A lot can happen in 30 years. In 1980, Lisa Birnbach’s “Official Preppy Handbook” hit the bookstores (no Amazon back then). Even Birnbach herself probably did not foresee that the Handbook, a catalog of all things preppy, would go on to become an international bestseller, a cult favorite, and ultimately be called the “bible” of prepdom.
Fast forward 30 years, and this month marks the publication of the Handbook’s sequel, entitled “True Prep,” again by Birnbach, this time teamed up with designer Chip Kidd.
The 1980 jacket on the Handbook sported the line “Look, Muffy, a book for us.” Thirty years later, on the inside flap of the just-released “True Prep,” the tag line reads “Wake up Muffy, we’re back.”
But the marvelous thing about prep is that it never really went away.
Our names say a lot about us. Today, in this age of “unique” baby names, parents struggle to come up with special, individual names that will set their child apart. But in fact, many of them simply end up burdening their offspring with yet another unspellable variation on a name like Kylee, or Kyleigh, or perhaps Kailee.
Preps figured out the name thing a long time ago. Here is how it works. As a preppy, you get two names, a given name and a nickname. You get your given name at birth, naturally. You get your nickname within your family, some time during early childhood. Your given name is likely to be as traditional as an oxford shirt or a cashmere sweater. Think Charles, Roger, Brooke, Charlotte, etc. Your nickname can be chosen from the pantheon of preppy nicknames, or it can be a truly unique knockoff. Think Bif, Binky, Bip, Mopsy, etc.
The point is, with names, as with so many totems of fashion and design, preps have figured out how to have their cake and eat it too. As a prep, you can wear an expensive blue blazer with frayed chinos, or a Patagonia jacket with a string of pearls. It’s all about combining disparate elements that seem thrown together, but of course they aren’t. And, somehow, they work. So it is with preppy names. You can have a traditional name and a really silly name. And somehow, it just works. No wonder the practice has endured.
The time could not be more perfect for the resurgence of prep. It’s a return to the traditional, a return to manners, a return to a slightly more understated way of life. Where little things like names, and dress, and taste, actually do matter. After the greed-driven, individualistic, consumption-fueled decade that ended in a such a spectacular crash, perhaps there is nowhere else to go.
Our names say a lot about who we are, both as individuals and as a society. Suddenly, classic, traditional names are hotter than ever. A glance at the top ten names for girls and boys reveals names like Isabella, Emma, Olivia, and Sophia, and Ethan, Alexander, William, and Michael. Classics each and every one.
Whether or not the quintessential preppy names, like Chase, Parker, Brooke, and Sloane, will rise all the way to the top of the list is beside the point. The point is that a resurgence of sorts is under way. The American obsession with ever-stranger baby names seems to be petering out. Stepping in, to fill the void, might well be the preppy alternative – combining fun with tradition, frayed with classic, unique with timeless.
Baby names are a special kind of social barometer. They reflect our hope for the future. They speak volumes about where we think, or hope, we are going. The classic, timeless, yet playful tradition of preppy names seems poised for a renaissance. Muffy is back, and Kylee and Mylee may have to take a back seat for a while.
Author bio: Neil Street is co-publisher of Baby Names Garden.