Thursday, 7 August 2014

Last-Year Reads: Seven Sisters Style by Rebecca C. Tuite

Saddle shoes, plaid skirts, sports jackets: we’ve been here before when I wrote about how the spring/summer 2014 collections resembled the pages of a 1940s edition of Life magazine. With these fashionable reworkings of preppy style, the publication of Rebecca C. Tuite’s Seven Sisters Style this year is extremely timely – this book explores how the fashions worn in this prestigious group of American women’s colleges became markers of prestige and, in turn, set fashions and continue to have a powerful grip over the popular imagination.

As a British reader, I may need to look up the names of the colleges that make up the ‘Seven Sisters’ (that’s Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley Colleges), but I’m already well-versed in the style, thanks to films such as Mona Lisa Smile or Love Story, fictional graduates and students including the likes of Betty Draper from Mad Men and Baby from Dirty Dancing and countless magazines editorials, as well as looking at too many Life magazine pictures online. The influence of these students is powerful, yet perhaps not as well explored or fetishised as their male counterparts.

Tuite’s book explores the female version of “The All-American Preppy Look”, to quote her subtitle. Arguably, it’s slightly more interesting than looking at men’s preppy style, because of the intense scrutiny that is always given to how young women dress and appear in society. There are definite overlaps between the styles of the two sexes, the women taking cues from the campus styles of their brothers and boyfriends and dressing in button-down shirts and penny loafers, but there are definite items that belong to the girls. There are their weekend suits, for example – the subject of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s Vogue writing competition winning essay (she’s pictured in her suit, white gloves and pearls in the book), or the cardigan – apparently as early as 1916, Modern Knitting promoted patterns for seven different cardigans, each named after one of the Seven Sisters colleges.

Seven Sisters Style traces the commercialisation of the look, from the foundation of the colleges to the first college shop at Stern Brothers in 1930, under the supervision of former Barnard Student Estelle Hamburger, to the rise of brands such as The Villager in the 1950s and 60s in creating a mainstream version of collegiate style (especially interesting to me, due to this favourite vintage piece of mine). But what I loved about this book was discovering some of the individual fads that held sway on campus, such as the raccoon coat, pictured here on astronomy students at Smith in 1929. Initially worn to watch football games by Princeton students, they became popular with women students in the 1920s, a fad revived in the 1950s. However, the most desired coats were the most well-worn and “ratty” looking numbers, as “old and seedy as possible”. Some enterprising Smith students even set up their own secondhand raccoon coat agency for those not lucky to inherit an authentic hand-me-down. Visiting Vassar in 1947, Simone de Beauvoir noted a similar trend for denim, worn and dirty jeans contributing to the “studied carelessness” that defined these young women’s dress. And there’s no denying how many of their styling tricks still look undeniably cool today, from pushed up sleeves, to the embroidered name pictured running across the thigh of one pair of jeans that had me eyeing up my sewing kit. 

What’s also amazing is how well reported these trends and fads were, thanks to the likes of Life. It’s a 1937 Life article on Vassar that Tuite cites as the turning point in the influence of Seven Sisters style, while a 1944 feature, showing two Wellesley girls wearing “sagging jeans” and “baggy shirts”, “made the nation’s jaw drop and set tongues clucking round the country”, according to The New York Times magazine.

Looking through the beautifully illustrated pages of Seven Sisters Style, it’s easy to understand why these images held such influence. Photograph after photograph shows young women, sometimes with their young men, looking young, vital, handsome and happy. It’s very seductive. These college uniforms carried a status, and promised a corresponding lifestyle. Books such as The Bell Jar and The Group (both quoted in Seven Sisters Style) gain some of their power by their challenge to the happy-ever-after so inherent to the marketing of this style.

I wonder how much my fascination stems from being a British reader, an outsider (interestingly, the Tuite was also born in the UK, and went to university here, although she did spend time at Vassar as an undergrad), where our own ideas of college style is very much restricted to the male Oxbridge type. The style certainly has a currency outside of the States: just think of the continued popularity of American brands such as Ralph Lauren who are synonymous with the preppy look and the corresponding lifestyle. While Tuite is excellent on explaining the development of the Seven Sisters Style in all its permutations, and its influence on American fashion, she’s not quite as convincing in explaining why the look carries such global appeal. It turns out everyone wants to be an elite American college student. Young, envied by the world: it's no wonder the women pictured in Seven Sisters Style look so happy.

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