Fashion

04.07.14

The Seven Sisters’ All-American Preppy Style

In the 1930s, women attending the Seven Sisters colleges began rebelling against the dress code restrictions, eventually developing a new, empowering style of clothing: preppy.

“[The college girl’s] contribution to fashion is as American as Coca-Cola, baseball, and hitch-hiking,” Harper’s Bazaar wrote in 1935 of the women of the Seven Sisters colleges: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. “It is as true to her character as the starched voice to the Gibson Girl, gray flannels to the Englishman, black to the French-woman.”

Groundbreaking for their time, the Seven Sisters colleges developed, over the last sixty years, into something more than just a place for intellectual prestige and ambition—they became outlets that served as a foundation for American preppy style. The schools were not only pushing academic boundaries, but confronting style limitations as well.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the first generation of college women sought to challenge the stylistic choices that had been inflicted on them. “The earliest Seven Sisters students wore clothing that was marked by implicit frugality, and, above all, femininity,” Rebecca C. Tuite writes in her new book, Seven Sisters Style (April 2014, Rizzoli). “The Seven Sisters administrations asserted that college was not an excuse for elaborate experimentation with the latest fashions, advocating for a modest wardrobe considered appropriate for young ladies in nineteenth century American society: wide cage-supported crinolines or hoop underskirts, day dresses, and heavy, plain floor-skimming skirts and blouses. In addition to the basic style, the colleges devised recommended clothing lists that included variations of the following: ‘an umbrella, thick boots, india-rubber over-shoes, and water-proof cloak; and a warm dressing-gown is indispensable in case of sickness.’”

These constrictions, however, got in the way of learning and athletics, so the girls began to develop a new style that both reflected and celebrated their academic dedication. In 1893, The American Girl at College, a so-called guidebook for young women, highlighted the changing sartorial atmosphere at universities and encouraged girls to follow suit, regardless of campus-enforced dress codes. The Seven Sisters ladies drew inspiration from Ivy League schools, adopting menswear-inspired blazers and sports coats, flannel pants, and varsity sweaters; they integrated bloomers—and later, Bermuda shorts—into their sports wardrobes; and suits became acceptable for women, signifying their ambition, independence, and intellect.

Photos: Seven Sisters Style 

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The 1930s, however, ushered in a new idea of the “American Girl,” one that was more equivalent to her young male peers at the likes of Harvard and Yale. In 1937, the students of Vassar earned national recognition when Life magazine produced a piece that highlighted the life of a Vassar girl—particularly her style. Their controversial choice to wear denim and Bermuda shorts led to strictly enforced rules. in 1944, Life published an image of two girls wearing jeans that “made the nation’s jaw drop and set tongues clucking round the country.” in 1959, Barnard prohibited Bermuda shorts, stating that “skirts would be the only proper classroom attire from now on and that orders were being drafted to ban slack and shorts.” As girls rebelled, writing letters to the administration and fighting for their sartorial freedom, the universities eventually relaxed their policies.

Despite the controversies during the time of its conception, the Seven Sisters style has withstood decades of ever-changing trends—it became a signifier “for the smart girl in and out of college.” Retailers such as Brooks Brothers and J. Press moved out of the menswear-only sphere—they would recreate their classic men’s looks for their new female customers. And while J. Press never officially offered a full women’s line, Brooks Brothers capitalized on its popularity with a new audience, designing pieces, particularly the American polo coat, that became a staple at the Seven Sisters colleges.

Magazines like Vogue and Mademoiselle also began to recognize this idea of collegiate dressing, with women like Katharine Hepburn, Jackie O., Ali MacGraw (who served as a guest editor at Mademoiselle in 1958), Sylvia Plath, and Meryl Streep doubling as fashion icons and esteemed alumni. As mainstream media and Hollywood began to embrace this androgynous style, the Seven Sisters look reemerged as classic American preppy. “I know about my customers, who they are and who they want to be,” Ralph Lauren, whose aesthetic was recognized as “Seven Sisters meets the British Countryside,” said. “Not everybody went to Harvard or Yale. Not everybody has that perfect pair of old shoes. But they’re still sophisticated enough to know those things are worth having.”

It’s the nostalgic aura of a letterman jacket or a pair of tweed Bermuda shorts that have allowed the original Seven Sisters style to prevail—and be adapted into modern fashion. The collegiate style has become recognized as the classic American look, serving as a reminder of where our country has come, in terms of both education and style. “While living ‘la vie en prep’ may have, at one point, been a distinctly American privilege,” Tuite writes, “the character and clothes that define the look are no longer restricted by such boundaries and keep the traditions started at the celestial seven alive and well.”