In a blog interview posted not long before the publication of True Prep: It's a Whole New Old World, Lisa Birnbach explained how, all those decades ago, her publishers wanted the book that became The Official Preppy Handbook to focus solely on clothing and accessories, and be titled "The Preppy Catalog." She argued, she said, that prep clothing couldn't be adequately or accurately described without the full context of preppy lifestyle, history, and worldview ... and thus "The Official Preppy Handbook," in all its satirical but affectionate beauty, was born.
Three-plus decades later, Jeffrey Banks and Doria de La Chapelle have finally given us that "Preppy Catalog" the original publishers wanted. It wasn't worth the wait.
The first several chapters are a whirlwind bus tour of the history of preppy dress, hitting all the requisite educational and literary sights and digging a few interesting photos out of the archive, but adding very little to what anyone who has a real interest in this already knows. Indeed, there is considerable debate in some circles about the extent to which "preppy" and "Ivy" overlap. Our authors don't seem to know or care: as the subtitle shows, they regard them as synonyms.
By far the most disappointing part of this book, however, is the final two chapters, when history is set aside and prep-as-she-is-lived-today is supposedly reviewed. An appendix lists a dozen or so "online prep" blogs, and there are probably a hundred more preppy-themed pages on Tumblr alone, which the authors could usefully have harvested to give us photos and stories of interesting people doing interesting things with classic preppy and Ivy ingredients. Instead, they prove the extent to which "preppy" really has become a commodity by defining modern prep solely through the work of mass-market fashion designers, advertising photographers, and a handful of celebrities. Every designer who ever buttoned down a collar seems to be name-dropped (author Jeffrey Banks has high praise for designer Jeffrey Banks), and a discouragingly huge percentage of the photos come from Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger advertising spreads.
On the whole, the authors' answer to the subtitular topic of "cultivating Ivy Style" would seem to begin and end with: Buy Ralph Lauren. Some people worry that the Internet is making books obsolete. "Preppy" is a case where the Internet makes a book unnecessary and irrelevant.