Woman’s colleges and fashion magazines rose to prominence simultaneously; Barnard was founded just three years after Cosmopolitan. Though the career driven girl produced by the Seven Sisters is easily placed in opposition to the doe-eyed models of Harpers and Vogue, commercial fashion and for-profit education both found their most eager customers in the female college student: they were young, wealthy, impressionable, and eager to grow up. Serious student publications in these early days were broken by ads promising minks, hair ribbons, silk stockings, and high heels. The Barnard girl of the early 20th century was a creature caught between the lure of easy elegance and desirability promised by the fashion industry and no-nonsense denouncement of frippery in favor of scholarship.
As rationing instituted during World War I metamorphosed into thrift necessitated by the depression, Barnard students were ostensibly on a budget. But they also were momentarily allowed to be girls instead of women working for the war effort. The children of the wealthy, they spent hundreds of dollars trolling the big department stores for furs, shoes, and pearls. In 1930, students organized a budget fashion show to demonstrate ready to wear wardrobes at different price points. By spending only $100 on clothes for a single school year, girls could purchase “a coat, two silk afternoon frocks, one woolen dress, one wool crepe, a combination dinner dress and evening dress, a sports sweater and skirt that can be worn with innumerable combinations, a leather coat, and an evening wrap.” While these modes captivated the audience, photographs from the time show students violating these suggested sumptuary laws and struggling under the weight of capacious furs or dressed in various couture evening gowns for college dances. The Junior Prom was extremely popular in the 20s and 30s. For a night, Barnard girls could abandon their sensible shoes and transfer their sorority pins from their cardigans to gauzy chiffon wraps. Like Beauty, they were transformed from inkstained scholars into smiling dress models made radiant by silk that fluttered above the ankle.
Students conformed to the broad styles of the time, and various campus organizations fundraised by holding combined afternoon teas and fashion shows; still, the taste and glamour cultivated for special occasions didn’t always seep into everyday dress. There were a few collegiate staples in the fashions of young Barnardites. Students wore caps and gowns for formal teas and dinners, sorority members sported tiny gold broaches with their Greek letters, “bear pins” were awarded to seniors based on merit, and athletes had jackets with various patches. Aside from this, students wore whatever they could lay hand on at 7 am before they had to be at the greenhouse. A 1936 issue of the Barnard Bulletin records student opinions on campus style:
“When I was a freshman I thought they all looked terrible. Now I look terrible too.”
“Yes, I think the large majority of them are well dressed.”
“Personally, I don’t approve of high heels and nailpolish for college.”
“The dorm students dress like pigs and the day students dress like they’re going to the opera.”
“Now I know what the weird sisters in MacBeth look like.”
“What do I care? Ask Columbia.”
The flippancy of these responses suggests that the majority of Barnard students–though flash with furs and satin in their yearbook photos–were most often seen dashing through the jungle to Milbank with mis-buttoned cardigans and remnants of that morning’s dippy eggs bedewing their blouses. As it was then, so it is today.
-Johana Godfrey, ‘BC 13