I was interviewed a little while ago by the online French Cultural ‘zine “Hell’s Kitchen.”
CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE TO BE TAKEN TO A TRANSLATED VERSION.
Here is a transcript of the interview…
Could you introduce yourself? How was your studies at Vassar? How did you get interested in these part of History?
Sure, well, I am from London and majored in English Literature as an undergraduate. I was studying at the University of Exeter, but when the opportunity to attend Vassar College, in upstate New York, for a year arose, I leapt at the chance. I think I first heard of Vassar as a young girl watching classic movies. I watched Some Like It Hotrepeatedly, and all through high school loved American history of the Kennedy era (so knew about Jackie Kennedy’s connection).
And later of course, there was The Group, or the passing quotes by Ava Gardner inMogambo or, another mention in Sabrina. And I also read a lot about Jane Fonda, so had heard all the rumors about her risqué afternoon tea outift (the story goes that she turned up for afternoon tea at the Rose Parlor wearing gloves, pearls and nothing else – not true, of course!). So I was certainly, at least vaguely, aware of Vassar… but mostly within these stereotyped references and knowing that it was a great school.
It was really once I started to study there that I became more interested in how and why these ideas and stereotypes came to exist. I was far more aware of how often “Vassar Girl” was used in popular culture and just wanted to know about the way in which they developed – moving away from my sophomoric view of Vassar that I had largely picked up from Hollywood.
And of course, working at fashion magazines was a major influence on my interest in the “Vassar Girl” look – when I was at Harper’s Bazaar and Teen Vogue, I would take any opportunity to spend time in the Hearst and Condé Nast archives reading vintage magazines and gradually developed a collection of mentions, articles, fashion editorial spreads and photoshoots featuring Vassar and Vassar students over the years. It’s amazing how prominent Vassar students were (and, to a certain extent, are) as models and writers in women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines. So, all of these photocopies, notes and images were the first things I called on when I decided to take the project further.
How come Vassar became the Princeton of Seven Sisters? Were there specific preliminary factors which created a good bed for this style culture?
You know, I think it was probably because of a few different reasons. Even to take this back some way in history, certainly, the fact that Vassar was really the first college to offer a college education to the same academic standard as Harvard and Yale plays an important role: immediately the Vassar student became the focus of an unprecedented amount of media scrutiny, with her hairstyles, her fashion choices, her professional and personal aspirations all becoming fodder for the national press. And this was in the nineteenth century; this was the root of the “Vassar Girl” as a cultural entity, and the Vassar Look as a popular style inspiration (although, of course hoop skirts would be replaced with bermuda shorts for the twentieth century’s most iconic Vassar look). National newspapers and early periodicals are littered with long stories dedicated to how Vassar students dresses, and these laid the groundwork for people to look at Vassar as a place where a very particular style of dress was cultivated within the community.
Anyway, to move this into more contemporary discussions of the Vassar style and its place in the Ivy/Seven Sisters group, Vassar has that special quality of being geographically separate from other colleges and, more specifically, other Ivy colleges, but still within an exclusive and elite Seven Sisters group. Princeton, Yale and Harvard developed a style that was unique and codified by students on their respective campuses, but also maintained a unified style culture as part of the Ivy League community. In much the same way, Vassar was separate enough for its students to both play with the Ivy style culture, and adopt elements of the Ivy look that they had seen their brothers or fathers wearing, but also to re-define it as their own.
While there’s always the suggestion that Vassar’s more wealthy students had a lifestyle that afforded a more expensive fashionable look, which contributed to the eventual high profile nature of the Vassar style. The majority of students were not interested in the “Vassar Girl” style that the media loved (the debutante, ladylike, high-society girl in Lanvin and Dior), but rather, dressed as they wanted to: perhaps more casual and informal than many suspected, but still a source of widespread fascination and imitation.
Your thesis and upcoming book mentions feminism, do you think adopting a boyish style, similar to their masculine peers, was somehow a way for those young women to affirm a new form of feminity, a more emancipated one?
I’ve looked a lot at the way menswear was used in the Vassar style of the 1950s and it’s interesting that certainly, many young women enjoyed being able to dress in a style similar to that of their Ivy educated brothers. To experience purchasing a college wardrobe somewhere like Brooks Brothers would have been, up to that point in their lives, something that their brothers and fathers had enjoyed. So menswear did hold a level of status: it was another outward affirmation that they were academic equals to the Ivy men in their families and in society.
But as for the question of emancipation, or a new femininity… this kind of thing was written about a lot at the mid-century; suggestions that Vassar students wore denim or men’s shirts as a kind of performative gesture to show “bohemianism,” or “liberation,” or “rebellion,” but this kind of argument always relied on the suggestion that this was all just an act, that is was all before they settled down into marriage and domesticity. So, it was about a freedom of sorts, as it allowed the students to focus entirely on their studies and created an egalitarian feel on campus during the week that was not predicated on any serious dress code (other than skirts for dinner), but I don’t think it signaled a sign of complete freedom in terms of women’s rights or liberation. The 1950s is still really the pre-feminist era, and you can see hints of what was to follow and the changes on the horizon, but the transition to greater equality was not complete at this point.
Ultimately, I think that the menswear inspired style adopted certainly indicated a status on par with male collegians at neighbouring Ivy League colleges, but allowed a sense of freedom and focus on campus during the week, where studying came first always.
The women’s role during the World War II pulled the trigger for those gender changes, didn’t it? Giving evidence that they were as skilled as their husbands to do the work of the latter while they were at the front.
Certainly attitudes more generally had started to change after World War II. Of course, Vassar was filled with the best and brightest young female students in the country, so graduates were always pushing the boundaries professionally. Vassar had always produced doctors, lawyers, writers and women moving into many areas of business and academia, so its students still continued to pursue careers.
However, 1950s Vassar graduates still encountered shocking sexism and discrimination as women in the workplace. And the question “after college, what?” remained a central thought for graduates throughout the decade. Most students still felt a pressure to achieve marriage and family as much as anything else: In 1951, the results of a study showed that 95% of Vassar students indicated that they wish to be married and have children before they are thirty, while 15% percent hoped to be engaged in a full-time career at that age.
I remembered reading words from Bruce Boyer saying that these classic Ivy style was a way for young men coming back from war to show their will to be part of the “grey flannel suit” society, did the Vassar style have the same role for the American women, being a way to show their will to change the classic woman’s role in Western societies?
I think the Vassar style, on campus at least, indicated a sense of independence, as one 1950s graduate described it, “I was dressing for intelligence.” Vassar graduates were wanting to push their education into excellent jobs and careers, but many were not being sure how exactly to make this happen, and still knew that marriage and home-making was heavily expected of them. Yes, the Vassar look on campus was casual, heavily influenced by menswear and gave an impression of not trying too hard, of being easy, appropriate and indicative of the Ivy League look. But the fact that skirts HAD to worn for dinner (and this stayed in the rule book until 1969, when Vassar went co-educational) underscores the greater challenges women faced in the 1950s: this was a transitional period and the developments in work and society are certainly mirrored by gradual changes in trends on campus, but also by the rules and expectations of more feminine dress that remained in force.
How do you think this style impact the feminine gender’s definition in the 50s USA? How were those young women perceived by the rest of the American population?<
I think Vassar’s campus style had a big impact on the way young college women were dressing in the 1950s. Yes, there was a collective “college girl” style, but there’s no denying the extra attention that Vassar’s look received. It was representative of a fascinating generation of women, and it really was the height, the peak of its popularity and appeal. I think that the Vassar style enjoyed its Halcyon days a little before the best days of the Ivy Look, but that’s just my opinion. It was as though the Vassar look of the 1950s captured every aspect of transition: attitudes towards jobs, careers, marriage, independence, men, equality. There is a mix of old and new, a mixture of tradition and innovation in the way that menswear mixed with traditional preppy womenswear, but that the girls still evoked old-time, 1950s glamour and dresses on formal occasions.
With regards to the perception of Vassar students, I would say the overriding feeling was one of respect. These young women were exceptionally gifted academically and intellectually; they were from a very highly regarded college. What’s interesting about the perception of Vassar and Vassar students in general during this time was the impact of the “Vassar Girl” stereotype that was widely circulated in American popular culture and media. There was always this stigma of the “Vassar Girl” – a vague notion of snobbery, or that the students were “high-hat,” or debutantes, or society girls. But this was all just an exaggeration of the fact that, yes, there were wealthy students at Vassar, and daughters of important national and international figures, but really, this was not the full picture of the reality of Vassar undergraduates.
I saw that you attended class meeting, of ’51 for example. Do they realize the impact they had on the American feminine community at that time?
Yes, I arranged focus groups with Vassar graduates from the 1950s and it was fascinating. I think that it is really only now, looking back, that they realize just how much of an impact they had on American women at the time. One graduate recalling this topic started talking to me about the careers of Vassar women and said, “We were pushing the glass ceiling before it was even called that.” And this is really what was happening: before feminism, Vassar women were defining a sartorial style, a determined approach to careers and a continued desire to raise families.
I think that most students did have a vague awareness that their style influenced other young American women, mostly because students were so frequently recruited to model in fashion magazines, or to serve of College Boards in department stores and that sort of thing. Especially, once they graduates and left the “bubble” of the campus culture, they saw that their style almost preceded them and employers/new friends/partners all seemed to have a certain style expectation of them, which largely stemmed from the Vassar image in media, and that was not always favorable.
Your thesis discussed the role of the American media regarding this style. Vassar girl’s stereotype is pretty strong in the US pop culture (Some like it hot, Gentleman’s agreement, The Simpsons, American Dad, etc.), how the media promoted this new style, which was less congruent with the constructed image of it?
Yes, after almost 100 years of promoting the “Vassar Girl” as a high-hat, society girl, who wore the finest designer gowns, furs and jewels, the sartorial informality of 1950s students in reality wasn’t always welcomed, and, in many cases, was quite a shock! To “outsiders,” it was easy to imagine that Vassar students lived in luxury – one article even claimed that they lived the life of Princesses, with butlers, and incredible closets, and personal kitchens! Most likely at the root of the disparity between the style reality and the style myth was, simply, that Lanvin suits, Oleg Cassini gowns, mink and raccoon coats, pearls, heels, make up and the like, were far more lucrative than the jeans, bermudas and shirts borrowed from Dad!
But younger magazines definitely began to embrace the reality of the Vassar style and it became more often marketed toward the young American girl/college girl in magazines from the mid to late 1950s. In many ways, it became aspirational in a much more positive way: it came to represent talented students, not simply the stereotyped “girl.”
You recently wrote about the role of Brooks Brothers within this community and especially about their special service helping new students in having the right look on and off-campus. Do you think that somehow those Vassar girls made the brand realize that a woman side was needed?
Sure, but I think that it was an inevitable development at that point. Vassar students definitely enjoyed the status that came with Brooks Brothers garments, as I mentioned, and Brooks was an authority on college style from a very specific, “Ivy” perspective. I am sure it was more than just Vassar students wanting Brooks Brothersgarments that made them add womenswear, but Vassar must have played some part in that development – they were key potential consumers.
Although, even with the women’s department, there were still plenty of Vassar students, and I’m sure other women, who continued to shop in the men’s department. There is plenty to say on the subject of authenticity when it comes to this style, but certainly at Vassar, the actual men’s garments did not immediately become replaced by women’s, it simply added to the choice available for young women interested in this look.
Was it the main brand in this community? What about J. Press, Bass and other typical men’s brands of that era?
J. Press did actually introduce womenswear briefly – but only briefly – around this time, and there are some great catalog images for their womenswear collection. Some Vassar students would definitely have worn this in the 1950s. Again, this was in response to the amount of college women flooding their stores looking for clothes in the smallest sizes. There were plenty of students at Vassar wearing garments from the stores on Nassau St, or other New Haven stores more typically frequented by men. Usually, this was because they had brothers or boyfriends at college there. No Bass at Vassar really. But yes, Brooks Brothers was definitely one of the more popular brands for the campus style.
Other popular brands were Peck & Peck (particularly for Black Watch Bermudas, which were a definite indicator of Ivy inspiration), Liberty print shirts, Capezio shoes, department stores like Lord & Taylor, B. Altman and similar (although, again, it was more abut knowing the brands and garments that were worn at Vassar and buying only these, not being persuaded by a shop assistant in the College store to buy inappropriate or unnecessary things.
How did Vassar style evolve from this era? Did the hippie style (which includes workwear) influence the campus in the Sixties?
Things certainly started to change throughout the sixties and on campus dress started reflect this change. The first few years of the 1960s showed remarkably little change – but certainly denim gradually began to find increased popularity again, and the typical sixties silhouette started to be seen in the campus style. I think that what really spelled the end for this look was the start of co-education at Vassar: the balance on campus changed, this was a new era in Vassar’s, and America’s history. It was gradual development, for the most part, you can still see students wearing the iconic style into the 1960s: there was talk of a merger with Yale in the early ‘60s and there are some great, iconic shots of Vassar students expressing their support of this on campus, with bermudas and blazers out in full force.
You also wrote about this signifying practice which is “the scarf and locker loop” for lovers. The scarf practice went more general, going from signifying a love relationship in a certain context to the belonging to this context. Have any new practices been created at this moment? Were there others signifying the belonging to sororities, study fields, ect. ?
Vassar has never had, and continues not to have, sororities and I certainly love that about the college. But sure, the college scarf was quite a status accessory and certainly indicated a sense of belonging. There were pieces of jewellery that also indicated belonging and campus solidarity, like the class ring, which was made of gold and had the interlocking “VC” logo embossed on it. The ring was issued each year to the graduating class. And Vassar actually issued an official blazer during the decade, in grey wool with the ‘VC’ logo on the breast pocket – it was very popular. Students enjoyed wearing something that actually had the Vassar name/logo on it. Ivy colleges had their club jackets, their sports team blazers, their House Party jackets, their Letter Sweaters, so this was like Vassar’s equivalent. It really helped promote college spirit.