The History of Style on the Main Line

By Sarah Jordan | September 2, 2014 | Main Line

From the grandeur of Ardrossan to playing spectator at the Devon Horse Show, the Main Line’s past is still very much a part of its present, epitomized by the area’s singular style.

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Main Line chic personified—easy luxury, suburban affluence, and fashion at the crossroads of classic and contemporary.

Traffic is inching along Lancaster Avenue in typical stop-and-start fashion, and I’m late to meet Joan Mackie, socialite and niece of philanthropist Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. When I arrive at Ardrossan, the last of the great Main Line estates, she is unflappably gracious about my delay. Mackie, 70, strikes a classic silhouette in a chic sheath dress as we sit in her grandparents’ home, but even she can appreciate how bad traffic has become. She tells me a story of her friend’s grandfather, who would ride his horse from his estate to the Main Line train station, dismount, and then command the horse to return, solo, back to its stable. These days, it’s hard to imagine spying an unmanned horse trotting down Lancaster Avenue among the crush of Range Rovers, BMWs, and Audis, but in the last century, the Main Line was synonymous with country life and grand estates surrounded by huge acreage.

Originally conceived by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a summer resort area, the Main Line lacked the charms of either the sea or mountains to make that idea work. Instead, it became home to the affluent who, beginning in the late 1800s, built grand year-round homes along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Clothiers, Strawbridges, Montgomerys, Pews, Biddles, Dorrances: These are some of the family names that conjure up aristocratic images of tennis matches at the Merion Cricket Club, golf at Gulph Mills Golf Club, garden and bridge clubs. It was country life among the socially established, built on foundations of secure wealth, limited social circles, and beautiful manners. The locals never missed the Radnor Hunt nor the Devon Horse Show, ice skating at Ardmore’s Philadelphia Skating Club, or sending the next generation to Tuesday dancing classes at Merion Cricket Club to prep them for the Christmastime Assembly and charity balls.

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To go along with its horse show each May, Devon hosts a carnival that is the picture of relaxed suburbia.

Then And Now

Though Ardrossan remains frozen in time, the rest of the Main Line has roared forward into the modern era with its inexorable development of open spaces, its influx of new families of every stripe, its craft beer joints, pilates, and yoga studios, and its artisanal fair-trade coffee roasters. Given so much change, it’s only natural that the Main Line’s quintessential style—colorful, conservative, and the picture of preppy—would have followed suit. “Our lifestyle used to be more ‘country’ on the Main Line—and sporty,” describes Mackie. “We’d get dressed in our tennis clothes and wear them all day. Women dress better now.”

Former husband and wife Chris and Tory Burch figured significantly in the Main Line look then and now. In the 1970s, Chris and his brother Robert—native Main Line boys—sold preppy Eagle’s Eye cable sweaters. Initially, they peddled their woolen wares to coeds around the Main Line out of their station wagon before opening up a a network of stores nationwide. Tory is no stranger to the suburbs: The Valley Forge native’s eponymous boho-chic brand is the uniform of Main Line ladies, not to mention a multimillion-dollar powerhouse with global appeal.

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Lilly Pulitzer’s colorful prints and leisure aesthetic informed the Main Line’s style even before the brand moved its headquarters here in the 1990s.

But long before Tory, there was Lilly—Pulitzer, that is—a brand that has embodied suburban style for more than 50 years. “When Lilly started her company in 1959 in Palm Beach, it was with the idea of using wild prints to hide juice stains,” says Janie Schoenborn, vice president of creative communications for Lilly Pulitzer. “As her style became a trend, everyone who came to visit Palm Beach brought a little Lilly home with them, and the resort wear started popping up all over the US.”

Pulitzer’s Bryn Mawr boutique was among the first set of stores to open in the mid-60s, thanks to her many Main Line friends. The label’s link to the suburbs was further cemented when two Main Liners bought the brand and moved the headquarters here in the ’90s as generations of women traded those tennis whites for Lilly’s trademark pink-and-green prints. “Those memories of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters wearing their Lilly to parties has created a bond with the brand that is tightly tied to our area,” says Schoenborn.

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Main Line native Tory Burch’s effortless style epitomizes the contemporary Main Line aesthetic.

A sense of a time past is clear as we stroll through the comfortably appointed, elegant rooms of Ardrossan. It was an era of privilege, social ease, and high-spirited house parties—there were no restaurants to speak of—where old friends would stay overnight in comfy guest rooms. That wellheeled sensibility was captured in the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story. The Katharine Hepburn character was loosely inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott and set at the family estate in Villanova. Mackie says, “Katharine Hepburn wasn’t a thing like my Aunt Hopey. Hepburn was rather brittle. My aunt was warm, fun, and loved a good dirty joke.” Very Main Line.

Those generations established an unspoken code of doing things a certain way, but it was a way of life that was unsustainable into the modern era. Massive homes required too much money to keep up. The land surrounding these mansions was sold off and developed, providing prime real estate for new homes. People f locked to the area, encouraged by the opening of the convenient Blue Route, 1-476. Social transience put an end to the rigid social hierarchy.

A Style Evolution

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Since 1896, the Devon Horse Show has captivated audiences with dignity and class befitting the Main Line each summer.

And as social codes evolved, so, too, did Main Line style. Leisure pursuits had dictated the look. Now Main Liners can buy it without ever having to pick up a jib sheet or riding crop. Even though the signature sporty look of the Main Line woman may have switched from tennis clothes to the latest Lululemon yoga pants, there’s a specific relaxed look. A friend who grew up there describes the look today as “sophisticated bling with a fair amount of status jockeying and label worship.”

“Main Line style is more fashion-forward than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s still inf luenced by classic preppiness,” says Amy Korman, author of Killer WASPs, a mystery due out this fall set in Bryn Mawr. “Neiman Marcus opening in the ’90s, joining Saks in Bala Cynwyd, was pivotal. It brought a more modern sense of glamour to the area.”

Much like those generations of Lilly lovers, today’s Main Line moms and daughters are still dressing alike. They may buy the same thing, but they’ll style it differently—this is the Main Line after all. While the men may still be mowing the lawn in old madras pants and a tattered Brooks Brothers polo, don’t expect the real old-timers knocking back Salty Dogs at Gladwyne’s favorite watering hole, The Old Guard House Inn, to be retiring their Nantucket Reds any time soon.

So while the afterglow of the WASP heyday stirs nostalgic feelings, the Main Line’s embrace of sensible trends and the riches that come from a diverse community is something that’s even more pleasing. You wouldn’t find a skinny latte with fancy foam art back in the ’80s (especially from your tattooed barista). That’s a change we can all love.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENDA CARPENTER; NOA GRIFFEL PHOTOGRAPHY (BURCH)

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