Fashioning an Education

Introduction

"A collection of the clothing worn by students at different periods would at least raise, if it did not answer, the question of how far dress has been influenced by education."

-Lucy Maynard Salmon. “A Museum of Vassar College.” Vassar Miscellany (November 1911): 45.

How far has dress been influenced by education? Or more simply, has dress been influenced by education? How is this particular to women’s education? What other factors have influenced changes in what we wear, and how do they relate to education? To pose some answers to these questions, we have spent a great deal of time not only with the objects, but also in the Vassar Library’s Special Collections, immersing ourselves in resources related to the women who wore these articles of clothing.
 
Salmon, who is still famous at Vassar for having coined the phrase "Go to the source!" did not just mean text-based primary sources - she was very interested in the study of material culture, such as clothing, as a way of looking at history. These garments are artifacts from Vassar's history, and tell their own stories about the women who wore them, the time and circumstance they were worn in, and the event they were worn for, not to mention the people who made them.
 
What does education have to do with fashion? Some believe that fashion interferes with education - many schools have dress codes or uniforms for that reason, and officials at Vassar have tried at various times to regulate student dress, without much success. Looking over the last 150 years, since Vassar was chartered as the first college to educate women with goals on a par to men's colleges, the changes in what women wear have been tremendous. For many centuries preceding the college's founding, women's fashionable dress in Western culture was most often extreme in decoration and manipulation of the female body. Brief periods of more simple, comfortable, mobile dress never lasted very long. However, from the 1900's to 1960's, simultaneous with the widespread growth of women's education, women's clothing again became simpler, more comfortable, and more mobile, but this time went even farther in that direction, and has relatively stayed in that direction. Surely this cannot be a coincidence.
 
Education is not the only factor to affect fashion. Others include industrialization and manufacturing, photography and film, economics and consumption, and even the simple desire in fashion for something different than what came before. However, the influence of education is tied in together with all of these other influences, and cannot be ignored.
 
-Arden Kirkland ‘93