Do you by any chance remember The Official Preppy Handbook? I do. I own a copy. It was published in 1980 (retailed in paperback for $3.95) and was probably ahead of the curve, getting out there before “preppy” officially became part of the lexicon and something of a punchline in the mid-to-late 80s. Essentially, it’s a humorous book, of course, but it also served as a kind of a road map for how to be prep, even if you weren’t born into the lifestyle and felt so inclined. The introduction states that, “Preppies don’t have to be rich, Caucasian, frequenters of Bermuda or ace tennis players.” The book has a certain something in common with today’s Gossip Girl and makes you think a bit more deeply about Gwyneth Paltrow, Izod and Ivy League schools.
It also makes me think about pink and green, a color combo I still associate with Prep, turtlenecks with repeating patterns of tiny whales spouting water or apples, wool blazers and movies like St. Elmo’s Fire. Ah, good times.
I admit I’m curious about how much from the book can be applied to today’s world. Has the landscape changed so much that Prep is no longer a viable lifestyle? Because Prep, especially the look, is devoid of sex, and we all know how much sex sells today. And there’s no mention, naturally, of how to incorporate technology. This was before car phones were even much of an option, never mind cell phones, texting, the entire Internet, the social media craze, etc. etc. We still see hints of the 1970s and 80s Preppy lifestyle everywhere, but how would the world handle a full-on Prep throw-back? Or even someone who adopted just a few hints of the lifestyle at say… 36?
I’ll start with some of the lessons in Chapter 1: Rights of the Birthright. Since my childhood has come and gone, the most I can do here is 1) look for ways I was Prep without even knowing it, thus earning some Prep cred and 2) plan for my unborn, unplanned-for children, so that I’m ready with the right resources to enable them to be as Prep as possible.
Nicknames are key. I’ve always wanted a preppy nickname. A nickname that has nothing whatsoever to do with my given name. Growing up, my nickname was “Becky.” Not only does this conjure images of Tom Sawyer, bales of hay and plaid aprons, it’s just a shortened form of “Rebecca.” Boring! Why couldn’t my family have called me Topsy? My sister could have been Mopsy! No one would ever have forgotten us in northeastern Wisconsin.
The handbook says a nickname, “bespeaks a certain In-ness and inaccessibility to outsiders. It’s like being tapped for a secret society, minus the degrading rituals.” Right on! If it’s not too late, I’ll take on a nickname now.
The 12 most popular Prep nicknames for girls are: Muffy, Missy, Buffy, Bitsy, Bootsy, Bunny (I would love to have the nickname Bunny!), Kiki (there was a Kiki at my high school and I always secretly found it very charming), Tiffy, Topsy, Cuffy, Corkie and Molly.
The 12 most popular Prep nicknames for boys are: Skip, Chip, Kip, Trip, Bif, Bunny (only in high society), Bink, Van, Win, Wog, Rocky, Jock
Dressing A Young Prep. After a Prep child earns a nickname, they need to be dressed for the part. Curiously enough, I actually had more in common with preppy children in the fashion department than I thought. Here’s what is stressed for girls:
Short hair until she’s 10 and can take care of it herself (check, except extend that short hair period to about 15, when I finally stopped abusing hair spray and mousse and discovered that hair was meant to be soft), dress bought at Women’s Exchange with hand smocking done by nuns and deep hems (check, my mom sewed a lot of my clothes when I was small), no jewelry; tacky on children (well, no check, I was a jewelry fiend from the time I was about 5), Steiff bear named “Teddy,” (check, generic bear named “Teddy”), white cotton socks, always plain (check), oxfords that provide support for growing feet (check, Hush Puppies).
‘The Home Environment. According to the book, homes should be Not Decorated but everything should work together. Everything is old, antique, but not treated like museum pieces. Everything gets used, as in, there’s no set of china just for company. Think understatement, classic, handsome, patina, needlepointed-to-death. This means no protectors on anything, no wall-to-wall carpeting, no abstract art, no chrome and glass, no wood paneling or dishes of candy. You can have dust but no dirt. And if you can find things with ducks on them – wastebaskets, prints, glasses, needlepoint pillows – all the better. Apparently the duck is the most beloved totem of Preps.
Again, curiously, my father loved the duck motif when I was growing up but he was certainly no Prep. He loved to shoot ducks and maybe that’s why he loved looking at them. We had duck printed wallpaper and many decoys and wood carvings around the house. We also had some prints! Alas, my parents were big believers in wall-to-wall carpeting and, at least before the big remodel in the mid-to-late 80s, wood paneling. And dishes of candy were big with everyone in my family. So, we fail the Prep Decor Test.
One more thing about the Duck Motif. The book gives out resources on where to buy duck stuff. It names the mail-order catalog Gokeys out of St. Paul, Minnesota. As I’m in Minneapolis, I was curious as to whether Gokeys has survived the times. Some sleuthing determined that Orvis (also mentioned in the book) bought Gokeys in 1990 and closed the St. Paul store in 1992. Bummer. At least you can always fall back on the Audubon Society. And a quick survey of the Orvis site reveals an incredibly Preppy array of items to purchase online (if a bit heavy on knick knacks but low on the duck motif scale), including some lovely dog Christmas tree ornaments.
Careful which one you buy, though. Next post I’ll discuss the Preppy-approved dog breeds!