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Intro to American Prep: A Seven Sisters Spring

From Bermuda shorts to a boyfriend’s Letterman sweater, here’s a crash course in spring style from the original collegiate prepsters

It’s so much more than madras—as fashion historian Rebecca Tuite will tell you—especially right now. “The whole idea of ‘preppy’ is being re-evaluated,” she says, “even some of the more avant-garde designers like Miuccia Prada, Thom Browne and Marc Jacobs are finding inspiration in this style.”

Tuite is the author of this month’s sensational book, Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look (Rizzoli, $35), a nostalgic look at the birth of prep on the prestigious female-only campuses of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley, where style icons such as Katharine Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy and Meryl Streep spent their college days. Herewith, Tuite explains the ABCs of spring semester fashion as seen at the Seven Sisters.

 

1. How to Wear Your Jeans

Jeans, well-worn and rolled at the ankle (today’s “boyfriend” fit) and a pair of loafers were entirely spring-appropriate for class. These would be typically worn with a button-down, which could be either a men’s oversized Brooks Brother’s shirt in classic blue and white stripes or a pastel pink oxford, or a sweet springtime blouse from McMullen in a Liberty floral print, which was a little more fitted and formal.

 

2. Bermudas, Spring’s It-Piece

Bermuda shorts were perennial favorites, but when spring arrived these would be out in force on campus in light cottons, bright colors and the preppiest of all fabrics, madras.

Three Vassar students on the steps of the campus chapel in the 1950s.

 

3. Accessorizing for the Season

There is something timeless about a string of beautiful pearls and a light cashmere sweater set for springtime, popularized by many Seven Sisters women in the 1950s. Charm bracelets told the student’s life story—their achievements, close friends and family and even their travel memories were all represented in sweet little gold or silver charms. Gold circle pins (neatly pinned to the edge of a peter-pan collar shirt) and scarab bracelets were highly coveted.

A Radcliffe girl peruses the heels on offer at an on-campus charity auction, 1954. While Weejuns or Pappagallos worked just fine for casual events, an elegant pair of leather or satin pumps with a small heel was required for most weekend activities, especially with a suit or evening dress.

 

4. It’s Not All Loafers…

Pappagallo shoes, in bright colors and with fancy floral appliqués or grosgrain ribbon trims, made the most perfect spring footwear imaginable.

 

5. Spring’s Must-Have Labels

Many menswear brands loomed large, including Brooks Brothers and J. Press. College shops at department stores like Lord & Taylor were popular as one-stop destinations for all kinds of college fashions. But perhaps most popular were Peck & Peck, Lanz, The Villager and Ladybug, which all catered to the on-and-off-duty needs of a Seven Sisters student. However, in many cases, if students found the most perfect, well-worn lambswool sweater, or a favorite crisp white oxford-cotton shirt, it didn’t matter where it was from.

It’s not what you wear, but how you wear it: a 1937 Peck & Peck advertisement promoting the Seven Sisters’ favorite, Braemar Shetland sweaters, also show-cases precisely how students liked to wear their cardigans on campus: buttoned backwards and with the sleeves pushed up.

 

6. Spring Break Style

This would depend where it was you were spending your precious time off from classes! But students that were traveling anywhere would certainly leave campus wearing their classic skirt suit—the versatile wardrobe must-have for any Seven Sister. Pencil skirt silhouettes, with neat blazers were favored, in fabrics that worked well season through season, and that could be easily mixed-and-matched with the addition of a new blouse or button down (Seven Sisters women were nothing if not practical).

 

7. The Travel Essential

And an obligatory little suitcase would be brought out, filled with the favorite vacation pieces and carried in white-gloved hands. There are so many images of Seven Sisters women suited and suitcased ready for exciting adventures! In fact, students traveled off-campus so much on the weekends and breaks that they earned themselves the nickname “Suitcase Colleges”!

A Ralph Lauren Fair Isle sweater with delicately shaped sleeves in Vogue, 1980.

 

8. Off-Duty, Weekend Dressing

During the week, students dressed for themselves: They dressed for their own comfort, interests and for their cherished experiences as college women. On the weekends, there was definitely an element of dressing up for young men. There were lots of amazing Ivy League dates, proms and parties, who could blame them? But there was a large contingent of students who also dressed up on the weekends for themselves, as a way to congratulate themselves on a week of hard work.

A Barnard student chats with a Columbia University baseball player, early 1960s. By the 1960s, students at the Seven Sisters and Ivy League colleges began to pen unofficial dating guides that sought to pin down not only the character but also the fashion preferences of each school’s most eligible dates. Barnard teamed up with Columbia men to write their guidebook, because after all, “Who would know more about boys’ schools than boys?”

 

9. A Night on the College Town

Also on weekends, when it was common to be a little bit more formal, students would delve deep into their closets for their dresses: Full-skirted numbers by Peck & Peck or Lanz in printed cottons or silk were always popular. Add a well-worn J. Press crew neck sweater for cooler weekday evenings, or a luxe cashmere cardigan on the weekends, and the Seven Sisters were ready for Spring!

Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look (Rizzoli, $35) by Rebecca C. Tuite is available now. (Pictured right: Barnard Athletics Association Team Captains, 1936.)

 

MORE:

The New Handbag Rule: Don’t Hold It, Wear It
A Fool-Proof, 10-Step Spring Closet Cleanse
Spring’s Natural, Minimalist Beauty How-Tos

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