Smith Fashion: Interview with Rebecca Tuite, Author of 'Seven Sisters Style'

Veronica Brown '17 Assistant News Editor

After attending Vassar and becoming fascinated with the history of the American prep style, Rebecca Tuite published “Seven Sisters Style” in the spring of 2014. Tuite visited Mount Holyoke and Northampton as part of a tour to promote the book this week. Mount Holyoke will also have a “Seven Sisters Style” exhibit of clothing items from their archives. 

Personal style is important to many students at Smith, but most don’t realize the importance of the academic study of the school’s fashion trends. Tuite answered a few questions about the significance of Smith and the other Seven Sisters to fashion history. 

How did you first become interested in fashion and fashion history? 

I have always been interested in fashion history, throughout school and college, but had always been drawn towards fashion journalism. After spending time interning and freelancing as a fashion journalist, I realized the best parts of my day were when I was researching in the Condé Nast archives or writing longform historical pieces. Those were the things that made me feel most fulfilled and that fascinated me, so it was a natural transition to return to school for my Masters and now Ph.D.

You attended Vassar, which was co-ed by the time you were there. How do you think becoming co-ed has affected the style and fashion in modern times?

Well, going co-ed obviously had a huge impact on the campus culture and clothing traditions at Vassar. The skirts for dinner rule was the first to go in 1969. But that kind of shift is fascinating to examine because, like the style I concentrate on in the book, it speaks to much broader social, cultural and gender historical issues. Going co-ed also acted as a catalyst for the increasingly casual mode of dressing on campus, in line with more general steps towards casual and comfortable clothing in the 1960s.

There’s a real shift at Vassar towards the end of the 1950s in terms of certain traditions feeling outdated; clothing and campus culture did not represent the changing social norms of America on the verge of a turbulent decade in the 1960s. This was an especially difficult time for women’s colleges; the persistent question as to whether women’s colleges were still relevant raised its head constantly throughout this time and seeing how that affected the student body and the shifts in their engagement with campus style traditions is fascinating.

If fashion historians of the future write books about the Seven Sisters style of today, do you have any guesses as to what they might write about?

There’s never going to be a shortage of things to write about when it comes to thinking about campus style, and that’s because those four years become so influenced by the campus community, and student-dictated trends and traditions that are entirely reflective of a given moment in time and history. Even when people say to me they think it’s a shame everyone wears sweatpants and pyjamas on campus, I think, “Well, even Seven Sisters students in the 1950s rolled their pyjamas up underneath their coats when they were late for class sometimes, so let’s think about where, how and why that kind of “bedtime casual” became preferred and if it signifies some sense of pride and freedom on campus, etc.” No matter what though, I think the level of comfort and freedom students enjoy on Seven Sisters campuses today would never have been possible without the determination and confidence of the women I write about in the book, who have truly redefined what it meant to dress for college.