A Brief History of Dressing at SEM

By Katherine F. Rooney

A lot has changed since SEM was founded in 1851. Women have gotten the right to vote, there have been two World Wars, computers were invented, and we’re currently experiencing a global pandemic. One of the most obvious ways that we can observe these changes looking backwards is through the clothing that was worn in these hallways throughout the years.

Starting from the first Seminaria in 1905, there are pictures of girls in white floor length dresses with lacy collars. In one picture of the Glee Club, all the girls hair is perfectly coiffed in an updo. The advertisements also echo a sentiment from days gone by. They promote hats for “pretty girls”, shoes that are “dressy to the highest degree” and even fur garments. Ten years later in 1915, there wasn’t much of a difference. Most of the girls are donned in long black skirts and white blouses with ties. One picture shows girls dressed up as “old fashioned ladies in hoop skirts and bonnets.” The advertisement section is filled with diamonds, trimmed hats and more furs. 

That element of fur is carried into the 1930s when students are often seen donning coats made of it for trips to Toronto and other cold wintery days. Students hair is often perfectly waved or bobbed to accompany their oxfords, cardigans, and skirts that hit just below the knee. In the 1933 yearbook there is a corset advert that instructs girls to “be slim” and a clothing shop that offers them the chance to “have clothes of taste and style.”

 In 1948, hair was lengthened again and tended to fall around the shoulders in curls. There are more blouses, cardigans, oxfords and of course pearls. The hemline length didn’t change and still fell around the knees. The class “glamour girls” of that year were B. DuRant, B. Parker, and S. Bassett.  Classmates said that “all heads turn as the ‘New Look’ enters the study hall” about Sylvia Bassett. The “New Look” is famous in the fashion world and it is widely known that it was designed by Christian Dior around the time of World War II. However, it was very controversial as the designs included incredibly full skirts that people believed were a waste of materials since some fabrics were being rationed for the armies. Some people were so angered by the designs that it is even rumored that they tore apart one girl’s dress when she was wearing one of the looks in public. Nevertheless, it changed fashion forever and is now one of the most iconic and recognizable styles in history so it seems that the stylish Sylvia Bassett was ahead of her time. 

The 52nd Seminaria that was released in 1955 shows girls wearing more cardigans, blazers, sweaters, and pearls upon pearls. The hairstyles were shorter but the hemlines remained long. Many girls wore darker lipstick than previously seen in any of the older yearbooks as well. Nothing much changed in 1965 besides more plaid and the hemlines rising to above the knee which might be representative of the larger feminist movements involving miniskirts that were occuring at the time. Even if it is not directly related, it certainly does display a cultural shift. Yet the rest of the outfits include more of the same clothes that students were wearing since the 1930s such as cardigans and yes, more pearls. 

The 1970s is when things really started to change. There is more plaid which is a trend that seems to have started in the 60s. What is really interesting is the increase of pants that students wore and more “short” skirts (not mini but above the knee) in addition to skirts that hit just below the knee. There was more diversity in the school than before which is reflected in some of the afro hairstyles that a couple students were sporting. Ms. Ann More, Executive Assistant to the Head of School and class of ‘79 said, “ I can remember Frye boots … like cowboy boots.” She stated that “they were the big thing.” According to Ms. More, clogs were also very popular when they first came out with a closed back because they were not allowed to wear open backed shoes due to the marble stairs. Other popular options among the students when Ms. More attended SEM were corduroy pants, skirts below the knees, and bright colored yoke sweaters. 

The 1980s brought on an onslaught of more sweaters and bold colors. In the 1988 yearbook, students are pictured with big hair, slouchy pants, shoulder pads, and skirts that ended right above or below the knee. The patterns worn were often floral but there was definitely a mixture. These looks were often paired with flats which was a departure from the loafers of past decades. 

Yet, plaid and loafers made a big return in the 1990s alongside clothes with a much simpler feel than those from the 80s. Unsurprisingly, there were still tons of sweaters and some preppy polo style tops. The students’ hair tended to be cut around their shoulders and pants, shorter dresses and skirts were worn by many. When interviewed, Ms. Molly Greene, Director of Institutional Advancement and class of ‘98, stated that at school dances students wore “pretty much the same thing now, dresses. That would be the heels you know that everyone wore for like five minutes and then took right off. We’d be running around barefoot.” It was also clear when flipping through the ‘98 yearbook that spaghetti straps were popular at school functions. 

Pictured above: Ms. Greene ‘98 reflecting on her years as a student at SEM and Ms. Mathias ‘11 showing Katie Rooney ‘24 her old yearbook. Photo credit: Faith Wendel

The dresses of choice in 2005 at school dances were often satin and sometimes even tulle. For everyday wear, students tended to favor plain or striped shirts, Adidas Superstars, some sweater vests, and lots of pants. More specifically, J. Crew Pixie pants were all the rage. Both Ms. Greene and Ms. Lindsay Mathias, Admissions/Communication Associate and class of ‘11, mentioned them in their interviews. Ms. Mathias said of Pixie pants, “You weren’t allowed to wear them at first because they looked like leggings; but we got it overturned because the rule was that you can have a zipper on your pants. And we said, ‘Well these have zippers on them.’” Uggs and North Face jackets were also popular items to wear in the early 2000s at SEM. 

While nowadays many students wear what seems to be a uniform of a sweatshirt and leggings everyday, there are still many who choose to show off their personal style in other ways at school. There are many echoes of the past that seem to be straight out of the pages of an old Seminaria such as corduroy pants and chunky sweaters. Although of course, masks are now the only constant in terms of accessories.  No matter what, it is clear that the clothing people wear everyday, including here at SEM, reflects a much larger culture and can provide a snapshot into the past. 

Katherine F. Rooney
Katherine F. Rooney

Katherine F. Rooney is a freshman at Buffalo Seminary. She is interested in journalism and fashion. Her favorite part about SEM is the comradery of the student body and all of the traditions.

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