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.
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.
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.
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”!
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.
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.)