It might seem strange for a London native to write a book about fashion and style at American colleges. But for author and cultural historian Rebecca Tuite, this topic has personal resonance.
During her undergraduate years, Tuite studied abroad at Vassar College, where she got a taste of the unique identities of women’s colleges that would inspire her to create “Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look,” a pictorial hardcover released by Rizzoli earlier this month.
“Before I stepped on campus, I only knew the cultural references—from film, style, or people like Jackie Kennedy and Meryl Streep—but the moment I arrived I began to see the rich history behind all that,” Tuite said in a recent interview with Spectator.
“Seven Sisters” may feel like an antiquated term to modern readers. It was coined to describe seven women’s colleges on the east coast—often considered the Ivy League equivalent for women before the Ivies became coeducational. They include Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College, Wellesley College, and Barnard College.
During the mid-century when these schools had a monopoly over women’s education among elites, they each developed a specific character. In her informal history of the Seven Sisters from 1976, historian Elaine Kendall explained, “Alumnae were handed an image with their freshman registration forms, and with minimal upkeep it could be made to last for a lifetime. Radcliffe was academically rigorous; Bryn Mawr, intense; Smith, athletic; Barnard, sophisticated; Wellesley, blond and literary; Vassar, radical; and Mount Holyoke, refreshingly wholesome.”
Focusing roughly on the period between the 1920s and the 1980s, Tuite’s book contains archival photos from each of the schools and vintage editorial and advertising images alongside textual analysis from Tuite.
The release of the book “Take Ivy” in 2010, which focuses on traditional preppy style at Ivy League universities, brought this cultural phenomenon back to the forefront of American consciousness. But given that women didn’t matriculate at Ivy League institutions until the ’70s, they were naturally excluded from the text. Tuite, who is currently getting her doctorate at the Bard Graduate Center in the history of American material culture, saw an opportunity to reshape the conversation around women with “Seven Sisters Style.”
“This mid-century college style represents a new ideal of being young and sporting, and college women began to embody that ideal,” Tuite said.
Flipping through its pages does feel like a step into an idealized world. The women in its pages wear fur coats and heels as they gaze through telescopes and chat in dorm rooms wearing crisp button-downs, cardigans, and dirndls. Although to modern college students these women look conservative—quite literally buttoned-up—Tuite pictorially documents a revolution in women’s dress as young women grabbed the relaxed preppy clothing of their male counterparts and made it their own.
“You can see those shifts [in attitude] correlate to larger issues in women’s education. This style was primarily about comfort: We deserve the right to wear what we want to wear,” Tuite said. “It really was groundbreaking to say, ‘We don’t want to be prim and proper anymore.’”
Putting together the book, she drew heavily from the letters and diaries found in the colleges’ archives as well as back issues of Vogue and the now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine in the Condé Nast archives.
To Tuite, the juxtaposition of the editorial and archival records reflects the very real influence that college women wielded over the American public: College girls found themselves on the pages of magazines as models of how women could be both feminine and break into the male-dominated academic world.
“There’s a tension to some degree. It’s a glossy take, but they also featured real women. … Even when the editorial images are clearly heightened, there is a root of truth,” Tuite said. “It became a brand in and of itself: a brand of being collegiate. Even if you had no intention of going to college, you could buy the college products or the clothes worn by students in the magazines. This is the 1950s, and you’re already seeing that colleges want to position themselves as a brand.”
For a woman who wrote a book on collegiate style, Tuite is frank that a unified style is certainly not found at American universities and colleges today. Yet Tuite describes this transition as perfectly fitting into the “spirit of independence” that inspired young women to don bloomers in the late 1800s and Bermuda shorts in the 1950s: an emancipation from traditional expectations.
“When I went to Vassar [in 2006], there wasn’t a cohesive style. If anything, it’s a style of independence: Students wear what they want. People lament it, but it’s really a continuation of what these earlier students were striving for,” she said. “We owe so much to these earliest female college students. That’s why we keep them alive in popular culture and our collective imagination. They were really striking out and making a place for themselves—and us.”