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Exhibit highlights Vassar fashion

Costume collection reveals trends in Vassar student life

Assistant Arts Editor

Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 15:05


Christle Chea/The Miscellany News

The Vassar College Costume Collection is currently hosting “Fashioning an Education,” which chronicles Vassar fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s.

In honor of all things sesquicentennial this semester, Vassar has dug deep into what 150 years of education looks like with the opening of "Fashioning an Education," an exhibit that displays student clothing from the 1860s through the 1950s. The exhibit will be on view in the James W. Palmer III gallery from Monday, May 16 to Sunday, June 12.

30 years ago, Senior Lecturer and Costume Designer Holly Hummel rescued many of the old garments from the Drama Department's basement which are now a part of the Vassar College Costume Collection (VCCC). The collection consists of 500 examples of original historic clothing, dating from the mid-19th century to the present, that have been donated by alumnae/i and other friends of the College. Many of the pieces, including the clothing on display in the exhibit, underwent extensive museum cataloging procedures for conservation, and were researched by faculty and students alike. Their findings provide insight into the College's history, and provide a deeper understanding of student life at Vassar.

"We just wanted to let the objects tell us their own stories. Each piece let on a different thread of that," explained co-Curator of the VCCC Arden Kirkland. Several students involved in the project have worked on independent research, comparing and contrasting different pieces of clothing in order to relate them to the College's history as a whole. Faren Tang '13 worked with turn-of-the-century women's fashion at Vassar, investigating the implications of masculinity. Many examples of clothes from the era indeed take on "masculine" qualities; dark colors were common, specifically dark brown and greens, and often dresses resembled men's suits with neck ties and broad shoulder padding.

"We wanted to know why there was such radically different clothing being worn. We learned that there were many different approaches to education. Some women dressed more stereotypical of the masculine women. There was an urge to assert oneself because femininity was associated with inferiority," Tang explained.

The dichotomy of dressing academically versus dressing intellectually was a topic approached by Chloe Boxer '12, whose main area of focus has been the different implications embedded within the traditional Vassar Daisy chain dress, a lacy white dress that was worn by the Vassar class before commencement. Boxer described the dresses as "half-academic" in the sense that it was worn during Commencement, but the girls were also able to choose the specific styles of the dress; it represented a compromise between femininity and what was seen as acceptable in the realm of academia.

"These dresses did not subscribe to masculinity, because they were white and pink with frills. Many questions can be raised from this. Were women taken seriously in academia or did the college find something inherently important in women's dress?" said Boxer.

In light of these questions, Hummel discovered a letter written by a Vassar student in May 1870 that included the observation: "In true sense it is not what you wear but what you are that makes honor here." The statement is somewhat ironic, given that the VCCC research indicates that women's dress was a means by which women proved their intellectualism.

Through her research, Kirkland raises the question of to what extent feminine dress was influenced by the historically-inherent masculinity of education. An example of women's sportswear from 1926 is also on display in the Palmer Gallery. Unlike the rest of the clothing in the exhibit, the t-shirt and shorts combination revealed a girl's legs and arms; according to Kirkland, something can be learned about why this style of dress was eventually adopted. "It comes from a cultural issue of what's acceptable in public. At the time, there was a unique situation of being at an all girl's school," Kirkland explained. During this time, it was unacceptable for a young women to be in the presence of a man without being properly clothed. They experienced this in both the public sphere and private sphere; once the girls arrived at the all-female school, however, this social dynamic changed, and it became more acceptable for students to dress in casual clothing.

Both Tang and Arden believe that modern fashion represents a continuation of the social constructions of bygone days. For example, fashion still adheres to what is considered to be intellectually and academically acceptable. Today's clothing also raises issues of femininity. "There is something to be learned about what we deem to be radical and subversive dress," said Tang. "There are some feminists who say that we should do away with dressing feminine."

Ultimately, the costume exhibit shows how women navigated the world of academia by representing themselves as both intellectualss and women.

"I have always known that many Vassar women have been independent thinkers, and frequently activists, said Hummel. "There are so many examples in student letters and other Vassar papers over the past 150 years to illustrate this. The fact that the students dressed in the silhouette of mainstream fashion, while…at the same time making some concessions in order to focus on their studies, particularly in terms of color and pattern, was particularly interesting," said Hummel.

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