Boyfriend Jacket: The Vassar Girl and the Ivy League Look

New contributor Rebecca C. Tuite, an English Ph.D. candidate studying the sociology of American fashion, recently toured the Northeastern US interviewing ’50s-era Vassar alumnae. In this article, on how the Ivy League Look influenced Seven Sisters style, she shares some of her findings.

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

Rebecca C. Tuite is a writer and fashion historian based in London. After stints at Harper’s Bazaar and Teen Vogue in New York, she returned to the UK to concentrate on graduate school, focusing on fashion history and culture. Currently a student at University of the Arts, London, her research includes the construction of Vassar Girl style as a key archetype of American fashion and womanhood in 1950s American media. She completed her undergraduate studies at both the University of Exeter and Vassar College. Her first book, “Vassar Style,” is due next year.

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.

12 Comments on "Boyfriend Jacket: The Vassar Girl and the Ivy League Look"

  1. Very interesting and a great contribution to the blog!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Good article. I loved it! Great photos too. Keep up the awesome work.

  6. What a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing, I look forward to reading more for this young women.
    Thanks, again.
    Always, Bumby

  8. G. Bruce Boyer | August 12, 2010 at 6:07 am |

    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.

  9. As a modern (male) Vassarion, I’d like to just say how much I wish Vassar girls still looked like these women.

  10. 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.

  11. Pamela Keogh | August 24, 2010 at 1:06 pm |

    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.

    Great site!

  12. Ha, this is so true. And that’s exactly what I wore to the interview.

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