“Vassar College’s touch football team today issued a challenge to the Kennedy family in Washington: play us,” announced The Poughkeepsie Journal in November 1962.
The reason for such sporting confidence? In the fall of that year, Vassar students had formed the first all-female college touch football teams. With names like the Joss Jocks, Noyes Nymphs and the Senile Seniors, the good-natured teams started out by playing against each other for fun. However, in typical trailblazing Vassar fashion, football quickly became much more than a casual campus pastime. With no other female college teams to play against, they extended invitations to teams from neighbouring men’s schools, including Yale, Princeton and Siena, which led to some high-octane excitement, as students fought it out to be victors in the Vassar “Wash Bowl.”
The national press reveled in the prospect of Vassar women making a foray into the heart of typically masculine college sports. Although Vassar students were no strangers to press scrutiny, newspapers became especially enthralled by this latest sporting development, and their coverage ranged from the amused — with The New York Times observing that “Some of the dramatic highlights included huddles that resembled kaffeeklatsches” — to the mildly impressed, as The Philadelphia News reported: “Outstanding for the girls from Poughkeepsie was the speedy Dee Shell, who was a veritable reindeer in the flanker position.”
Perhaps inevitably, much of the press preferred to simply report sexist commentary and offensive jokes, with headlines like, “Hold That Line! Hold That Well-Built Line!” Articles were also quick to point out that the games were far from dangerous, as the girls could not actually be tackled, rather, they tucked a sock into the back pocket of their blue jeans and if the opponent retrieved the sock, they were tackled. Vassar players quickly realized however, that they had a much greater chance of winning if they tucked the socks deeper and deeper into their pockets, or swapped the sock to different sides constantly throughout the game, leaving their Yale or Princeton opponents in despair.
The rules may have been adapted to give the Vassar students an advantage, including being allowed more players and getting more points for touchdowns, but there was one aspect of the game that was firmly on a level playing field: the styles being worn. Photographs of Vassar students dressed in dirty denim cut-offs, Bermuda shorts, Capri pants, VC sweatshirts, crew neck sweaters and sneakers, being chased by men in equally casual garb, found their way into newspapers across the country.
The Kennedys may have become synonymous with idyllic touch football games on their estate at Cape Cod, all pastel polo shirts and perfectly rolled chinos, but Vassar girls and their opponents cultivated their own mode of football fashion that was equally appealing. The school spirit sweaters, comfy chinos and well worn denim all play an important part in that effortless, classic Ivy League and Seven Sisters uniform of the early 1960s. Perhaps the best accessory for this casual style was a rousing rendition of the chant penned by the New York Times in commemoration of Vassar’s touch football prowess: “Watch the Runner, Watch the Passer, Let’s Go Team, Let’s Go Vassar.” — REBECCA C. TUITE
Rebecca C. Tuite is a writer and fashion historian based in London currently pursuing graduate studies at University of the Arts. Her research is focused on collegiate American fashion, including the construction of the Vassar Girl style as a key archetype of American fashion and womanhood in 1950s American media. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Exeter and Vassar College.