From The Wall Street Journal:
G. Daniel Brown, a retired teacher in Saginaw, Mich., paid about $100 for a paperback not long ago. That is jaw-dropping considering that the volume, “The Official Preppy Handbook,” was published in 1980, retailed for $3.95 and is now out of print.
“It is worth every cent to have this little gem in my library,” says Brown, who describes his sartorial leanings as classic prep—heavy on Brooks Brothers Oxford shirts and suits.
Preppy style and the “old money aesthetic” have popped up again, like collars on polo shirts, and people are feeling inspired to revisit cable-knits, pearls and tennis-core fashion, even by those who never step on the court. In its 2023 fashion forecast, retail-styling company Stitch Fix heralded this year’s rise of “prep school fashion.”
That means new attention for “The Official Preppy Handbook,” which has a front-cover tagline saying, “Look, Muffy, a book for us.” The New York Times bestseller is a deadpan guide to preppies in their natural settings, including boarding schools, Ivy League quads and vacation colonies where summer is a verb.
Though intended as irreverent satire, “people used the book as a literal guidebook,” says Preppy Handbook author Lisa Birnbach.
Chloe Miner, a flight-school intern who lives in Jackson, Mich., is in her 20s and wasn’t around when the Preppy Handbook came out, but is fascinated with the lifestyle. She bought a copy on
Facebook Marketplace for about $100, and knows people who have paid more than $500. “That was the most I’ve ever paid for a book, but it’s a classic,” says Miner. “It’s a preppy must-have.”
She has been inspired to invest in Sperry Top-Siders and Ralph Lauren blazers. She imagines herself one day joining a country club and living on a lake—two Handbook-approved pursuits. “I’m in college and broke,” Miner says. “I can’t live that lifestyle at the moment. But someday.”
Birnbach pulled the book together in 12 weeks with a $7,500 advance and sold 2.3 million copies over 38 printings, the last one in 1986. She says there have been discussions of a reprint over the years, and it’s also been optioned for features and Broadway.
From 2000 to 2019, an average of 300 copies sold every year on eBay. Starting in 2019, that number jumped, with an average of 600 a year selling each year over the past four years, according to eBay spokeswoman Samantha Zola. Asking prices on eBay and elsewhere range from $80 for a used paperback to a $1,600 hardcover.
“We’re talking about a book that was published 43 years ago,” Birnbach says, “It’s a little nutty, right?”
Birnbach says she has noticed that when life seems particularly unstable, the Preppy Handbook is a comfort item, “as much as macaroni and cheese and chicken pot pie.”
Psychologist Clay Routledge says the book’s popularity fits perfectly with the science of nostalgia he has studied for two decades. In a recent survey he conducted about online culture, the majority of respondents wanted to go back to a time when everyone wasn’t so plugged in—“a time when Americans got along better.”
Matthew Longcore, who grew up in the preppy environs of Westport, Conn., runs the Preppy Handbook Fan Club, which includes more than 30,000 members across its social media groups. Longcore, who works at Yale University, says the surge in interest began during the pandemic.
“People just wanted something bright and cheery and colorful…that describes what a lot of prep culture is,” he says. “There is something sort of escapist and an element of idealism in it.” Today’s preppiness transcends its “old-money Waspy” reputation, he says, and “anyone can be preppy.”
The Preppy Handbook Fan Club delves into obvious terrains such as décor, vacations, and clothes, such as socks or no socks with the boat shoes? (The Preppy Handbook addressed ‘The Sock Controversy’ on page 138.)
Chad Briesacher, a general manager at a radio station in St. Charles, Mo., picked up a copy of the Preppy Handbook for about $40 and says the book’s emphasis on decorum appeals to him. “American society has lost all sense of occasion,” he says.
Briesacher encourages college kids he works with to present themselves better, rather than “wear hoodies year-round,” he says. He wears a tie and jacket to work, tweed in the winter and linen in the summer. The tie is always Brooks Brothers and he rotates through repp, regimental, dotted, and paisley. Since we’re in the warm months, he’s embracing pinks and greens. “A tennis or madras shirt with shorts and Top-Siders makes for good summer weekend wear,” he says.
On another Facebook group called “Preppy Life: ‘Look, Muffy, A Group for Us,’” fans post pictures of themselves sporting Lilly Pulitzer, sweaters from Trimingham’s of Bermuda, signet pinky rings, and debate the merits of tartans—Black Watch or Stewart: Discuss.
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One member, Jeff Hawley, chimed in about the Handbook: “I will admit I bought one on Amazon for $70 fairly recently.”
Hawley, of Hilton Head, S.C., works at a retirement community and says the book brings him back to his college days. His favorite part is the essay on transforming one’s dorm room with a “sextant used by Daddy in the ’53 Bermuda Race,” a map of Nantucket, and a clamshell ashtray from home (“Mummy won’t miss it.”).