Shirts, Blazers and Penny Loafers: The History of Vassar Style

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I had recently visited the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum to check out their Ivy Style exhibit. It was great! Which then inspired my fashion history paper on Vassar Style. Disclaimer: This is an educational essay I worked on as a student of NYIT. Not for commercial use.

Read the article by clicking ‘read the rest’ below, or download the PDF (It’s a lot prettier!)

SHIRTS, BLAZERS & PENNY LOAFERS: THE HISTORY OF VASSAR ST YLE

Considered the prerequisite components of the classic Vassar girl style, Brooks Brothers Oxford shirts, monogrammed blazers, and penny loafers were a status symbol of American  style    and  a  stepping-stone  into  new  standards  of  fashion  and  equality.

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In the 1950’s the girls of Vassar College, part of the group of prestigious all-female colleges known as the Seven Sisters, made attempts to “indicate equal intellectual  tenacity”1       not  only  in  the  classrooms but also with their iconic fashion legacy known as Vassar Style. The college, which was founded in Pough- keepsie, New York in 1861, was started “to be to women what Harvard and Yale are to young men.”2 It was a message that women were equal to men and  female academic institutions were just as ‘high-status’ as their male counterparts.

After    World    War    II    passed    and    the Cold War approached, Americans experienced a cultural shift and began their marriages at much younger  ages. As  an  emphasis  began  to  focus  back on the domestic life, Vassar clothing split into two categories – the very much masculine scholarly attire and the much more feminine elegant dress. Vassar style is one of the prongs of the masculine-feminine split.

Mira   Lehr,   class   of   1956   recalled   that, “looking too feminine wasn’t in. [You dressed] to show intellect and to be part of the elite.”2  The girls began to wear less makeup and much simpler clothes, a “female version” of what the men wore at Princeton and Yale.

Looking too feminine wasn’t in.”

- Mira Lehr (‘56)

The more masculine, “female version” of the Ivy Style seen at the Ivy League colleges, went into full swing in the 1950’s as the women redefined the style for them- selves. Just as Princeton was the college for men’s fashion trends, Vassar had become the most fashionable women’s college. However, Vassar had prohibited their “Ivy inspired look” from being worn outside of scholarly activity. Skirts had to be worn during dinner and for any event off of campus. Nevertheless, the students of Vassar clearly displayed that “a transitioning culture”was on the rise both “on campus and in America at large.” 3

A  staple  in  both  Vassar  Style  and  Ivy  Style was   the   Brooks   Brothers   Oxford   shirt.  For   years, college girls stood by and watched the boys flock to stores like Brooks Brothers and J. Press for their collegiate wardrobe. In the 1930’s and 40’s Brooks Brothers, who tried to cultivate a men only atmosphere, started noticing that women had been shopping for themselves in the men’s section. For example, their popular salmon-pink shirts for men had caught the female eye and women began“borrowing them from their brothers’, fathers’ and husbands’ closets.”4 The women that couldn’t borrow in return went straight to the stores.


Student wearing typical campus wear: Brooks Brothers Pink Shirt.

© 1954 TIME and LIFE Pictures; Photographer Nina Leen

 

A woman shopping in the Brooks Brothers store.

© 1954 TIME and LIFE Pictures

Orders were even placed directly to the president of the store. A young woman once wrote, “Please  send  me  one  of  your  famous  pink  shirts. I  wear  a  size  10  dress.  I  promise  to  leave  the collar open and tuck the tail in.” 4 As it became apparent that Brooks Brothers’ conservative reputation wouldn’t be harmed they started manufacturing the pink shirts for  women  and  even  discreetly  placed  a  counter at the back of the store where young “women from college… could buy the Brooks Brothers… shirt[s] many   of   them   had   [already]   begun   wearing.”5

Please send me one of your famous pink shirts. I wear a size 10 dress. I promise to leave the collar open and tuck the tail in.”

Yale-Vassar bike race day 1952. Girls pictured with Vassar blazers.

© 1952 TIME and LIFE Pictures

Vassar had also created their own answer to the popular monogrammed dining club jackets that the men at the Ivy League schools sported, the Vas- sar College blazer. In the 1950’s women’s fashion had nothing like it, and Karen VanderVen (class of ’59) remembers  that  students  had  “wanted  something that actually said Vassar on it”1 to promote solidarity, spirit, and belonging. Although their sports team uniforms and sweaters did say Vassar on them, they weren’t as stylish as the blazers. So Robert Rollins Blazers, a  manufacturer  in  New  York  City  known for making blazers for prestigious men’s colleges, had started making the blazers for the students at Vassar.

On campus, the Vassar student body was beginning to be increasingly economically diverse so the blazers were offered at variable price points. A blazer went for $17.95 or $19.95 depending on the quality of material that was chosen. The blazers, which were usually of grey wool flannel, could also be cus- tomized by student’s request. A rose and grey blazer was  designed  to  match  the  college’s  official colors.

Robert Rollins Blazers of New York: Grey Wool Vassar Blazer

© 2011 Logan Woodruff

Weejuns,  popularly  known  as  penny  loafers were the classic slip-on shoe worn both by males and females. Commonly seen on campuses of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges, these moccasin- inspired shoes originated in Norway (hint: the name “weejuns”)  and  were  brought  back  to  America  in the 1930’s. Spalding took the design and renamed them loafers, while G.H. Bass added a distinctive characteristic – a double thick leather strap with a little hole – later called penny loafers. As the story goes, college kids  on  dates  would  stash  a  coin  in  each  shoe, enough for an emergency phone call for a ride home.

As the Vassar girls took inspiration from the Ivy League boys, penny loafers became the ubiquitous shoe that scholarly women paired with bobby socks – socks with a thick cuff. They were seen throughout the Seven Sisters campuses as the “go-to” shoe and became a true staple in casual college dress for women and men alike.

It  was  more  than  just  a  collection  of popular collegiate garments, which would later be termed  as  “preppy.”  The  Brooks  Brothers  oxford shirts, monogrammed blazers, and penny loafers became classic examples of American style  and also a stepping-stone into new standards of fashion and equality.  -  MICHELLE SVOBODA

Vassar girls on bikes. Pictured with penny loafers.

© 1952 TIME and LIFE Pictures

Works Cited

1. Tuite, R. C. (2011, May 4). Bermudas and Blazers: Redefining the “Ivy Look” at Vassar in the 1950s. Contrast, 4-7.

­­          Retrieved September 29, 2012, from http://issuu.com/vassarcontrast/docs/contrastspring2011/4

2. Tuite, R. C. (2010, August 10). Boyfriend Jacket: The Vassar Girl and the Ivy League Look [Web log post]. Retrieved

September 29, 2012, from http://www.ivy-style.com/boyfriend-jacket-the-vassar-girl-and-the-ivy-league-look.html

3. Tuite, R. C. (n.d.). Fashioning an Education. Vassar College Costume Collection. Retrieved September 29, 2012, from

http://vcomeka.com/vccc/exhibits/show/fashioning/1950

4. David, L. (1950, September). There’s Only One Brooks Brothers. Coronet. Retrieved September 29, 2012.

5. Male Designs on Women. (1954, April 5). LIFE, 115. Retrieved September 29, 2012.

6. Birnbach, L. (1980). Chapter 4: Dressing the Part. In The Official Preppy Handbook (pp. 121-156). New York: Workman

Publishing.

7. Bourne, L. (2010, April 27). In Women’s Clothing, Borrowing From The Guys Is Big Business. Forbes. Retrieved

September 29, 2012, from http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/27/runway-looks-what-to-wear-forbes-woman-style-fashion-brands.html

8. Fashion Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Preppy Look. Retrieved September 29, 2012, from

http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Modern-World-1946-1960/Preppy-Look.html

9. Lehr, M. (2011, June 14). WORD – Vassar Style [Web log interview by L. G. Mettler]. Retrieved September 29, 2012,

from http://tomboystyle.blogspot.com/2011/06/word-vassar-style.html

10. A Penny for your Thoughts. (2012, February 23). Of Rogues and Gentlemen. Retrieved September 29, 2012, from

http://blog.brooksbrothers.com/the-clothes/a-penny-for-your-thoughts/

11. The Penny Loafer. (n.d.). Ralph Lauren Style Guide. Retrieved October 04, 2012, from http://global.ralphlauren.com/en-

gb/Style/Men/RLClassics/Pages/penny_loafer.aspx

12. Tuite, R. C. (2010, November 3). Crashing the Boys Club: The Birth of the Brooks Brothers Woman [Web log post].

Retrieved September 29, 2012, from http://www.ivy-style.com/raiding-our-closets-the-birth-of-the-brooks-brothers-woman.html