While researching the discussion over a dress code at early Vassar, I began by reading the earliest College Catalogues. In the catalogues from the first 15 years of the College, I have found that the original language on dress was written in a section entitled, “The College Family” with subsections on “Moral and Religious Education” and “Society and Dress.” In particular, the ladies and their families were instructed thus:
“It is especially desired that the dress of the students shall be simple and inexpensive. Simplicity saves time and thought and money, which to a scholar are precious for higher uses. As exercise will mostly be taken in the College grounds, city walking-dresses are not required, but rather such clothing as will not be injured by active sports and vigorous education….Each student should be provided with an umbrella, thick boots, india-rubber over-shoes, and water-proof cloak; and a warm dressing-gown is indispensable in case of sickness. Students much bring their own towels, napkins, and napkin-rings. Every article belonging to a student should be distinctly marked with her full name.”
This language remained for a considerable period of time. In 1872-73, the name of the subsection changed to “Social and Domestic Regulations” with paragraphs on “Moral and Religious Education” and “Health and Physical Training” following. The entire section was also retitled “The College Home.”
The language on dress and the specifics of what to bring were removed in the 1875-76 catalogue—perhaps the College realized it was a losing battle.
This is a pretty interesting start, and reminds me of something that Dean Emeritus Colton Johnson once told me. This experiment of a college for women was really one of the first things that asked families to let their unmarried daughters live away from home, and because of that the College felt a responsibility to make families feel that they could safely make that choice (because the last thing anyone wants is to send America’s daughters right off the cliffs of moral turpitude). In order to do this, Vassar had to become one of the very first residential colleges as it could not expect ladies to live in boarding houses like the men of universities did. The language of the “College Family” reflects this need as the College really was striving to recreate the safe, family environment away from home.
The commitment to simple dress may have been both to avoid distraction and any vices that come with fancier dress, but it may also have been an attempt to create a level appearance for students coming from a variety of backgrounds.