by Alison Church Hyde, Class of 1959
In March 2010 I responded to a survey that came from London via email, from a woman who had recently spent a year at Vassar. Her research title: “The Fight Between Aesthetics and Academics for 1950s Vassar Girls.” I thought it would be fun to take the survey, and the following are my answers, revised:
Standard daily attire in the 1950s: Bermuda shorts, knee socks, loafers, and sweaters. Formal: panty girdle, maybe a little black dress. Codes: skirts were mandatory for dinner in the dining hall, jackets for male visitors. After dinner we could remove the skirt, go back to shorts, for bridge playing on the living room floor. We drank coffee from tiny demitasse cups, filled at a huge samovar. It’s a legend that white gloves were required for tea and a myth that classmate Jane Fonda appeared for tea dressed only in white gloves.
Simplicity patterns helped me select my wardrobe. My mother sent me to a Singer Sewing course when I was in 8th grade. I made all my high school and college clothes, finishing a skirt on the way to Vassar freshman year, just as I had done on hems for proms and high school graduation. My father loved to tell of my sewing the last stitches as a date knocked on the door.
Style/Aesthetic. Anything goes as long as it’s Bermuda shorts. Blind dates from male colleges seemed to wear a charcoal grey uniform. I had no preconceived notions of Vassar attire, but when I picked up my high school senior photos, the photographer’s wife asked where I was going to college. “Vassar,” she exclaimed, “You’ll never be able to keep up with those girls in fur coats!” This struck some apprehension into the heart of a florist’s daughter, but I found that Rockefellers dressed the same as everyone else. I knew one girl, the daughter of Cuban President Batista’s doctor, who reportedly had 50 sweaters, but my three were enough for me.
I always wished I had a long kilt skirt with leather strap buckles on the side. Later when I had one, I wore it everywhere for about 20 years. I didn’t read fashion articles. I am so surprised at the question about the battle between aesthetics of dress and academic ability! The tension was between using your academic ability and learning for careers after college, or being a poised wife of a handsome professional guy. We were told that we could do anything we wanted to do, and we would be well prepared for careers by this fine liberal arts college. Yet, the flashing of engagement rings in the senior dining hall were a sign of another path. Aesthetics had nothing to do with it!
The stereotype of Vassar women that has always bothered me has nothing to do with fashion, but entirely to do with wealth and class. What do you tell people who think Vassar is a finishing school for wealthy debutantes? In the 1950s at least 40 percent of the girls were on scholarship, the college being committed to having a diverse student body. For me Vassar was challenging academics, anything goes fashion-wise, fun, financial aid to make it possible, and lifelong friends!