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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.


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.


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.


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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Anassa Kata! A Look Back at Bryn Mawr College

Happy May Day – the day that makes alumnae of Bryn Mawr College everywhere rather wistful for the campus’ semi-Elizabethan, semi-pagan festivities. Living in New Zealand, on the rare occasions when I am asked where I went to university, the school’s name draws a double take. Despite the Welsh name, Bryn Mawr College is a storied, stony university outside of Philadelphia, one of the Seven Sisters all-women universities. When I went there, it was a quirky feminist university with strong sciences and the problems and politics of many smaller schools. All of us emerged with strong opinions about the place, influenced down to our bones and vocal cords. To this day, many of us speak with a lightly clipped tone.

The Gothic architecture, feminist ritual, and academic stress of Bryn Mawr College.

The Gothic architecture, feminist ritual, and academic stress of Bryn Mawr College.

Aesthetically, the history-steeped campus gave me a lifelong fondness for Arts and Crafts architecture, an interest in the 1930s and in vintage scientific art, and a soft spot for a flowing romantic aesthetic that, today, is conveniently called “steampunk”. And…what about Bryn Mawr style?

There’s a new book out, Seven Sisters Style, that’s meant to be a female-focused version of Take Ivy. I don’t have my copy yet, and I promise you a review when I get it, but all the advance photos seem to be from Smith and Vassar. Possibly because Bryn Mawr has always been a rumpled sort of school.
BMC-IndividualismFor a peek at vintage BMC without having an alumni magazine in front of you, the Tumblr Vintage Bryn Mawr is all that. And Hepburn’s Closet is the current Bryn Mawr College style magazine – I particularly like the sepia-and-vintage-flavored Winter 2013 issue.

The way I remember it, with BMC style, what was important was how you looked from the neck up.  From the neck down, you could be in the black of the academic robes, the white of May Day dresses, or forgettable garb for everyday classes and your shift in the dining hall, but your cabeza was always the same. This began immediately freshman week with your photo snapped at registration and included in the Class Of book, known on the street as “the pig book.” Somehow everyone knew it was called the pig book, or that the guys at X or Y non-Haverford college nearby called it that, but nobody actually used the term. These photos live forever in your college file and make a final poignant appearance in the alumni magazine when you die.

In the 90s, piercings were admired and hair was an experimental subject – cut off, shaved off, occasionally tinted with Manic Panic back when this was actually unusual. I preferred having long hair and I slipped off campus for trims two or three times a year. Once a year, for Hell Week, everyone would apply vamp makeup. Afterwards, I’d wind up helping sophomores remove the unaccustomed cosmetics.

Once you had decided on your hair and donned a leather jacket, a pair of cool boots, and a witty T-shirt, clothes were mostly secondary.  A few of us with romantic flair wore sweeping cloaks in the winter and Indian cotton prints on warmer days. Except for a few bodysuits and a dress or two, I dressed like a crumpled origami boulder, picking up bits at rich people’s thrift stores, and trying to have enough quarters to do laundry. I still feel guilty about sneaking clothes out of the piles and piles and PILES of clothes left for charity in the hallways at the end of the year. We weren’t supposed to touch them. They were supposed to be donated somewhere. But they were so much, so many, and the piles never seemed diminished when I crept away with two or three things.

Katherine Hepburn? For all that she is the school’s anointed Retro Style Icon, I relate more to E. B. White’s adoring essay about how he feels having married a Bryn Mawr graduate. Which you should read immediately.

As deeply pleased as I am to have the Wissahickon schist fortresses of Bryn Mawr’s campus in my history, as close as I still feel to my BMC friends and Back Smoker sisters, the classes of the 1990s are very dispersed today. Wistful as I am on May Day, that feels right. It is our calling to take our uniquely practical fire out into the world. To have adventures, make changes, and work on this planet.

ButMaryLou!I leave you with this enchanting makeup tutorial that reminds me of the blue-tiled bathrooms in the Merion dormitory. It’s labeled as “parody” but, trust me, this is how it’s done, women of the consortium, for making offerings to Athena.