Tribal Yin and Yang: Boho vs Preppy

Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd
Julia Chaplin

Finding our “tribe” in a melting-pot country like the US can be difficult. With every option available, finding “your” people is often a relief. These tribes, peopled with members drawn to each other by some basic fundamental values, soon spawn off an entire way of living.

True Prep, the sequel to the now famous 80s book The Official Preppy Handbook, takes a look at modern preppy living. The Boho Manifesto is a remarkably similar book, focusing on neoboho (bohemian) living. Authored by dyed-in-the-wool lifer members of each tribe, these handbooks give a comprehensive overview of the boho and preppy lifestyles.

What are the base, fundamental cores of each of these tribes? Preppies revere tradition, stability and education. What was good enough for grandma is just fine for us – be it loafers and sweaters, or a tidy trust fun. Bohos are at the other end of the spectrum. They want adventure, freedom and experience. If it’s new, esoteric, edgy and environmentally friendly, they’re in.

Some of the topics covered in each book include:

Friends: Preppies often meet their life-long friends in school, and remain friends for the rest of their lives. For them, knowing someone has gone to a “good” school and knows a friend of a friend, gives them assurance and comfort. Bohos like to be on the move. Last names are immaterial and many people refer to their friends as “Kat from Banaroo,” or “Alyce from Ibiza and Ojai.” As many true bohos are fairly nomadic, they often bond to others in the tribe over shared experiences, such as being at Burning Man or having been to the same yoga retreat.

Clothing: Preppies like traditional, timeless styles built (and expected) to last for years. Their clothes may often appear dull and yet pricey, but they know full well their leather loafers will live a long, fruitful life first at work, then for puttering around on the weekends, and finally for refinishing the boat and washing the dog. Bohos like colorful, flashy and meaningful clothing. They made their bag from old jeans, their braided necklace was a gift from a shaman and their scarf is something they picked up at the market in Mali. Clothes should ideally be loose and comfortable to do hours of yoga in, or skin-tight and flashy, to show off your yoga, surfing and dancing-toned body.

Beliefs: While the original preps were WASPs (white Anglo-saxon Protestants), the modern prep may as likely be Jewish or Catholic. While they may not be fervent believers, the church or synagogue gives them more structure and ways to meet other preps, adding to their safety net of the familiar. Also, the best schools tend to be founded by religious institutions. Bohos tend to have more amorphous beliefs. Buddhism is a good starting point, but having your own guru or shaman, complete with meditation retreats in exotic locals, is preferred. Plenty of boho beliefs overlap with New Agers – for instance, belief in healing crystals. This is not surprising as both tribes have “descended” from the Hippies.

These handbooks cover plenty of other aspects of tribal living – income, favorite locals to live and travel to, notable members, mating and romance and much more.

The authors of both books are clearly entrenched and wholly familiar with their tribe. Yet, are also self-aware enough to know what they look like from the outside. They love their people and want to explain who and what they are to the world. They happily point out the finer nuances of being preppy or boho, while gently poking fun at some of the extremes. Both books are surprisingly good – both funny but also educational. There are plenty of fun sidebars, illustrations and and diagrams in both. Both are really enjoyable reads and worth reading back-to-back, for the comparison.