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Book Review: Seven Sisters Style

Book Review: Seven Sisters Style

Rebecca C. Tuite, Seven Sisters Style, Rizzoli, $35, 144 pp., April 2014

Imagine being a young college woman in the 1930s, attending one of America’s prestigious Seven Sisters schools and facing the dilemma of a mundane closet of meek violet and rose-sprigged dresses and scratchy somber wool separates. This very wardrobe and the audible sigh elicited from the young miss who, by the way, beat a lot of odds to make it to college at all, certainly didn’t align with the vibrant spiritedness felt inside. But it was that very mindset that launched the all-American Preppy Look, a buoyant style so enduring that it still hasn’t disappeared from the vernacular of today’s 21st century fashion world. And there was no better place to birth this animated look than from the first women-only colleges, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Wellesley, Barnard, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, and Smith — institutions purposely created to be what the great Ivy League schools were to young men: elite bastions of exclusivity and intelligence.

Rebecca Tuite’s Seven Sisters Style is both a nostalgic picture book and a great read. Loaded with sepia, black and white, and colored photographs, Tuite takes us on a chronological romp of college fashions stretching to the doorstep of today’s “boyfriend” styles and includes the 1970’s Love Story-era when Ali MacGraw’s Jenny Cavalleri tossed a Harvard striped scarf under her camel coat’s popped collar.  Tuite tells us with her engaging text that the style is still evolving and delineates how the Seven Sisters influenced both Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren, whose runway collections fit right in with contemporary collegiate trendsetters. What it is not, is a twin to The Official Preppy Handbook, the tongue-in-cheek 1980’s guidebook for the dabblers. It’s a serious study peppered with playful wisdom on how the Seven Sisters look began and how it’s still shaping today’s easy-going American style. But, the tips for incorporating the look are there just the same — it may have you rifling through trunks and closets in search of pearl circle pins for your denim jacket!

Tuite studied at Vassar as an undergraduate, on a year-long study abroad program, and fell in love with the college's history, but also the curious way that "Vassar Girls" had come to exist in popular culture and imagination.  Her master’s degree project on "the 1950s 'Vassar Girl'” had her interviewing hundreds of Vassar women from the 1950s and unpacking their experiences alongside the mythical “Vassar Girl,” cultivated in 1950’s film and literature. Tuite experienced another thrill when she had the opportunity to meet, email and speak on the phone with some of the women featured in the very magazines she poured over in the Seven Sisters’ archives. These “college models” delighted her and most especially, enhanced her research by offering details about the photoshoots, such as the clothes these models wore and how they were fitted.  This all led to a broader understanding of the magazines’ motivation and intent which was to highlight the style’s evolving template to young college women everywhere.

History has proven that when women put their heads together without the outside influence of the opposite sex, interesting things happen.

History has proven that when women put their heads together without the outside influence of the opposite sex, interesting things happen. Consider the women’s movement, Planned Parenthood and the dress reform movement of the 19th century and a parallel can be drawn with how the Seven Sisters style emerged from a group of young females who, in this case, deemed it was time for a minor fashion revolution of their own. Out went chaste dresses with lace trim, serviceable brown leather tie shoes, and gloomy Melton wool coats and in came ensembles mooched straight from the boys. Borrowed-from-brother shirttails dangled in the face of a tucked-in world along with Daddy’s coon coat from his own college days. One can almost imagine dormitory closets and hallways opening up to exciting fresh ideas and approaches in presenting oneself, accomplished amidst the privileged safety of all-girl campuses. Seven Sisters style was an original movement whose time had come after the grimness of the Great War and the Depression years. The undergraduates’ rejection of those fussy florals was a blithe line drawn in the sand between the austerity of hard times and the promise of a bright future, where women hopefully might actually be able to do, act, and dress anyway they wanted to.

In addition to new ways of wearing shirts and coats, the Seven Sisters collegians wore saddle shoes, blue jeans (rolled up like a farmer’s son’s hand-me-down), and the masculine bespoke blazer. But Seven Sisters style borrowed from mother too, who contributed her cashmere cardigan — only now it was worn backwards with the buttons fetchingly rippling down trim backs. And, according to the book, there were many other feminine touches in the style as well, including classic jewelry which could easily be absconded from Granny’s jewel box, such as circle pins and brooches which looked especially alluring on crew-neck sweaters in the classroom. These trinkets, along with charm bracelets and pearl necklaces served to feminize an at-times, whimsically careless and almost unisex look.

One of the most fascinating concepts explored in Seven Sisters Style is how the look became so accessible to the masses especially since, according to Tuite in her book, the students wearing the style were the best advertisements for it.  And although some of the young women’s choices often shocked the folks back home, especially that ingenious blending of both masculine and feminine attire, it became clear that the core of the style — denim, men’s shirts, and inexpensive basics from the Army and Navy stores — was here to stay. Collegiate parents may have dropped their beloved first-born daughter off at the college gate in a tidy suit, coat, hat, and gloves but she came home at Thanksgiving in baggy denim overalls and Ivy League-inspired ladies letterman sweaters.

Despite Tuite’s assertion of how the style was broadcast, a favorite chapter of the book is “Selling the Seven Sisters Look,” about the opening of the “college shop” to bring the look to the masses. Tuite gives us an education of retailers supporting the needs of the unfolding college trends. She uses such descriptive language that one can actually imagine stepping inside a college shop and being assaulted with jukebox music, in-store fashion shows, and trays of crisp crudités such as carrots and celery sticks, for the waist conscious college set. The scene is reminiscent of the old-style Main Street clothing shops with attentive and knowledgeable saleswomen and personal service but some of these shops popped up in mainline department stores as well, so pervasive was the look. Imagine holding court in one such “shop” on a Saturday afternoon, friends in tow, selecting the perfect dress for next week’s formal. Everything, even party dresses were given that Seven Sisters look with sweetheart necklines and full skirts — a far cry from Mother’s dainty lace dance dresses.

Through the distinctive and idiosyncratic Seven Sisters style, America’s college women came to popularize a casual, preppy, and fresh approach that instantly exerted its influence straight to America’s suburban backyard lifestyle. Many a mother, as far-reaching as the 1960’s, donned wool plaid Bermuda shorts, button-down shirts, and burnished leather penny loafers for the afternoon carpool run. Their chic élan was an echo from the lifting of traditional formalities in dress that originated back at the Seven Sisters colleges.

Now known as the preppy look, the impact of the Seven Sister’s style is still evident today.

Now known as the preppy look, the impact of the Seven Sister’s style is still evident today. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw embraced it with tartan mini-skirts with thigh-high wool socks. Gossip Girls’ Blair and Serena, twisted their standard-issue plaid uniforms into prepster caricatures with headbands buried in messy hair, knee socks with stilettos, and those endless shirt tails flapping under oversized boyfriend sweaters. The look has cast a wide swath of influence which includes even glamorous red-carpet wear: crisp white shirts tied at the waist of shimmering taffeta skirts or tweedy plaid sleeveless jumpers with sequins. It’s an enduring look with long tentacles all started by the innovative young women of the sister colleges who wanted a look that mirrored the pure joy of being young in their first far-from-home environment. And one needs only to go as far as the local mall to the find elements that make up the basis of the style. J. Crew is one global purveyor that has built its premise on a strong, preppy, laid-back, straight-from-your-boyfriend’s-closet look. Again, feminizing it all with jewelry, this time with the bold and ubiquitous “statement necklace.” An even more casual version of the style can be culled from the racks of Gap and Tommy Hilfiger, whose signature red, white, and blue trimmed polo shirts look surprisingly “Seven Sisters” with tailored khakis.

Tuite’s research was extensive, visiting each of the Seven Sisters special collections and archives and viewing everything from student rule handbooks, to photographs, to garments, to student letters and diaries. She states, that “without (this research), it would have been impossible to understand the ways in which students developed their own sartorial trends and patterns.” She was also thrilled to include direct quotes in Seven Sisters Style from participating designers, such as Tommy Hilfiger.

The book is a captivating mixture of both text and photos which are outlined in a multi-faceted line-up of chapters that lay out the look up to and including, the last section, “A Well-Bred Tradition Comes Full Circle.” It is certainly a nostalgic look-back for any Seven Sisters alum but it’s also an inspiring fashion book that gives the reader the opportunity to see the origins of today’s casual chic. Both the color and black and white photos are so filled with details, including colorful college banners pinned to dormitory walls, that the feeling extracted is that you have stepped into a picture that perfectly blends the decades together and ends the proverbial separation of Then and Now.

Reading Seven Sisters Style, there is a sense that the look is still so modern, so fresh - showing its relevance today in lime-green suede penny loafers for spring or classic wool blazers brought forward with a smattering of sequins. It’s amazing that the singular and special style of the Seven Sister colleges may have begun with that longing sigh into a starry brainiac’s 1930s college closet, but it evolved into an ever-morphing, never-ending look that keeps getting better with every decade that passes.

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