The All American Preppy Look

The earliest students at America’s Seven Sisters colleges: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Radcliffe, Vassar, and Wellesley, were pioneers in more ways than one.  The young women who attended these elite institutions that were deemed the female equivalents of the men’s Ivy League schools were intellectual trailblazers, to be sure, but they also shouldered the task of defining collegiate dressing for American women. In her book, Seven Sisters Style, British fashion historian, Rebecca Tuite, examines the campus attire that evolved at these schools from the late 1800’s and throughout the 20th century, bringing their style influences full circle to the present day.  Through archival photographs, the author demonstrates how these college women became unintentional fashion trendsetters who laid the foundations of the American Preppy style.
Wellesley students,circa 1941

“The All American Preppy Look” is defined by Tuite as going “beyond the pink and green.”  It is a style that endures because it encompasses not only the wearing of certain types of clothing, but “a curious combination of spirit, attitude and relevance.”  Its origins were based on necessity and the ever-changing lifestyle of these young women as they headed into the 20th century.  The first Seven Sisters students arrived on campus armed with a simple, frugal wardrobe considered appropriate for young ladies of their day.  This included crinoline or hoop underskirts, day dresses and blouses with floor skimming skirts.  They were encouraged, by the administrations of their schools, to eschew experimentation with the latest fashions in favor of the classic, understated staples of dress that were viewed as synonymous with respectability and intelligence.  Tuite quotes Henry Fowle Durant, the founder of Wellesley College as saying “ One calico girl is worth two velvet girls.”

  Anna McCann, Wellesley ’54 in a 1954 edition of Holiday magazine

The 1890’s ushered in The Progressive Era (1890-1920) and attitudes gradually began to change regarding a woman’s ability to balance a first-rate education and athletic activity.  Crinoline skirts gave way to “more comfortable skirts, shirtwaists, blouses and jackets.”Before long these young women realized that their way of dress did not just reflect the activities that they participated in on campus, but also helped define them as being a part of a female collegiate community.  Tuite refers to a Wellesley student of the day who requested that her parents send her “blue eyeglasses,” simply because, “It is quite the thing for all collegians to wear eyeglasses….” At Vassar, “ bulky roll neck sweaters ‘the inconveniently manly ones that go over the head,’ as one student described them” became all the rage.

Peck & Peck ad 1956

The Seven Sisters students were also taking their cues from the men of the Ivy League, whose style of dress reflected different aspects of their collegiate lifestyle.  Their tailored, yet casual style, provided rich inspiration for their female counterparts.  However, they took a measured approach in their adaptation of menswear. According to Tuite, “ Seven Sisters women were all too aware that they could not dress exactly like men for fear of being perceived as radicals, …  As such, the Seven Sisters women often began to simply incorporate small pieces of menswear into their everyday dress…. Even when wearing a ‘mannish’ blouse or letterman, in almost every case, it was paired with a skirt.”  These pioneering young women sought to strike a balance between challenging tradition and maintaining their femininity, making it much easier for society to accept that these students who were accomplished in the classroom and on the athletic field were still “real American women.”

  Perry Ellis turns the Seven Sister’s classic sweater into a dress,
circa 1982

With the passage of time, acceptance gave way to admiration and imitation and the “campus classics” worn by the Seven Sisters found their way into mainstream society. Tuite cites Modern Knitting magazine’s 1916 promotion of patterns for “…seven different cardigans, each named after one of the Seven Sisters colleges (‘The Wellesley’, ‘The Barnard’, ‘ The Vassar’, etc.), each capturing the loose fit and collegiate look favored by the country’s most prominent sweater-wearing college girls.”  Fast forward to 1937, when Life Magazine ran a feature which included specific details of dressing like a Vassar girl. Tuite calls this “a turning point in the popular influence of Seven Sisters style.”  The Life article received so much attention that Macy’s soon announced it would sell all of the outfits pictured in the magazine. Thus, the Seven Sisters women gained official “style icon status.”

Jane Fonda, circa 1959

Tuite covers the next several decades, focusing on the versatile looks that have taken the Seven Sister’s classics from the classroom to the runway and even to the big screen.  She features period photos of students at work and at play, including some familiar faces (Ali MacGraw, Wellesley’60, Diane Sawyer, Wellesley’67, and Vassar alums, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda).  Tuite’s informative account of the history of “ la vie en prep” is best characterized by the author herself, who calls her subject matter “an enduring part of America’s social, cultural and style history.”

– Rhonda Erb (Wellesley Alumna)

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Rhonda Erb

Rhonda Erb writes about fashion, travel and lifestyle from a New Yorker’s perspective in Better Bets. A self-confessed Instagram addict, her work has also appeared in such publications as Runway Magazine. Follow her at: Instagram: @betterbets Twitter: @betterbetsny tumblr:

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