The “Phenomenally Talented And Ferociously Competitive” Are Simply Not Our Kind Of People, Dear

by | Oct 7, 2010

“It’s a whole new Old World.” -Chip Kidd

The study of American subcultures is something I’ve long been fascinated with, for it touches on one of my other favorite themes—cultural geography.

Naturally, people gather in tribes and those tribes then link up in regional clusters to form a “nation” of sorts. One with a strong cultural identity and all the customs to maintain it. In America today there are many such “nations,” like the Redneck nation and the Hipster nation. Then there’s that tired cluster of Preps—an East Coast tribe of White Anglo Saxon Protestants that’s famously resistant to assimilation, or change of any sort.

Lots of famous writers have chronicled the ways of this “nation,” but from a tongue-in-cheek, self-help perspective, there’s no one quite like Lisa Birnbach. Birnbach wrote the 1980 best seller, The Official Preppy Handbook, and now 30 years on, she’s back with a follow-up book, True Prep, co-written by graphic designer Chip Kidd.

Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic took the time to read the book and review it.

Three decades later, the sequel, True Prep, by Birnbach and Chip Kidd, lacks the observational precision of the original. Whereas OPH was crammed with fine-grained analysis—defining, say, the subtle distinctions between Brooks Brothers (mainstream), J. Press (old guard), and Paul Stuart (urbane)—True Prep’ analysis seems vague and flabby. Whereas OPH’s preppies belonged to a distinct and inward-looking subculture, the preppies of True Prep, defined largely by what they buy and wear, are in many ways indistinguishable from fancily educated professionals.

Rather than demonstrating a failure of the authors’ powers, True Prep’s imprecision actually reflects the erosion of the distinctiveness of the subculture it attempts to reveal—an erosion engendered by the progress of capitalism and the attendant triumphs of meritocracy and consumer culture. The northeastern establishment has been absorbed by a broader national and international elite; that process has been under way since the late 19th century and, as True Prep inadvertently shows, it is all but complete today. Preppies’ best schools and universities, their professions, even their Park Avenue co-ops are now the province of the phenomenally talented and ferociously competitive—qualities seldom found among the tribe.

Interesting. The one thing Preps can’t stomach–new money–dilutes their stream and eventually washes them out to sea.