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By Eric Weld   Date: 4/13/10 Bookmark and Share

What the Clothes Say About the Smithie

Imagine you were born about 150 years ago and were among the first to attend Smith College. In 1875, how different would your life be?

Residents of Hubbard house, circa 1879. Courtesy of Smith College Archives. (Click on image for enlarged view.)

Kate Morris, Class of 1879, models apparel of the day. Courtesy of Smith College Archives.

Stella Schwartz ’11 models a bustle as worn by Smith's first students.

The contrast would begin the moment you climb out of bed and dress for the day in layers of heavy garments—cotton drawers and stockings, then a chemise, over which you would pull a cinching bustle and a corset, then a petticoat or two, before finally situating a dress buttoned around your neck and wrists and brushing the soles of your shoes.

All would be exchanged at some point during the day with loose-fitting bloomers, the proper attire for gymnastics class. Then back to the chemise, corset, bustle and petticoats, which would remain when you change dresses for dinner, until bedtime.

“Smithies now can roll out of bed and get to a 9 a.m. class in sweatpants,” compares Rebecca Kaplan ’11, who is teaming with Stella Schwartz ’11 to research the clothing and layers of undergarments worn during the days of Smith’s founding and what they reveal about Smith women’s lives then.

“So much attention to dress was required then,” said Kaplan. “Through the study of period dress, we know that the morning ritual of Smithies has evolved dramatically.”

Schwartz and Kaplan are compiling an exhibition illustrating the plethora of undergarments worn by proper young women of what is known as the “Bustle Period” (circa 1865-1890). The exhibition will be on view around commencement week in the Mendenhall Center display cases outside Hallie Flanagan Studio Theatre.

The students will give a presentation, “Dressing the Pioneer Smithie,” detailing their research and talking about compiling the exhibition during Celebrating Collaborations this Saturday, April 17. The all-day event features more than 300 students giving presentations and performances in various campus locations. Schwartz and Kapaln will present in the 10:45 to noon time slot in Seelye 107.

“I wanted to see what these women’s lives were like,” said Schwartz about the inspiration behind the students’ project, which was researched in collaboration with Kiki Smith, professor of theatre. “Clothing is a good way to get a perspective of their lives, because it’s so personal. You can see the sweat stains on these clothes.”

Though they grappled with clothing that was extremely constrictive and oppressive in its lack of variation, the women of Smith’s first classes were not blind conformists, Schwartz emphasizes.

“These women were doing something women had never done before,” she said about early Smithies’ bucking trends to be among the first women to attend college. “But wearing all this clothing, it has to have had an impact on how they saw the world.”

Presenting their findings at Celebrating Collaborations gives the students an opportunity to sharpen the content of their research, says Schwartz.

“It’s a great advantage because it gives us a test run,” she said. “We can see how people react.”

Their presentation at Celebrating Collaborations also gives the students a chance to display their Smith pride to audience members, many of whom will be prospective students visiting for Open Campus and Discovery Weekend.

“I really wanted to show what was possible at Smith,” said Schwartz, “and to show how cool Smith’s history is.”

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