“Fashioning the 1950s Vassar Girl: Vassar Student Identity and Campus Dress, 1947-1960.”
Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture; June 2013, Vol. 17 Issue 3, p299.
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.