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Your Work Cut Out for You

1860s to 1880s Group in Fashioning an Education

In her article entitled “It Looks Very Nice Indeed,” Patricia Campbell Warner suggests that the clothing of the students enrolled in early women’s colleges “becomes a device through which we learn how [they] actually lived their lives.”  We can begin our exploration of her suggestion with these first two brown ensembles, dating from the earliest years of Vassar College's existence.               

A letter written by a Vassar student in May 1870, included the observation: “In the truest sense it is not what you wear, but what you are that makes for honor here.”  However, photographs and student letters do indicate that Vassar students, while seeking a “general, a gradual and a wide education,” also cared about current fashion. Before construction even began, specifications for the Main Building of the college called for only three pegs to be supplied for each student: two for the everyday dress and the Sunday dress and a third for the petticoat.  A long, illustrated article in an 1876 Harper’s Magazine describes Matthew Vassar’s reaction to a request from the students for more hanging space for clothing: “he replied [referring to the pegs] as if puzzled…’What do they need more?”’  The article goes on to describe the upright “coffin–like wooden boxes” that were eventually placed in the corners of the rooms to solve the need.”

Hannah W. Lyman, Vassar’s first lady principal, did write to students’ parents requesting that, when packing, their daughters “Bring only very few dresses.”   Furthermore, she enlisted their aid in ensuring that “Vassar College should not become a hot-bed for extravagance in dress.”  Miss Lyman did however acknowledge that elements of daily ceremony would also be a part of college life: “…nor would you want to find your daughter at evening in the same dress in which she had all day been at work.”  It is likely that these two garments in the exhibition are in the style of the day dresses worn to attend classes.
-this section by Holly Katherine Hummel, faculty emeritus