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Back to prep cool: Lisa Birnbach updates her preppy guide

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By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010

When Lisa Birnbach launched "The Official Preppy Handbook" in 1980, Washingtonians bought tweed jackets at Britches, and a 1225 on your SATs was enough to get into Georgetown. Preppies were only those who went to the right schools or were to the WASP manner born. Her book shared their subculture secrets: Their footwear, propensity for frayed cuffs and recipe for Bloodies. The prep code was cracked.

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Thirty years and 2.3 million copies later, Birnbach is back with "True Prep," an updated field guide to the preppy lifestyle in 2010. You know, things like rehab (the new boarding school) and texting (not at the dinner table). There's vital information on how to keep that sporty tan in an era when overexposure to the sun is frowned upon, without resorting to Snooki-type tanning salons.

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"The first book was about stuff. They wanted pictures of our cars, dogs and drinks," says Birnbach, 52. "This book is about the complications the 21st century has brought to nice people from nice families who wear nice clothes."

For example, the people in the White House. We've got two prepsters in chief, one a serial J. Crew shopper. "President Obama went to the private Punahou School in Hawaii. She went to Princeton, and they both went to Harvard Law," Birnbach says. "He smokes a little bit. And he chose to address a social problem by throwing a beer summit. That's probably the preppiest thing about him."

Last week, Birnbach came to D.C. to talk up "True Prep," on which she collaborated with designer Chip Kidd. At Georgetown's pastel shrine Vineyard Vines, 250 groupies clad in country-club best -- plus Mack, a Jack Russell in a plaid collar -- lined up. They politely sipped spiked Arnold Palmers while waiting for an audience with her. Many college students carried tattered copies of the original "OPH," as they like to call it, snagged from their parents; virtually all were in proper regalia, from pink polo shirts to needlepoint belts with oars. "I love preppy stuff," said Maya Bhalla-Ladd, 13, a student at National Cathedral School who heard about the book in an e-mail blast from Lilly Pulitzer.

The next morning at L.L. Bean in McLean (puh-leez don't refer to it as Tysons Corner), the crowd was smaller, but heavy with stalwarts who got up early and slipped into monogrammed Jack Rogers sandals to motor over from Staunton and Annapolis. "Are you wearing socks?" Birnbach asked J.C. McDonough, 48, from Baltimore. "My people don't wear socks."

McDonough hitched up his khakis to show bare ankles sticking out of his Alden loafers. "No ma'am," he said.

Close behind were sisters Erin and Sydney Simon, also from Baltimore. Birnbach gushed over their layers of prep bling, from Hermes belts to headbands to Tory Burch flip-flops -- and a 2010 prep status symbol, the Goyard tote. (Erin Simon, 30, pens the prep blog http://letthetidepullyourdreamsashore.blogspot.com.)

Whether you read Birnbach's books seriously or for laughs, you know that prep is central to American pop culture -- rappers wear Top-Siders and Twitter's overcapacity symbol is a whale. Then there's skater-prep: black eyeliner, some plaid and Vans. Thirty years after "OPH," there's a huge preppy blogosphere dominated by 20-somethings obsessed with Lilly Pulitzer, pearls and pink-and-green.

"True Prep" lists a Prep Pantheon. People such as Martha Stewart: "She fought with her girlfriend plus she wrote the cookbooks every prep has. And she did go to Barnard." And Ben Bradlee: "What a dreamboat. I've never met him but if I did, I'd curtsy."

Thanks to retailers like Ralph Lauren, anyone can be a preppy. But the look and lifestyle are evolving just as much as they're staying the same. The duck is no longer the most beloved of all prep totems (seeing it on wastebaskets may have been the deal-breaker), and musical tastes have broadened beyond Sinatra and Motown to include Vampire Weekend and Kanye West.

Birnbach herself, the product of Riverdale Country School in New York and Brown, is Jewish and grew up on Park Avenue. Daddy was in the diamond business. The family had a grand piano displaying family photos and a Connecticut country house dotted with decoys and portraits. She wears her grandmother's pearls and her own slightly pilled L.L. Bean cashmere sweaters.

Washington had a major role in the writing of "OPH." Birnbach snagged a summer internship here in 1977 and discovered that the prep-o-meter ran very high. "I found something here unlike anything I had seen anywhere else," Birnbach says. "Everyone had the attitude, 'I am on the make this summer, and if I don't wear my Wharton baseball cap and my Dartmouth running shorts when I go to the Social Safeway, I don't have a chance.' "

After "OPH," Birnbach hit the college lecture circuit, wrote more books and was a TV and radio correspondent. Now divorced, Birnbach lives in Manhattan with her three kids.

So why did she wait so long for the sequel? "Evidently, I ignored the advice of many close friends who urged me to write a new book about preppies, for the last 15 yrs or so," Birnbach tweeted last week. "Sorry!"

By the way, if you saved your "Official Preppy Handbook" in the attic, good for you: It's out of print. Copies in good condition, originally $3.95, are going for about $60 and up on Amazon and eBay.

As Granddaddy always said, there is no shame in used.


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