WORD | Vassar Style

Photo of Mira Lehr, Vassar '56, (2nd from left) from her personal collection.

As you may have noticed, I'm more than thrilled about the upcoming release of the book Vassar Style: Fashion, Feminism and 1950s American Media, by Rebecca C. Tuite. She was kind enough to publish one of her interviews with Mira Lehr, Vassar class of '56 on Tomboy Style as a little taste. Enjoy! —LGM

As a girl over here in London, I grew up seeing Vassar in old movies, hearing the myths about ’50s Vassar Girls, and devouring any books about Jackie Kennedy’s early college career there. But my book research turned my simple intrigue into a cemented belief that Vassar graduates of the 1950s are some of the most phenomenal women, ever. The iconic Vassar campus style during this time was a great incarnation of tomboy style, but as most readers of this blog know, tomboy style is as much about a state of mind as it is about fashion, and this is something that my interviewees have come to represent. Caught in a moment of transition on campus and in America at large, these women were pushing the envelope in terms of dress, academics, ambitions and careers, while continuing to balance the expectations of family and marriage. I'm happy to share part of an interview with the wonderful Mira Lehr as a little taster.

Graduating Vassar in 1956 with a major in Art History, Mira Lehr is now a highly acclaimed artist, living in Miami with four grown children. Lehr's work has been featured in numerous public and private collections and solo exhibitions. In 2008 her oral history was included in the archives of the Getty Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Her achievements and accolades are voluminous, including a feature in the book Miami Contemporary Artists. Lehr's current work is a fascinating mix of fire and paper (Yes, fire. Gunpowder, to be exact. On paper. And it’s amazing!). She’s a quintessential Vassar Tomboy, both in terms of her style and her attitude. —Rebecca C. Tuite

Mira on the Quintessential Vassar Campus Style:

“My mother always accused me of looking like a nun during those years because I started wearing less make-up and very simple clothes and haircut – kind of a female version of what the guys were wearing at Princeton and Yale. Looking too feminine was not in. Gender there – the more you looked like guys the better, it was unisex. And if you were ‘going out,’ you didn’t go out with frilly, fancy, girlie things, you went out with classic things from Anne Fogarty. [Mostly] the guys and the women could be interchangeable in a way because you wore these button-down shirts, the grey pants, the bermudas, the blazers.”

Mira on Brooks Brothers at Vassar:

“I wanted to fit the mold and ran to Brooks Brothers to buy everything even though I would have looked better in something else. The store also had an attitude that made you feel you were part of this select group who were smart and privileged and had great futures. Brooks Brothers treated me with respect and they knew all about Vassar and were giving me the wardrobe.”

Mira on Forging a Career after Vassar:

“It was a very sexist time. But that was why it was good to have four years of just women. All the ads in the paper were about your new refrigerator or your special vacuum cleaner and it was disgusting. I never wanted to be like that. I was kind of a rebel. It was a struggle [having a career] because of the views on women and Vassar helped me hold my own. Also the men respected you because of Vassar because they knew you were smart and lots of times you didn’t fall into the traditional way of being treated. I would never have married a man whose expectations were ‘little woman in the kitchen.’ Ever. I was a maverick.

When I graduated I wasn’t sure if I would be an artist or an art historian, and it took a while to find my place in the world. I had four children and worked hard to be a ‘good’ mother and my husband was a physician, he helped me raise the children and freed up many hours so I could paint. My husband would even drive car pool and it seemed like other women hated me: ‘She has her husband driving? What’s she doing?’ And I was painting!”

Mira on Her Latest Artwork:

“My latest art is about setting a gunpowder fire to the paintings and collage elements. It leaves a beautiful lacy burn through on the Japanese paper and great markings of burn fuses on the paintings, like thorn tracks. This gives a whole new meaning and appearance to the work. It refers to creation/destruction and the edgy times we live in. I just had a show of these works in NY. The lacy edges are beautiful, fragile yet strong and born of fire. One painting is called, The Power of Lace. I am also starting to work with a young NY choreographer and director who will use my paintings as screens for projections and narrative of a figure traveling through the fire and into the map like paths - finding and losing her way. All in all exciting and dramatic stuff. Fire absolutely holds ones attention!”


LPC said...

I believe the class of '56 was my aunt's class. Who looks remarkably like one of the women pictured here:).

Lizzie said...

Wow! Could it be!?

My husband's aunt attended Vassar as well, class of '62.

Unclelooney said...

My Grandma's Grandmother was awarded a scholarship in 1868.
(I have the Document)
My GG Grandmother was the Granddaughter of Jemina Vassar, the sister of Matthew Vassar.
Uncle Matthew was the proverbial rich Uncle and proviede for his Nieces to attend the new College.

Lizzie said...

Wow! That's an incredible piece of history. Thanks for sharing.

Cyd said...

It's freezing in Boston... I'm just about to run out the door and realize that in my bundled up summer clothes I look like... a Vassar girl. Love it.

Frances said...

Thanks for flagging up this book - I can't wait to read it. Sounds utterly fascinating.

Linda said...

Vassar and Smith were the creme de la creme for women's schools in my day, it makes sense that the women who attended were fiercely independent and had tomboyish tendencies.

Rebecca Tuite said...

Wow, Unclelooney - that is amazing! Wonderful to hear from you on here with that story.
Thank you!