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Book Review: Seven Sisters Style

Putting on my tatty Bryn Mawr academic robe here to review a book: Seven Sisters Style, a recent volume about the clothing worn by and inspired by women university students at Seven Sisters universities in America.

SevenSistersStyle

My copy on my table…keeping company with another BMC-related book.

You may be familiar with a Japanese photo book, Take Ivy, compiled by four Japanese photographers charmed by the style of young male Ivy League students in the 50s. While their contemporaries were making monster movies, they were at the campuses that incubated the academics for The Manhattan Project. A different way, perhaps, of capturing their post-nuclear monsters – the college sweatshirts and J. Press button-downs are described in brief captions with anthropological reverence and puzzlement. Take Ivy‘s combination of crisp photographs and otherworldly captions made it a long-term classic amongst style historians.

It’s taken another outsider to bring us an intended companion volume. The glamorous author of Seven Sisters Style, Rebecca Tuite, is originally from the UK and spent some undergraduate time at Vassar, the Seven Sisters university in Poughkeepsie, New York. And Vassar has been the focus of much of her fashion history study.

The Vassar connection is important. Through the history Tuite presents, Vassar also comes across as the most troubled locus of media fever-dreams about the American women’s university student. While a Bryn Mawr College article in Life magazine cemented the school’s reputation for “intensity”, a Vassar-focused article in 1937 sparked a fashion craze. These Vassar depictions reached their film zenith with Marilyn Monroe impersonating a Vassar student in Some Like It Hot and their print apogee with the novel The Group in 1963.

Back to the book: this slim volume is a history of clothing styles on Seven Sisters campuses from the 1920s through the late 1970s, far wordier than Take Ivy. These clothes have meaning: they were what women choose to wear at a time when women began to live independent, modern lives. At times Tuite’s connections between wider fashion trends and the university students come across as convoluted, and at other times, a tantalizing sentence and a small photo left me frustrated. Also, photo choices are a problem. In the second half of the book, most of the images aren’t from Seven Sisters schools or students at all, but from journalists visiting the schools or from modeled advertisements for clothes “in the style of.” Perhaps these were chosen to show that The Styles Truly Were An Influence – or perhaps because they tended to feature conventionally pretty students or actual models.

MountHolyokebubbles

One of the book’s images that troubled me – Mount Holyoke women in 1945: posed and heteronormative (note the Dartmouth banner): in no way representative of the scintillating Mount Holyoke women I know.

Is Tuite’s book made, or undone, by her fondness for the proper, public, preppy side of Seven Sisters style? She’s certainly hit a nerve with everyone who grew up far away from American preppy but dreamed fond dreams about letter sweaters and camel coats. Dames in ragged racoon coats and dungarees are mentioned – they have to be, they were so prevalent – but Tuite only selected photos of them if they were pert-nosed or (with a caption exhaling a sense of relief) particularly neatly groomed. Instead, she lingers most lovingly over the idea of a Vassarite being swept away to New York City on the weekends, dressed in a clever town suit, with a valise containing a demure yet alluring ballgown.

Ahem. The Seven Sisters STILL ARE, Tuite, not WERE…

Tuite’s edited evocation of East Coast prep is so wildly successful that I – with my personal feelings about preppy after growing up in New Haven, CT – felt rebellious and prickly while reading it. After my first browse, I ran out to a local thrift store to feel like my present-day self again. No, wait, that’s where I shopped when I was at Bryn Mawr. AUGH!

An entire perplexing chapter is devoted to the designer Perry Ellis and … I picked up this book to see real Seven Sisters style and history and we were, it seemed, all out of that after Love Story came out.

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Another image from the book that troubled me – the abbreviated preppy clothes, the pose, all summing up the ideal and inviting the viewer to see a (Vassar!) student’s body. The fantasy manifest.

The end result is a historical and social overview overwhelmed by the preppy dream: images of autumn leaves, sweaters, gowns, print books, and social status mingled with academic freedom. I truly wish I’d enjoyed this book more. Am I frustrated about the book itself, or about the perceptions of Seven Sisters universities that Tuite has revealed? Can one only enjoy this book if one hasn’t also read The Bell Jar? Tuite is at her best on Vassar, so an entire book by her on Vassar style and women would be a fascinating read. But the allure of the preppy dream led her to decline fully exploring actual Seven Sisters style and how it reflected the fun, freedom, stress, and variety of the students themselves. Ourselves.

I’d like to see a follow up by somebody less prep-invested that focuses on the style outliers and oddities and otherness consistently sheltered by these institutions. Barnard beatniks and Bryn Mawr medievalists, the millenial students going to class in their pjs (acknowledged yet dismissed by Tuit herself), the emerging trend for university-themed tattoos, and the students turning the style lens back on themselves in student-run style magazines.

Also, there was a Bryn Mawr blazer? WHERE IS MY BRYN MAWR BLAZER?

Bryn Mawr College imagery of actual students: simply irresistible. And, that blazer!

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Home Sewn at the Dowse: Opening Night

Last night, I went to the hectic opening of “Home Sewn” at the Dowse Art Museum – an exhibit profiling the home creators and designers of clothing in New Zealand. Home sewing was a huge part of fashion in this remote isle until very recently, so this exhibit of the finest Kiwi home stitchers have to offer is amazing. The exhibit is free, and you should go, if you like dresses.

Dowse-PartyViewOpening night was a mad gala, the Home Sewn Night of Fashion, packed with hundreds of women wearing dresses and coats they, or a friend or relative, had sewn in New Zealand. A Dowse photographer captured many outfits for a People’s Choice competition. (Which isn’t online just yet,.)

Dowse-SamoaDress

This outfit, sewn and hand-painted with scenes of Samoa by the artist’s mother, won one of the prizes bestowed by luminaries including the designer and historian Doris du Pont.

Dowse-ExhibitCenterAfter our self-made fashion show, we were the first ones to see the exhibit – a vast cool room full of dresses from the 1930s to 2011, all made by New Zealand home stitchers. Yes, Archival People, I turned my camera flash off for these first-view shots. I love the contrast in this photo between the 1950s dresses and the contemporary viewers.

Dowse-ExhibitLeftThe 1960s side of the exhibit.

Dowse-ExhibitRightDresses from the 21st century – though you might not have guessed that at first, looking at the 1950s-esque eau de nil chiffon and the vivid retro sheath.

Dowse-ExhibitPatternsWriters and creators from the Wellington Sewing Bloggers Network got stuck into the pattern corner.

Tomorrow I’ll have shots of the attendees in their self-made garments, so get ready for another picture-weighty post.

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Making It Happen: Behome by Emily Davidow

The “Making It Happen” series is back online, conversing with Emily Davidow about moving to New Zealand and starting up a home design emporium.

Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always been a “house” person, enjoying my (sometimes ill advised) attempts to decorate my abode. I’ve always enjoyed home stores, and they are dream businesses for many of us. “One with special things – the kind of things my friends really want,” we say, gazing off into the distant mists, visualizing a design boutique with all of our favorites, or an all-steampunk kitchen store.  So it was a great pleasure to get behind the scenes of a delicious home design emporium with Emily Davidow.

“Emporium” is the right word for the variety at her retail space in Miramar, Behome. Two floors overflow with rugs, textiles, unique furniture, and even some well-chosen garments.

Emily Davidow, center, talks to customers at Behome’s grand opening in June 2013.

Growing up in the U.S.A., her family’s business was home furnishings. After successfully expanding the family business online in the 1990s, and other creative ventures, Emily decided that it was time for a major life change – moving from the U.S.A. to New Zealand. And that led to her opening up Behome in Wellington.

Read on to learn about her story, the vitality of beauty in the home, design Down Under, why things cost more in New Zealand, and good advice for your own business. [Read more]

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Friday Follies: Boom, I Got Your Girlfriends

A Style Enthused Young Woman makes so much classic East Coast style superfresh. Click to view her Tumblr.

Blog crushes of the week: for a dose of urban femme realness, check out the  Tumblrs Femme Dreamboat and A Style Enthused Young Woman.  After reading these, my heart went pitter-pat. Then I went and put on lots of bright lipstick. Lots.

And for my USA and Europe readers, here is an enchanting Wellington sewing blog by my friend Joy – not just great sewing projects, but a lovely slice of Kiwi life – A Charm of Magpies.

Let’s say you love retro looks, especially the curve-flattering silhouettes of the 40s and 50s, but you stop short of the full-scale vintage-pinup-everything look. This discussion at You Look Fabulous about “bombshell” style is for you. And me. More on this soon, in fact.

The sweet urbanity of those Tumblrs reminds me that I am going to be in the U.S.A. later this year. I’ll be there from May 4th to June 4th. My itinerary: New Haven, CT; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Bryn Mawr, PA; Los Angeles, CA. When I’m in New Haven and Philadelphia, I have some free time. Just sayin’!

And I’m going to be at this blogger meetup here in Wellington next Sunday! Last time looked lovely and I’m really looking forwards to it.

Finally, a 21st-century remix of an 80s classic. Hot pink hasn’t looked better since.

The tights look way better in person
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The Grand New Zealand Design Online Shopping Post

It is New Zealand Fashion Week this week. Let us praise NZ Fashion Week for putting together one of the most accessible Fashion Weeks in the world, with scads of events for the general public, including a photography exhibition. If you can’t make it here…this post is a mini-online Fashion Week for you, to allow you to partake of New Zealand style from the comfort of your couch in Columbus, Long Island, or Delft.

The tights look way better in person

Left to right: Karen Walker gold robots, Iwi Designs tights, Trelise Cooper cuff and ring.

I read a spring edition of a New Zealand fashion magazine, which querulously begged us to not shop online overseas to Support New Zealand Business and the ideal of the “boutique” as a curated space. Luckily, New Zealand fashion has gone ahead and started the future – the desginers here are online, and they’re doing international shipping right. Yes, designer clothes are expensive. But there is a market out there for higher-end items, and they’re reaching out to find it. Just as I shop overseas from NZ, you can shop NZ from overseas.

So, why would you shop NZ from overseas?

  • Ethical production – Clothes made in New Zealand are made by workers earning New Zealand wages and protected by our labor laws. That makes them more expensive than other clothes, but it means they are ethically above board, and also…
  • Great quality and construction – I’m one of those awful people who shops with my hands – after I see a garment I like, I grab it and gauge its texture.I turn it inside-out. My little mitts have been all over these clothes and I am happy to vouch for them.
  • Superior fit for some figures – The cuts of Antipodean clothes are often great for taller women, women with “apple” figures, and women with a low hip-to-waist ratio. A friend of mine who’s on the cusp of American regular and plus sizes found that Antipodean plus sizes fit her like a dream.
  • Vive la difference – For something truly different, design from the other side of the planet can’t be beat.
  • Seasonal sales flip! – You’ll be ordering discounted items for the previous summer/winter that will arrive in time for your spring/fall. A lot of New Zealand clothes are also “transseasonal”, wearable any time of the year, as befits our temperate climate.
  • Sane and/or Free Postage – Researching this, I was startled by the designers offering flat rate or even free worldwide shipping. I also know that these online retailers will give you very personal customer service if required.
  • It’s all cheaper than it looks – The NZ dollar ranges between .70 and .80 cents of the US dollar in value.

Online shopping tips and links galore behind the cut!! [Read more]

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Does “Classic Style” Work Down Under?

A while ago, I found this rather charming interview with Antipodean plus-size model, book-lover, and Lord of the Rings fan Robyn Lawley. I would marry her except for one thing: she says, “I can’t stand the classic aesthetic, it bores me.”

Classic clothing in the UK and Europe is associated with nobility and the upper class. In the USA, it is associated with preppies. Down Under, it seems to be associated with outdated colonial aspirations towards the UK/European upper classes. It’s more Lynn of Tawa than Martha Stewart. From what I’ve seen in NZ retailers, “classics” are farmwear at best.  At some point in the 1990s the Kiwis and Australians decided to just start the future already. Since then, Antipodeans are, to a transplanted North American like me, terrifyingly fashion forward.

A mild defense of some classic style elements, here. Classic clothes are not fast fashion. There’s the winter coat I’ve worn regularly for 8 years, the evening gown that still fits and looks great after 18 years, the scarves I’ve had for 20. A lot of this comes down to the “Sam Vimes’ Boots” theory of quality clothing purchases. There’s also a Nancy Mitford quote about clothes. I’ve lent the book to somebody and I’m not sure if I got it back, so I’ll paraphrase. “If you’re like me and you fall in love with your clothes and want to wear them forever, the trick is to follow the lines of your body. Clothes like that don’t date.”

Classic clothing versus fashion doesn’t have to be a throwdown between Audrey Hepburn and Lady Gaga. (Though we would all pay good money to see that!) For me, classic clothing is:

  • Flattering sweaters, pants, skirts
  • Jeans and tees that fit just right
  • A clean-lined coat or leather jacket
  • Quality shoes and boots that avoid toe-box and sole extremes (very thick platforms, very pointy toes)
  • Stripes, polka dots, and leopard/animal prints
  • Colors that suit you best
  • Luxury fabrics – silk, cashmere, fine wools

I also must offer this list of American sartorial ‘classics’ that do not look so good outside the US:

  • Schott motorcycle jackets. In the US: “Outside the mainstream/actual biker/gay man into a bit of rough”. Down Under: “Not just bogan, but out of date bogan.”
  • Polo shirts. In the USA: “You see this embroidered animal on my pectoral? Good! Another julep please”. Down Under: “Corporate tool, mate”
  • The “Nantucket Look,” extreme New England preppy with pastels. In the USA: “I’m rich, ironic, or both” . Down Under: “I can’t find where to get back on my cruise ship.”
  • Classic white or pale blue button down shirts for women: In the USA: “I’m professional, verrrrrry professional” Down Under: White shirt – “May I take your order?” Blue shirt – “How can we help you today at our bank?”
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Style at NetHui

Two weeks ago, I came back from a stellar event, the NetHui conference. It was a three-day dialogue about the Internet in NZ involving secondary school students, MPs, judges, and hackers. Amongst the ceaseless conversations with many of NZ’s best and brightest, I noted that many of my fellow females at NetHui were very stylish indeed. Here’s a gallery of some of the great looks.

One of the most moving moments at NetHui was brought to us by Computers in Homes. A young woman who’d had a difficult life explained how being trusted with a computer in her abode, and increasing her confidence and employability by learning how to use it, had changed her life. So if you are looking for a cause to support, one that makes a difference to women and children by empowering them, Computers in Homes is a great choice.

I went to the other side of the planet to get away from this. Nothin' personal, Lisa.
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Escape From The Prepicenter

I went to the other side of the planet to get away from this. Nothin' personal, Lisa.

True Prep authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd walk the preppy walk.

Living in New Zealand after being brought up in New England, I am occasionally asked to explain this thing called “preppy.”And I am reminded of how happy I was, myself, to leave preppy style behind.

From the ages of seven to eighteen, my home was a small town just bordering New Haven, CT. New Haven is the demarcation line between NYC suburbs and “real New England”, as indicated by my family’s bitter inter-sibling rift between being New York Yankees fans and Red Sox fans.  My svelte British mom liked New Haven’s Georgian colonial flavor, the brick and shale and clapboard buildings, the streamlined, classic clothes – the look called preppy that is well described here as “British inspired New England styling“. J. Press, the Yale Co-Op (which was its own small department store with in-house clothing brands until the 1990s), and Laura Ashley were just the thing for the tennis lessons and beach club visits.

Today, preppy styles have been given slimline makeovers and an ironic wink, and there are lots of preppy aficionados – even the Preppy Handbook has been updated. The web page for that update, True Prep, is a preppy primer. Pastels, madras, and tailoring take over the streets of Nantucket in the summer.  On the Boston sidewalks, every other person is preppy, and the look leaks down all the way to Washington D.C. According to True Prep, there are now new-prep variants across the country, from Lily Pulitzer southern belles to dignified Northwestern polarfleece. It seems easier for men, somehow, and easier to subvert today (if you’re read right). Lisa Birnbaum’s witty interview here sums up the subdued ethos of preppiness very well. “Grey and navy,  navy and grey, pink and navy…”

Pastels. For days.

All well and good. For me, as a teenager in the 80s, before the ironic makeover, preppy style in its 80s apotheosis made me think I hated clothes.

I took after my dad’s side of the family physically, with an Eastern European chassis. My cheeks, hips, chest – everything, really – curved. My hair waved and tousled, neither preppy straight nor 80s full, in the years before straighteners. I tried to be a hip ’80s New England teen. Disastrously. Shoelaces with hearts on them (mine had frogs, so wrong), a Ralph Lauren polo, and a Le Sportsac bag. L.L. Bean snow boots in season. A Laura Ashley dress for everyone else’s bar and bat mitzvahs when I was 13. But the pinks and blues and boxiness of 80s wear in New England meant that clothes were just another way for me to be a dork – until I discovered vintage clothing.

Ah, those 80s vintage clothing stores, full of lost treasures. Whatever happened to the burnt-orange 60s evening gown I picked up for a song? The quasi-Chanel 50s suit that even my mom agreed was a good idea? I still have a few pieces of Victoriana from those days, and a retro 40s tilt topper that has since done duty on many a model’s head.

The next step in my style evolution was leaving New England. I relocated to the Philadelphia area. Yes, preppies still roamed, herding onto the Paoli Local R5 commuter train in beige trench coats.  But it wasn’t mandatory. Philadelphia Freedom meant never having to wear a polo shirt again. In 1990, I bought a leather jacket on South Street and never looked back. Henceforth it was all admiring ladies in church hats, Mummers, and clothes from Zipperhead. I spent the 90s after work in sunflower sundresses and boots, polka-dot hot pants, leopard-print leggings from Contempo Casuals, and slinky oddments from the $20 sale bin at Betsey Johnson.  Life got interesting to match the clothes – one memorable evening, I got smuggled into a voguing ball – though I never made it to one of Henri David’s Halloween balls. I’m thinking about the clothes now, but at the time, they were almost incidental, so much was going on.

And then, at 28, I moved to New Zealand…

 

WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN.
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Moody Antipodean Dreams of NZ Style

I feel like talking about style geography for a couple of posts. What is New Zealand style? My overseas friends ask me, sometimes. I think of breezy, pure-faced beauties, I give them names and imaginary lives.

Angela lives in central Auckland and transposes a clean, minimalist beachiness onto rich-girl dressing….

Aroha lives in West Auckland or Waiheke and drapes her lanky limbs in avant-garde merino, feather-trimmed woven-flax, and large jade or bone jewelry…

Winona lives in Wellington, her hair chopped into an artful bob against the Wellington gales, and is delicately quirky in hand-made hats and brooches and clever sundresses…

None of them wear enough lipstick. But the clothes dreamed up by New Zealand designers fit their straight up-and-down, tubular-belle  bodies beautifully.

Oh, how I dream of edgy New Zealand fashion. Of drifting around and hanging my Bill Hammond paintings while draped in a Cybele tunic. Wearing radical Ricochet or strapping Minnie Cooper or Minx shoes on my feet. But I am confounded by fit. They don’t make clothes for hourglass figures here. For a petite hourglass, Ricochet pants gap at the waist and the extra ankle length slumps on the ground. Minnie Cooper stopped making shoes in my foot size, and Minx never did. Cybele’s stuff – on my imaginary beautiful frenemies Angela and Aroha, it looks like a moody Antipodean dream, but not on me.

The white tunic top with the twist in it makes me especially sad.

Oh elegantly draped Antipodean casual-expensive style. WHY DO YOU TORMENT ME SO.

I sat down to think of an NZ clothing supplier that I like, that suits me. And the one I came up with is Australian. I rather adore Cue, because the beautiful clothes, for once, fit me reasonably well. Somewhere in Australia, saying “Crikey, mate” over her Foster’s and a kangaroo steak, is an hourglass fit model hired by Cue.

Once in a while I’ll thrift up something from a Kiwi designer that works. From Workshop, or Kate Sylvester, or defunct designer lines like Glory and DNA. Short and hourglassy, I have luck in Wellington at Tempt, at Duncan and Prudence, and at Good Score. When I lived closer, Moa Boutique in Auckland let me live the dream of a modicum of NZ style and good fit.

I’ll go back there again someday. In the meantime, I’ll dream an Antipodean dream…

Suzanne Tamaki and her daughter modelling Tamaki's designs.
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Style at the Maori Art Show

This weekend, a friend and I went to the Maori Art Market, and we saw some serious style in the crowd. Men were peacocking with tailored coats incorporating Maori fabric, custom-tailored vests, and heirloom jade and bone jewelry. There was a fashion show, and a display by this woman artist shown below.

Suzanne Tamaki and her daughter modelling Tamaki's designs.Artist and designer Suzanne Tamaki and her daughter were head to toe in Tamaki’s designs, including her silk tie belt-wraps and quasi-Victorian jackets and top hats. In the background, “Blankets for sale – WE trade for land, beads, or guns” is embroidered on wool, stabbing at colonial land-grabbing via the needle. The pair are posed in front of Tamaki’s stunning photograph For Maori, For Sure, with its Maori seamstress about to reclaim all the flags – click here for a full view.

Here’s more of Tamaki’s deliciously deconstructed work – blanket labels are incorporated into the outfit on the left.

Tamaki's wearable art.

Also, seen in the crowd, this Pakeha lady had a vivid orange jacket that I loved – she moved among the artworks like a piece of art herself.

Hot jacket, lady!

There were two women wearing the moko who I wanted to photograph –  I think the women’s moko tattoos are attractive and stylish, and their outfits set off their moko like the tattoos were heirloom jewelry – both jewelry and moko tattoos are taonga, treasures. But…I felt shy. There’s been controversy about fashion houses appropriating Maori tattoo imagery. And I note that Maori-generated pages online about ta moko that discuss women’s moko do not include images! So, if you see a lady with a moko in real life, appreciate that you’ve had a glimpse of a taonga.