“Fashioning the 1950s “Vassar Girl”: Vassar Student Identity and Campus Dress, 1947–60.”
Journal of Fashion Theory 17, no. 3 (2013): 299–320.
In 1957, Clifford Coffin photographed real Vassar students as models for the annual Vogue college issue. High fashion and elite education were combined and the photographs underscore the significance of the “Vassar Girl” as both a cultural and sartorial icon during this decade: a media-cultivated, almost mythical presence that permeates 1950s American media, popular culture, and fashion discourses. What these images more pressingly demonstrate is that, by the 1950s, the “Vassar Girl” was a powerful entity in American culture: seemingly both real and imagined, but lucrative all the same. Genuine Vassar students had to navigate a series of sartorial assumptions and expectations to assert and formulate their own identity, both within and without, the campus culture, providing material for a rich exploration of individual and collective identity of Vassar students at the mid-century.
Following the collection and analysis of original oral testimony of hundreds of mid-century Vassar graduates and studies of iconic garments of the period, this article provides an explorative analysis of the ways in which fashion functioned in the construction of personal and collective identity at Vassar, and the construction and perpetuation of a “Vassar Girl” aesthetic and brand in American fashion and media discourses of the 1950s. Grounding the exploration in an analysis of Vassar’s revolutionary psychological and developmental study of its students during the 1950s (the Mellon Study), this article will undercut media discourses and hyperbole to root considerations of dress and identity in the statistical and narrative proof of original college records from the pre-feminist era, which was also the last full decade of all-female education at Vassar.
BOOK REVIEW: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICAN FASHION
The Journal of Design History, Forthcoming 2019.
A review of The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-century Women Designers, edited by Nancy Deihl.
“Couture, Taste and ‘Fabrics with a French Accent’: Elsa Schiaparelli’s Designs for Waverly Fabrics in the U.S., 1956-1965.”
It was the spring of 1957 and the reviews were in from Paris: “The most interesting collection I have ever seen, breathtaking in beauty, sentimental with the simple elegance of Schiaparelli. An ensemble to satisfy the most discerning of tastes.” However, this was not a laudatory judgment on the latest couture collection to emerge from Schiaparelli’s world-famous atelier at 21 Place Vendôme in Paris; rather, this was a review of Schiaparelli and Waverly’s first collaborative range of furnishing fabrics: Schiaparelli for Waverly. This inaugural event encapsulated much about the marketing strategy that would come to define the Schiaparelli for Waverly collection in American media: A strategy that emphasized Schiaparelli’s long-standing heritage as couture designer, perpetuated notions of France (and Paris specifically) as the pinnacle of taste, class and style; and blended high-fashion with the latest technologies in Waverly’s groundbreaking textile development to make new, synthetic ‘miracle’ fibers and fabrics palatable to middle-class consumers for introduction into the typical American home.
This article focuses on fabric samples from the Schiaparelli-Waverly collection, as well as the advertising, marketing and editorial features produced for and by the collection, in order to frame the Schiaparelli-Waverly range in the broader context of fashion’s influence on interior design in the 1950s, while also considering the more nuanced associated issues of American taste, emerging textiles technologies and pervasive notions of ‘Frenchness’ in mid-century American culture, style and interiors.