The preppy look, from Seven Sisters to the catwalk

The maligned look, which originated in US women’s colleges, is making a comeback


If one trend has been unfairly put through the wringer, it’s the preppy look. Internationally, it’s seen as the preserve of blonde, lacrosse-playing trust-fund babies trussed up in the faux-collegiate colours of Ralph Lauren. It’s the reek of the overprivileged and entitled. Closer to home, prep style is a select number of Loreto students and their impersonators, their hair mussed, wearing penny loafers, talking in transatlantic accents punctured with glottal stops. Prep style, in looping back to Irish schoolgirls, has now come full circle.

True-blue preppy style owes everything to seven sisters. This isn’t a story with roots in Greek mythology, but in the hallowed halls of seven prestigious women’s colleges in the northeast of the United States. Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley colleges started a quiet style revolution in tandem with turning out some of America’s most accomplished graduates. Alumnae include women as diverse as former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto (Radcliffe), actor Katharine Hepburn (Bryn Mawr) and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (Barnard).

A different side to women’s fashion
A new book by Rebecca C Tuite, Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Look, attempts to analyse the preppy look as it evolved from a subculture to an interwar style sensation to total co-option by the outside world. It’s an unusual, delightful book born of diligent research. Rebecca, who studied briefly at Vassar, has realised the book as a labour of love and an earnest attempt to show the world a different side to women’s fashion – an elite world made entirely of remarkable women doing remarkable things.

With so many of these remarkable women concentrated in several small spaces, it’s no wonder that they created a style subculture all of their own: loafers worn with white socks, Bermuda shorts, dungarees, men’s shirts knotted at the waist and ratty raccoon fur coats pilfered from their fathers, who wore them a generation before at Harvard or Yale.

Simone de Beauvoir, who visited Vassar in 1947, noticed the students’ deliberately ragged, dirty, amateurishly patched jeans. She identified and analysed their “studied carelessness”, seeing that the dirt was a badge of authenticity, often rubbed into a pair of clean jeans to give the genuine Seven Sisters effect.

Were they a sloppy embarrassment or a national treasure? The balancing act of looking like men and acting like ladies was too much to contemplate for some college boards, who tried (and failed) on several occasions to bar jeans from campus. The preppy look, borrowed wholesale from their Ivy League brothers, drew concern from parents. In giving their daughters a chance for a better education, were they making them coarse, mannish?

Quiet sartorial battles

We can snort at the thought now, but attendees of the Seven Sisters colleges had to deal with some very real pressure from outside sources. Androgyny was a threat, not something to play with. Traditional gender roles dictated that men wore the trousers and women got degrees only if they were freakishly smart or didn’t manage to find a rich husband by graduation day. Thousands of capable, intelligent women fought quiet sartorial battles, studying in crisp white Brooks Brothers shirts, attending lectures in kilts and Capezio ballet flats.

These women wanted their jeans worn but their cashmere spotless. While they kept it casual on weekdays, they would whip out the formal wear at weekends. Balls in Boston and bars in New York had no room for women in Bermuda shorts.

Instead, they had cocktail dresses, dancing dresses, natty suits – all the trappings of privileged gals out on the town. In truth, they were no challengers of traditional gender roles. They did, however, challenge the fashion establishment with varying degrees of success. Menswear as womenswear was successful. Garish patterned stockings and cardigans buttoned back to front, thankfully, were not.

Preppy style captured the public imagination almost immediately, with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar regularly devoting sections to the ideal college girl. It didn’t really gain an international foothold until the film Love Story came out in 1970. Ali MacGraw, playing the doomed collegiate lover perfectly, is all poker-straight hair and camel polo coats, beanie hats and wintry red plaids. Preppy style had transcended to a new level of sophisticated escapism. Before Love Story, young girls fantasised about wearing the best of casual cool in the world’s most hallowed halls. After, they wanted to do all that and fall in love with Ryan O’Neal (or a preppy approximation).

A catwalk look
After that, it was fashion madness. Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis appropriated Seven Sisters style to their own ends, making huge amounts of money. Prep became a bona-fide catwalk look, with the ragged jeans getting a clean-up and the scratchy camel polo coats reworked in luxurious silk mixes. The preppy look became something to aspire to as opposed to something a woman would wear on the way to lectures. Today, a woman can approximate the look with Topshop loafers, affordable Uniqlo cashmere and a judiciously altered plaid school skirt. Vintage schoolboy blazers can be picked up easily online. The male friend’s white shirt is always ripe for pilfering. The look is more democratic now: less Seven Sisters, more seven continents.

Tuite’s book is a thorough look at exactly how and why these changes happened, but it’s not just about fashion. It’s a book about strong, smart women. The fact they were so well-dressed is a welcome side- effect of their personal innovations.

Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Look by Rebecca C Tuite is published by Rizzoli

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