By the 1950s, the “Vassar Girl” in popular culture was a phenomenon, perpetually represented wearing Lanvin suits, white kid leather gloves, fancy hats and high heels. In reality, Vassar students of this era were redefining the “Ivy League Look” of men at Harvard, Yale and Princeton for themselves: B\ermuda shorts, button-downs and blazers became markers of their own academic status and ability. However, Vassar itself forbade the iconic Ivy-inspired look from being worn beyond the college, announcing that skirts must be worn for dinner and for any event or trip off campus. As a result, mid-century Vassar women, and their sartorial preferences, were a clear indicator of a transitioning culture, both on campus and in America at large.
Post World War II and with the advent of the Cold War, Americans were marrying younger than ever before and Vassar was not immune from this cultural shift. Paralleling this renewed focus on the home, domesticity and marriage, Vassar dress became split between more masculine Bermudas and slacks worn on campus during the week for scholarly pursuits and latent femininity in the form of elegant dresses, sweater sets and plaid kilts for weekends away, on dates and, of course, for weddings. Students acutely remember both the expectation and desire to be married, but in true Vassar style, the 1950s classes still produced incredibly successful professional women and were, as Karen Frede Nangle ’59 remembers, “pushing the glass ceiling before it was even called that.”
-this section by Rebecca C. Tuite
Ms. Tuite’s research has involved collecting oral and written testimony from hundreds of 1950s-era Vassar women, as well as extensive mass media and archival research, and material culture studies on actual garments, to better understand the “Vassar Girl” media myth and the realities of life as a Vassar student. Her book, Vassar Style: Fashion, Feminism & 1950s American Media will be the first cultural history of Vassar at the mid-century that uses dress as a conduit for a collective women’s experience, both within the confines of the Vassar campus and in the context of America at large. For more information, visit www.rebeccatuite.co.uk.