Wedding Dresses from the Vassar Community – More than Just Pretty Dresses

As Vassar begins Spring Break, I’m finally able to carve out a moment to catch you all up with our plans for our next exhibition. We’re not sure of our opening date yet (we’re hoping to open during Senior Week as we did in 2010 and 2011, to be open for Commencement, by May 26) but we know we’ll be open for Reunion, which is from June 7-9 this year.

When considering what to exhibit, I realized that this would be the reunion year for several of our recent donors – and it will also be my own 20th reunion! In 2007, we received a donation of 4 wedding dresses from the same Vassar family – 3 generations of dresses from 4 alums. This grouping alone is fascinating, allowing us to compare the stylistic changes over 52 years in the culture of one family. The middle two dresses of the four were worn by Mary Lee Hartzell ’53 and Ellen McPhillips Baumann ’63. As this will be their reunion year, it seems like the perfect time to display their dresses, along with other interesting wedding dresses we’ve collected over the years.

I have to admit I’ve been hesitant to do a wedding dress exhibition. In my work with our collection, I try very hard to get students past the stage of “Oh! Look at the pretty dresses!” and into the stage of examining such objects as evidence of cultural history, evidence of women’s lives. With wedding dresses, it’s particularly hard to get past the “it’s so pretty” stage, and as hard as it is to get the students working on the exhibit past that, it will be even harder to get the exhibition’s fleeting audience past that.

So, can we find a way to use these “pretty dresses” to examine the changes in weddings and marriage over the last 159 years (the earliest dress we plan to show is from 1854)? Can we appreciate the beauty of these dresses, yet not let that blind us to the complications of the cultural ideals they represent?

As we develop this exhibition, we’d love to hear your feedback. We’re just starting to reach out to the donors of the dresses, and some students are hoping to conduct oral history interviews with the women who wore the dresses, or their relatives. The stories that they provide will determine how this exhibition unfolds. We’re also working on identifying the “missing pieces” – objects that are not in our collection, but that we’d like to seek as loans or donations, to diversify the exhibition. We’ve realized one of the easiest ways to do this is to collect photographs from members of the Vassar community, from a variety of weddings, to showcase diverse traditions and innovations.

So . . .

What did you wear to your wedding?

The Vassar College Costume Collection is seeking photographs and narratives from Vassar community members to showcase a variety of clothing worn for weddings. We are interested in images of both traditional and non-traditional weddings, from diverse ethnic and religious traditions, and we’re particularly hoping to include examples from same-sex weddings.

With your permission, we may display some of the photographs and stories as a part of our upcoming exhibition of wedding outfits, for this year’s Reunion. Email your photos to, or mail copies of your photos to the Vassar College Costume Collection, Box 734, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie, NY 12604. Please include a brief narrative about your wedding and what you wore. Please note that we may not be able to display all the photos received, depending on the number of submissions, and we will not be able to return photos that are mailed to us, but all photographs and stories will inform our research and will be greatly appreciated!

In the weeks to come, we’ll be sharing some of our research, along with some of our process for developing the exhibition. We’ll also be reaching out to you for more feedback – whether you’re an alum/current student/married/unmarried/etc., we’d love to know what you think about the traditions/innovations in weddings and marriage that these dresses represent.

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This work by Vassar College Costume Collection is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.