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Christian Chensvold

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Preppy Evangelist: The Lisa Birnbach Interview

Posted: 04/29/2010 6:13 pm

The following is an interview with Lisa Birnbach, author of the 1980 best seller The Official Preppy Handbook and its sequel, True Prep, due out in September. Birnbach discusses both books and their relation to an ever-changing American landscape.

CC: How did the new book come about?

LB: It came about when I met Chip Kidd. In the back of my mind there was always the possibility that I would revisit The Preppy Handbook. But it's a very self-contained manual that didn't really require updating, particularly as we said that nothing changes.

Chip came up in Facebook as a possible new friend, and I thought, "Oh, there's that talented designer. I wonder if he'll accept me?" Well I got an email back from him saying , "Is this really Lisa Birnbach? I've always wanted to meet you." So we had lunch last May, and in the third hour he started to tell me how much online life there is dedicated to or inspired by the "Preppy Handbook," none of which I was aware of. Somehow we started talking about a new book together, and here we are.

CC: How would you summarize what has happened to prepdom in the last 30 years?

LB: Polar fleece. Thirty years ago, not only did I never wear synthetics, I traveled to all 50 states saying, "No unnatural fiber has ever touched my body." Now I have children that have not known a world in which there was anything but fleece. They wear recycled water bottles all day. And I embrace this synthetic, and like it or not it's an accepted part of our sartorial vocabulary.

But the reason for this book is that the world has changed more profoundly than we could have thought 30 years ago. The group of people calling themselves preppies, or who want to be preppies, or who like preppies, are certainly more inclusive and less exclusive. People thought I was brilliant 30 years ago because The Preppy Handbook kind of predicted conservative backlash. Well I don't think I deserve credit for predicting that, but whatever gift of intuition I may have, I never could have predicted portable telephones, the Internet, the loss of privacy, and the way people interact.


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CC: The '80s are considered a pretty preppy, clean-cut and Republican decade, especially compared to the '70s and '90s. How much of what came after the OPH do you think you influenced? A few years later Hollywood makes the movie Making the Grade, Ralph Lauren grows his empire -- to what degree do you think you set the zeitgeist into motion?

LB: I really don't know. That's a great question. I'm thinking... the silence you hear is my brain trying to work.

I think it's a very fine line between delineating a trend and creating one. This world had never been explained before, except in an oral tradition between generations of preppy families. I think that decoding something for the first time is something of an evangelical task, because in a way you're explaining and perhaps the enthusiasm for the job sounds like a conversion process. This is why we wear Top-Siders, so buy Top-Siders!

I think the first book did take a more evangelical tone than I'm taking now, and I did dress very prepped to the max in a way that I don't dress now, because I was trying to make a point: Are your eyes hurting because of what I'm wearing? Good!

One of the most frequent questions I was asked 30 years ago was, "Where did you find people who look like this?" And I'd say, "These are my friends and my family." We must've looked like freaks to people who had never seen a hacking jacket or wide-wale corduroys with lobsters embroidered on them. But how much of that moved the country in that direction, I don't know. Certainly items that were photographed -- like the Norwegian Sweater from LL Bean -- did a huge business, something unprecedented in the history of that company, and they certainly think it was because of The Preppy Handbook.

CC: One of the things that's changed since 1980 is the commodification and parody of preppy -- as in the Smirnoff "Tea Partay" commercial. In the OPH you're describing a certain Northeastern upper middle class tribe or caste that was largely hidden from the general public. But in the last 30 years preppy has become so mainstream as a fashion style. Is there such a thing as authentic preppy anymore? And what is the significance of the new book's title "True Prep"?

LB: The first book was a big giant reveal of a private tribe. There was a little bit of discomfort with the code being shared. I totally get that, but so be it. There wasn't a lock and key on it. In every city I visited, I heard, "Oh, I had the idea to do this book." It was a tempting Baedecker to create. And even when I was first working with Workman Publishing, they wanted to call it the "Preppy Catalogue," and to be just about stuff and clothes. But there was no good way of explaining stuff and clothes without explaining context and worldview.

Is there a difference between someone wearing a polo shirt, khakis and a belt, and a preppy who went to St. Paul's who's wearing the same clothes? Sure there is, but it doesn't fit the 21st century to keep people out. I can understand why someone from a certain restricted population might not want to share, but that's really passé. Also, while booksellers or the Library of Congress may classify both these books as humor, I'd say they're both nonfiction books full of information that are told in a humorous voice.

CC: Which leads me to this: In discussion of the OPH on blogs and message boards, people seem to fall into two camps. Perhaps because they work in fields like finance and probably didn't do too well in their humanities courses, they're not very sensitive to textual nuance. So they either take the book literally -- which in a sense it can be taken, if it's accurate -- or they dismissively say it's a "satire," as if therefore the book does not portray something real. But there is certainly a middle ground, for in order for something to even qualify as satire it has to be scathingly accurate. What was your intention with the OPH tone-wise?

LB: The intention going in was a loving irreverence, and I don't think it could have worked another way. If it had been too straight it would have been obnoxious, and if it had been too irreverent it would have been sophomoric.

I should say it was a big struggle to come up with that knowing, breezy voice, but that was not as hard 30 years ago as a young person as it was to figure out, "OK, if this is the only secret guidebook to be written about this world, what goes in and what goes out?" That was more of a thicket to work through than the tone of voice. "Lovingly irreverent" says to me we're in it, but we have a foot out of it. Growing up in Manhattan made that possible for me. I think having a sense of humor is essential for getting through this. People have written subsequent handbooks, or online homages, and you can't hit the tone too hard. If it's too "do this, don't do that," there's no fun in it. And if it's that faux-lockjaw tone of voice that a lot of people write in for TV and movies -- you know, the stuck-up rich person -- that's not who we are. That gets tiresome very quickly.

CC: How did The Official Preppy Handbook come about?

LB: People may not believe this, though it's not that incredible, but I wrote the book when I was 21. I didn't write all of it, but I lead it, produced it, found the models and the clothes, and worked with the illustrator. Then I was the face of the book, and stayed in a sort of arrested development talking about it on a media tour, and then college lecture tour -- I think I was on tour for three years. It was endless, and kind of tiring after a while. But after those few years, I didn't go back and read this book -- why would I? I was doing new things. I only started to read it this year, and I cannot get over it. It's intimidating: That authority that I wielded at 21 I don't even wield now. When I tell my kids I'm their authority figure they do spit-takes in my face.

CC: Was the book your idea, or was it in development with the publisher and you were hired for it?

LB: Yes, it was in development at Workman, and they had approached a succession of mostly humor writers. When I was asked to do it, I was a staff writer at The Village Voice, where I'd wear a black Lacoste to show I was private school but still "downtown."

When I met with Workman, they gave me two days to make my decision, and it required me to quit a job I really liked. If I said no, Workman was going to abandon their plans, because they had something like 30 turn-downs from writers who felt there wasn't a whole book in it.

But like all of us -- including you and all these bloggers I've discovered -- if you care about prepdom, you have a kind of passionate proprietary feeling like, "No one knows it like I know it, or no one knows about this arcane business of collars and cuffs and monograms," so I did it. But I was in agony for those 48 hours. I thought, "When this book doesn't sell, I'm going to be sorry I don't have a job at The Village Voice anymore."

CC: One of the conundrums in the discussion of legit versus ersatz prep -- or those who are born to it and those who are converted -- is the notion of authenticity, especially as it pertains to style. On the one hand if the guy born to it says, "This is the way I grew up dressing," he can claim a kind of legitimacy, but it certainly shows a terrible lack of independence and imagination to dress the same as everyone around him. This sort of makes the newcomer who's genuinely drawn to this traditional American style look a little better in comparison. What are your thoughts on this?

LB: This is a really great point. The lack of imagination is a true signature of a preppy. It's really important to have no imagination. That's why we still summer in the places we've always summered, and why we dress the same way. You've got it. There's a kind of laziness. Lack of imagination is one of the things we're best at.

But secondly, authenticity is communicated in a lot of ways, such as an attitude of disregard. Someone who's wearing a pristine, pressed, tucked-in and spotless shirt -- that's one version. And the one with the ketchup stain is the other version. And the one with the ketchup stain and the frayed collar -- now we're talking. Someone with a genuinely aged thing, whether it's a button-down shirt, khaki pants or taped-together loafers, that's one way to go. The less stylish, the better. The South, however, is in some ways the preppiest part of the country. And Southerners do wear their clothes more carefully.

CC: Historically, preppy style and the institutions that created it have been WASP, and yet you, the best-selling author of the OPH; Ralph Lauren, the biggest marketer of preppy style; and most of the Ivy League haberdashers, are Jewish. What perspective has this given you?

LB: This is something a lot of people want to talk about, and I've always thought, since I was a wee preppy, that being an outsider-insider was probably to my advantage for seeing this world for what it is. I think if you were a full insider who lived a restricted life, you wouldn't understand what it meant in the context of the real world. Furthermore, I always like to tell people that I'm happy to be a Jewish woman, and I don't feel like in any way I've compromised myself because I was raised in a different tradition. I'm going to get very serious for a second, but Jewish people didn't have an official homeland through most of history, so we've always had to assimilate. So I'm probably a good assimilator.

CC: So you're conscious of being an outsider?

LB: Oh, absolutely. And I'm a brunette. But when I did the first book, they didn't need to ask if I was Jewish, and I never felt I was the wrong person to write it. But because the expectations and stakes were so low in 1980, I had no designs on becoming a spokesperson for a way of life, or a look, or a socio-economic category. But a lot of preppies are Jewish, and I really feel that with True Prep we've become very democratic. There are sections on gay, black and Muslim preppies, and an open invitation, if not to join all preppies, to at least join me if you want.

CC: The Preppy Handbook includes a section on values such as grace, discipline and civic mindedness, that are among the best things bequeathed to America by the WASP establishment. But what place do these values hold in what in many ways feels a gaudy and valueless age?

LB: This is probably the leitmotif of the whole book. This is a huge part of what True Prep is about, and why there is such keen interest in it five months before there's even a book to read: Because it's very hard to lead a nice, respectable, polite life. Everything in our culture heralds a public, naughty, aggressive life. And I'm just another person trying to find her own way through it, and little moments of civility and deliciousness in a world that's gone terribly awry, vulgar and gross. Oh, here's one: FCUK -- French Connection UK. Thanks for nothing. Who needs that? It's all so crass. Paris Hilton and little arm-candy dogs and big, fake boobs and reality TV.

CC: It's not a preppy era.

LB: Exactly, so it's not about our changing, it's about this crazy world that we are trying to navigate with poise and understatement. That's the point, and I'll be happy to make it on the book tour this fall, and somehow help try to restore some little good manners to this country.

CC: Sounds like this book is evangelical after all, just in a different way.

LB: Well, it is. I am a giver. But now the embargo begins: You're the last person I'm talking to.


Cross-posted from Ivy-Style.com.

 

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