Walking around Vassar’s campus, one might observe students wearing everything from the avant-garde to sportswear. But historically, Vassar students helped establish what today is referred to as classic prep. Fashion journalist Rebecca Tuite breathes life into the preppy tradition of the colleges known as the Seven Sister Schools in her new book, “Seven Sisters Style,” which was released on April 8.
Tuite attended Vassar in 2006 as an exchange student from the University of Exeter. Before getting to the school, Tuite’s perception of Vassar was channled through a 20th century pop-culture perspective.
“I knew about style-icons and writers—Sylvia Plath, Jackie Kennedy, and Meryl Streep—but I didn’t know too much about the college itself,” Tuite said.
After graduating from Exeter, Tuite went into fashion journalism, a profession which required her to observe current style fads. Tuite quickly noticed a trend that harkens back to where she spent a year abroad. She said, “It was pretty easy to see just how influential a lot of these classic preppy styles are in contemporary fashion.”
From there, Tuite’s interest in Vassar and the other Seven Sister schools—Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Smith and Wellesley—peaked. “I began working on a manuscript called ‘The Cultural History of Vassar in the Fifties’, which was wonderful and really Vassar-centric,” Tuite said. “In my research, I compiled so many incredible images from this one point in history that I decided to write a book in order to round up archival fashion, popular-culture images and trace the influence of style from the campuses into the fashion industry from the 19th century to present times.”
Tuite’s research, which entailed compiling vintage images of Seven Sister student life,included going through personal images from Seven Sisters students and college newspapers and yearbooks, as well as archival images from various fashion magazines, publishing companies, designer collections and advertisements.
By the time she finished combing through these materials, Tuite had nearly a thousand images that, for her, reflected the classic “Seven Sisters style” she set off to investigate. She then began to put the photos and clippings in conversation with each other, and began to notice a collective ebb and flow of collegiate fashion.
“As the look became bigger than the colleges themselves, it was really reflected in these fashion editorials and in the movies,” said Tuite. “I started with collecting as many images as I possibly could and then fit them to show a progression.”
The book itself is divided into two sections. The first focuses exclusively on the campus culture and style of the Seven Sisters schools. In her first section, Tuite maps out the evolution of this style from the beginning of the century through the sixties and how these women went from wearing petticoats to bermudas and, eventually, to denim. “There’s this one image of Mount Holyoke girls blowing bubbles and wearing these wonderfully classic styles of riding boots and kilts and crewnecks,” said Tuite. “It fully captures both what’s special at Mount Holyoke and the whole spirit of the Seven Sisters—the idea that these women really were changing American culture and ground-breakers for the rest of us.”
The second section explores how the Seven Sisters look manifested into American popular culture, fashion and even advertisements. “I look at how brands picked up on the style from menswear brands like Brooks Brothers. There is an entire chapter on Perry Ellis, who is an incredibly fascinating designer who regularly called on trends that you could find on Seven Sisters campuses,” said Tuite. “He actually named his garments after the Seven Sisters. He had a Mount Holyoke polo coat and a Vassar skirt-suit. He really found so much inspiration in the more classic side of the style but played with it to make it a bit more modern.”
Tuite then goes on to explore how the style influenced avant-garde to preppy designers, such as Marc Jacobs and J. Crew, who made the classic style accessible to larger audiences. Tuite also observes the Seven Sisters style in today’s culture. Tuite said, “You see the inspiration of the trends in everything from ‘Mad Men’ to ‘Dirty Dancing,’ all through popular culture references and seeing where these references came through.”
While the book is titled “Seven Sisters Style,” Tuite stresses that the photos comment upon a lot more than clothing.
“It really is a lifestyle and is as much a part of women’s history and in defining 20th century femininity as it is with defining traditional American style,” said Tuite.
And certainly many things have changed since the inception of the Seven Sisters. To start, Vassar is no longer solely a women’s college, and most of the photos Tuite researched were taken before the second-wave feminist movement. Isabel Marvel ’17 noted, “The style used to be Bermuda shorts and a blazer with knee socks and loafers, especially during the 50s, when women were starting the women’s liberation movement and taking on more powerful and ‘masculine’ roles. [This] contributed to their style and the way they carried themselves.”
Currently, students admit that there is no singular style that is characteristic of Vassar, Smith or Wellesley. “Trends are constantly changing, and I don’t think there is one style for today’s Vassar students. I think people dress in a wide spectrum of styles and that’s how it should be,” continued Marvel. “Finding one’s personal style is very important, and conforming to trends is a waste of money and time. Vassar students are known for their confidence, and it shows in the way they dress.”
And with campus fashion publications, such as the College Catalogue and Contrast, existing to celebrate personal style, students today cannot be sartorially categorized. “I think the Vassar style now a days is very individualistic,” said Paulina Vigoreaux ’17, who describes her style as trendy with a nod to the classic. “People express who they are through their clothes in a very open and welcoming environment. Before, I guess it used to be very traditional and lady-like, whereas now it is sometimes that but also sometimes the total opposite.”
In tune with current Vassar students, Tuite acknowledges the limitations of Seven Sister style.
“In many ways, the book is trying to rehabilitate this idea of preppy as something that is cliché or non-inclusive,” said Tuite. “There are a lot of negative connotations with preppy. But for me, the Seven Sisters look is something that is really special and is very tied to achievement and these ground-breaking women. It’s that spirit that you can still find in the whole idea of campus dressing today.”