When Marilyn Monroe steps onto the screen in “Some Like It Hot,” wearing elaborate furs and gowns, her soft blond curls swept into an elegant chignon, she spends much of her time pretending to be a wealthy, well-to-do Vassar student. She is a classic example of Hollywood’s vision of the Vassar Girl: the stereotypical rich, white, smart and attractive debutante.
However, the real trends in Vassar style were not being set by a Hollywood costumer. During the 1950s, Vassar students became fashion leaders of everyday campus style for women. Just as Princeton became recognized as the leading school for setting menswear trends, so Vassar quickly became known as the most fashionable college for women, popularizing a look for girls that was the equivalent of the Ivy League Look for boys.
Founded in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1861, Vassar College was established “to be to women what Harvard and Yale are to young men.” Vassar College went fully co-educational in 1969, but following World War II, a small number of young men were admitted on the GI Bill. The relaxed clothes of these “Vassar Vets” — khakis, jeans, Bermuda shorts, Brooks Brothers button-downs and loafers — had a marked impact on the attitudes of Vassar women towards a more casual way of dressing. Suddenly it was more acceptable for girls to wear stovepipe pants (although skirts remained required for dinner), oxford shirts, denim (in moderation), plaids, tartans and Bermuda shorts, which echoed the new male influence on campus.
As the ’50s progressed, however, Vassar style became increasingly defined in relation to the neighboring Ivies. Many female students saw the Ivy League Look as a means of outwardly affirming their right to be in this exclusive, selective and respected academic world. “Looking too feminine wasn’t in,” recalls Mira Lehr ’56. “I started wearing less makeup and very simple clothes and hair cut — kind of a female version of what the guys were wearing at Princeton and Yale. I was dressing to show intellect and to be part of the elite.”
Soon Vassar women had adopted their own unofficial campus uniform: Bermuda shorts (madras or Black Watch tartan), knee socks, loafers, Brooks Brothers oxford shirt (preferably men’s), topped with a classic Vassar blazer, Shetland sweater or cashmere twin set.
The influence of Ivy-educated fathers, brothers and boyfriends played a leading role in this transition to full-fledged Ivy style. For years, college girls had watched boys visit Brooks Brothers, J. Press and Fenn-Feinstein for their collegiate wardrobe, and now girls rushed to these same stores to purchase their own college collections.
Vassar style was almost “a direct clone of men’s Ivy League style,” remembers Karen VanderVen ’59, adding that girls even wore menswear in small sizes to get the genuine look. Brooks Brothers had launched its women’s capsule collection in 1949, presumably profiting from the popularity of classic menswear pieces on Seven Sisters campuses. Yet many women continued to prefer the look and feel of a classic men’s oxford.
In fact, Brooks Brothers remained a key link between collegiate men’s and women’s dressing. As Lehr recalls, “The more you could buy from Brooks Brothers, the better. I ran to Brooks Brothers to buy everything; the store had an attitude that made you feel you were part of this select group who were smart, privileged and had great futures.” This was partly due to the fact that the New York store, close in proximity to Vassar’s Poughkeepsie location, regularly offered dedicated customer service to Vassar girls packing for college, providing them with personal assistance in selecting every garment they would need in order to dress the part on and off campus.
Ultimately, the definitive 1950s Vassar Girl uniform began to dissipate with the dawn of the ’60s. Much like the demise of its central inspiration, the Ivy League Look, classic Vassar style was considered anachronistic and irrelevant by students by the late ’60s. By the time the school went fully co-educational in 1969, skirts were no longer required for dinner, the Bermuda short was replaced by denim, and the preppy, privileged Vassar look was disregarded as a sign of an old-school elitism undesirable in Vassar’s new, more egalitarian, co-ed environment. The 1950s really was the golden age of iconic Vassar style, and probably the last time you could spot a Vassar girl by her Bermudas. — REBECCA C. TUITE
Top image: Bermudas and bit loafers at Vassar College, 1951.
Image two: Vassar student, Mademoiselle magazine, 1960.
Image three: From Brooks Brothers‘ debut women’s collection, 1949.
Image four: Vassar students captured in Vogue, 1957.
Very interesting and a great contribution to the blog!
Girl on the bike on the left gives me a Katherine Hepburn vibe, while the top girl in the bit loafers reminds me of Teresa Wright.
What a marvelous post, it brings back memories of my mother in the black watch bermudas and white blouse. Ms. Tuite’s insight on the topic is wonderful, we look forward to her book. And we shall definitely alert our readers to the opportunity for a little history delivered in stellar style.
How nice to see the female side of the Ivy League look! I agree that this is definately a great addition to an already great blog. Hopefully we can look forward to more from Tuite in here!
Looking very much forward to the Vassar Style book.
Good article. I loved it! Great photos too. Keep up the awesome work.
What a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you so much for sharing, I look forward to reading more for this young women.
The illustrative photos are taken from fashion magazines and show the “official” Brooks Look. But archival photos from 1950s magazines like Life will undoubtedly show the other side of female campus clothes at Ivy League schools. The quote “looking too feminine wasn’t in” makes an overlooked point. Many young women on campus had short haircuts, wore jeans and their father’s white business shirts (very over-sized), crew socks and penny loafers. It was a decidedly and purposefully negligent, boyish look. This disheveled look often caused something of town-gown problem, as the freer clothing was often thought to indicate a freer moral code. Cigarettes and jitterbugging to rock ‘n roll music didn’t help the image in the eyes of town folk. It’s important not to mistake the official fashion statement for what was actually worn.
As a modern (male) Vassarion, I’d like to just say how much I wish Vassar girls still looked like these women.
I love this piece, but I would argue that the 1960s Zeitgeist was not sufficient to do the standard female Ivy aesthetic in, as anyone who lived through the late 1970s and early 1980s can attest. Only since then has traditional collegiate style become the object of permanent ridicule and scorn in the popular culture, and come to be regarded as “frumpy” by most modern students. It’s a pity.
As someone who wrote “Audrey Style” (a biography of Audrey Hepburn that started the style biography and, yes, the first person to use the word “Style” in the title), and a graduate of VC, I look forward to her book.
Fortunately, I moved beyond BB years ago.
Ha, this is so true. And that’s exactly what I wore to the interview.
the store had an attitude that was meant to instill in you that you were the best (just look around) and that you had responsibilities at the highest levels that would require the goods they were selling you
Today, Vassar students of both sexes dress as badly as students at Harvard and Yale.
How “sorority girls” at the better Southern schools dress. For game days, and, at Furman, Wofford, and Sewanee, for class. Love the tweed skirt/kilt-knee socks look.
Super contribution! More like this!
This is how my sisters dressed in at a catholic school in of all places Greenville Miss. in the late 50s and San Antonio, Tx. in the 60s at public school. I can never remember my older sisters not owning Weejuns. This is how middle class gals dressed off campus in my suburban public high school in the late 60s, I graduated in 1970. The dress code prohibited girls from wearing pants of any kind till the temps reached freezing and skirts to the knee. Boys had similar codes, but mostly about hair and my favorite to violate, Weejuns without socks.
I credit my taste and knowing how to dress to my older sisters. They bought my clothes till I was 13.
Big sisters come in handy for a lot of things, or so I hear. I wish I had had a couple.
There definitely was neo-prep style among women at seven sisters and ivy campuses decades later, mostly courtesy of Ralph Lauren and J Crew, and I highly doubt Vassar escaped the 70s/80s preppy fashion trends. Maybe Tuite sees ivy as distinct, and I think a good case can be made for that, but certainly in terms of college women in pearls and oxford cloth there is continuity. And it is very worth pointing out, especially at places like princeton and uva, that this style was worn across races and, to a large extent, especially in the south, across socio-economic differences.
As far as an actual boyfriend oxford shirt is concerned, I think an indoor/outdoor distinction is perhaps desirable.
There have always been BDs made for women. I imagine women shopped in the B Bros. boys dept, just like they did in the late 70s, till now in the RL boys section. In the 60s women had the Villagers BD and maybe Gant, in the 70s Gitman and Pulitzer.
This is how I remember sorority girls looked in the late 50s and early 60s. Other upper class and upper middle also. Sure wish I was back there now.
A lot of women did shop in the Brooks boys department. Big name jockeys also.
The look was still prevalent around the women’s schools in Virginia in the 70’s and 80s. The young lady in the second picture would have been right at home at Mary Baldwin, Sweet Briar, Hollins, Southern Seminary, Randolph-Macon, etc. at any time in that era. Frankly I think she would be quite a hit at UVA, W&L or Hampden-Sidney today.