal” on the front. I wore it in Texas. In kicker bars. Besides crazy, what does that make me?

  7. MacMcConnell | August 7, 2019 at 4:51 pm |

    Prep hasn’t been elite since the late 50s.

  8. Tongue-in-cheek, yes. Ms. Birnbaum made all of the rounds at the time, and, if memory serves, even had segments on TV’s Real People and/or That’s Incredible, perhaps underscoring the tongue-in-cheek nature of her book. But my 9th Grade girlfriend, as my mother pointed out to me at the time, missed the point and took it for gospel. She was the youngest daughter of an Anthropology prof. at the local college, which became a university ’round about 1981 or ’82. Surely, there must be a conference paper, or even thesis in there somewhere.

    Best Regards,

  9. Old School Tie | August 7, 2019 at 4:54 pm |

    Definitely satirical, and as with all good satire there is more than a whiff of truth about it. A mirror in which to view oneself, albeit a mirror purloined from some carnival sideshow……

  10. elder prep | August 7, 2019 at 7:29 pm |

    Mr. Poniewozik was simply too young to understand the books message. It also was not a bible as much as a satorical and social guide to those who need guidence.

  11. Some of you obviously didn’t read the entire article because the author more or less admits that he initially misunderstood the satirical nature of the book.

  12. Ezra Cornell | August 7, 2019 at 7:50 pm |

    Read the article?!
    Who wants to do that when so many of the commentariat are so smart and already know that everyone else is wrong? Reading the article is wasting their valuable time, time they so kindly spend lecturing the rest of us about things we thought we knew. It’s so much more satisfying to just be outraged at how stupid everyone is “these days.”

  13. Ezra, you know the old saw about the pot calling the kettle black, well…

    Not for nuthin’ but I live in rural Idaho (CA transplant 25 years ago). Wearing prep/ivy/trad is very radical here in cowboy country. I was at an event this evening wearing a dark blue seersucker BB shirt with some old stone LLB khakis, Wigwam socks, and my navy blue Top-Siders. Dang, I felt like an outlaw. ;o) I know one person (in my Rotary club) who dresses similarly and that’s it. Most everyone else dresses American Slob. Satire or not, at least ol’ Lisa gave some style points to those who had no idea how to dress and thought Pitbulls were a breed worth owning.

  14. Ezra Cornell | August 8, 2019 at 1:03 am |

    Well at least something black has shown up here at WASP fantasy land! ;0)

  15. Some of my hall mates at college in 1980-81 were considering writing an “Official Proletarian Handbook” in response. In 1980, I transitioned from a Jesuit high school in the Bronx to an Episcopal college in rural Ohio and the OPH was quite enlightening and relevant.

  16. Fred Danton | August 8, 2019 at 9:28 am |

    TOPH provided me with an insight into a world that was entirely foreign to me.
    It introduced me to all-cotton clothing: something I had never thought about before.
    It introduced me to Lacoste polos which I immediately discovered were far superior to those offered by Lands’ End and L.L. Bean.
    It introdıced me to khakis and Brooks Brothers OCBDs.
    It introduced me to Bass Weejuns.
    I remain forever grateful for these recommendations which are as valid today as they were back then.
    I ignored most everything else in the book.

  17. In order for it to have been a satire, it would have only made sense to those readers who were themselves like the people described, or who knew people like those described. The book sold 2 million copies. My guess is that most of the 2 million purchasers belonged to neither of the above groups.

  18. Old Trad, correct, even though it was written as satire (according to what the author has repeatedly said over the years), it actually became a fashion bible because most people weren’t in on the joke.

  19. Matt Holman | August 8, 2019 at 11:15 pm |

    Thanks to the fact that it became a fashion bible, there was an increase in the number of well-dressed people.

  20. Zactly. I think there is a difference between ‘satire’ and tongue-in-cheek’ or ‘humorous’. Satire is meant to bite and the OPH did not. Like Mr. Danton, I was influenced by it and enjoyed it tremendously. Not ‘a Bible’ but a funny, clever firend.

  21. Madison Farnsworth | August 9, 2019 at 10:43 am |

    Preppies are notorious for their lack of a sense of humor. That is one more reason why we should take Ms. Birnbaum’s statement that TOPH was a satire with a grain of salt. As D.H. Lawrence put it, “never trust the teller, trust the tale”.

  22. Phil Healey | August 10, 2019 at 10:33 am |

    TOPH is still a reliable guidebook for people who want to escape from the world of hoodies, t-shirts, and jeans.

  23. For years I’ve read variations on the comment that it’s sad some people took the OPH too seriously and adopted it as a guidebook to life. And yet, I ask myself, if someone really did decide to model their whole life after the OPH, and I mean their entire life, would that be so bad? Let’s say they went to a New England boarding school, and from there to a “Little Ivy” college such as Williams or Amherst, then on to a career as a stockbroker. They take up golf and join a country club, buy a sailboat and join a yacht club, and live in a house in the suburbs with lots of mahogany and brass, hardwood floors, and oriental rugs. They paint the walls authentic Williamsburg green. They have a closet full of J. Press and L.L. Bean clothing. They donate to the alumni fund every year, and have a wife active in the Junior League. Is that really so horrible? I can think of far worse ways of going through one’s life.

  24. Thanks rojo for putting some perspective into the TOPH conversation.

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