Story by Ginelle Gross & Sara Cummings
Photo Illustration by Art Peku & courtesy of The Bluestone & JMU Special Collections
“Every generation has its own aesthetic.” says Pam Johnson, professor of theater costume design at James Madison University.
Pam Johnson has watched fashion evolve for 40 years at James Madison University as a professor of theater who specializes in costume. Her office is laden with cascades of fabric and a clutter of design drawings — a tribute to her dedication to fashion. Johnson became involved with the theater department in the mid-70s when JMU was still Madison College. Now a professor and the director of costuming for JMU productions, Johnson spends most of her day talking about and looking at clothes. Her book, “Dressing for Education the First Fifty Years: Highlights of the JMU Historic Clothing Collection 1908-1959,” illustrates the fashion represented at the university from its founding through the late 1950s, revealing how the styles have changed over half a century.
In 1908 when JMU — then called The State Normal and Industrial School for Women — first opened its doors, women were subject to a strict uniform code on campus. Until 1919, the typical uniform consisted of “a long white dress for the warmer months, or a combination of a white blouse or a dark middy with an ankle-length white or dark skirt,” according to Johnson. However, the ’20s and ’30s ushered in a new awareness of fashion outside of the school and a wider variety of outfits. Students kept up with trends through movies, magazines and catalogues. In Vogue and Harper’s Magazine, girls could find examples of popular ’20s styles like the “bob” haircut, fur-collared coats and an assortment of patterns and prints. Despite the uniforms, women’s clothing styles were free and flexible.
Harrisonburg was once the premier shopping destination in the Shenandoah Valley. Shops in the bustling downtown carried the latest fashions that were ordered from New York. One of the largest and most popular department stores downtown was B. Ney and Sons. The Ney family owned and operated up to five shops downtown, at times catering to students. B. Ney and Sons advertised in 1923: “Normal Students – Visit our Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear Department and receive a percent discount.”
The Madison faculty and staff were the most frequent customers of the downtown shops, but students would head down Main Street on weekends as well. “Saturday was so busy, you would have trouble walking up and down the street,” says Bill Ney, who surveyed the scene downtown from his family’s shops in the 1940s. If students couldn’t afford the latest dresses downtown, they recreated them as best they could. With home economics still a popular course at Madison, most girls had the sewing skills and tools to mimic the high fashion pieces they liked. “They didn’t look any different than girls in the cities,” Johnson says.
Even though there wasn’t a specific uniform after 1919, a dress code was still vigilantly enforced through the early 1950s. The faculty and staff strictly monitored proper appearance, which included an acceptable hem length of skirts and the prohibition of trousers. According to the student handbook from 1931-1932, the Standards Committee on campus “exercise[d] censorship over the appearance and conduct of the students at all times.” In the 1930s, girls wished for more occasions to dress up in their formal evening gowns, which had richer and more luxurious materials. These occasions could include afternoon tea or a ballroom dance.
Madison students were expected to be dressed appropriately on and off campus. Bill and Eddie Ney remember when the faculty at Madison would request phone calls about how their students were acting downtown. “One girl came in inappropriate clothing. I think she was wearing jeans or something,” Eddie Ney says. The store clerk made a phone call to a faculty member to report her, knowing that Madison expected students to be very ladylike.
Though jeans were referred to as inappropriate, slacks were eventually accepted on campus starting in the ’40s, along with scarves, suits and oversized sweaters that were common styles on campus. Fashion continued to evolve at Madison College, especially once men were welcomed as full-time students in 1946. Although clichés of the ’50s include poodle skirts, leather jackets and cigarettes, this was not the norm on Madison’s campus. Flared and pencil skirts paired with blouses were more common. Bermuda shorts and various hats gained popularity as well.
It wasn’t until the ’60s that the strict, formalized dress expected of both women and men at Madison College relaxed. The counterculture that swept the nation had a profound influence on campus. While just a few years before students were not allowed to wear pants barring certain days and activities, they now were free to express their personal tastes. But even though students had more of a say in what they wore, it didn’t exactly mean more variety. “The fashion relaxed in the mid-60s,” Johnson says. “But everyone relaxed to the same look.”
Since the ’60s, the trend of recurring fashion styles has been easily demonstrated in old and new photographs and designs. One does not have to look far to find clothing that is based on an old style or trend. A current example is Boho fashion: maxi-skirts and fringed shirts, which evolved from the popular hippie style. “Fashion is always reinventing itself with the same deck of cards,” Johnson says. “It’s a process of constructing a new look drawing on the basics of other generations, and it’s done in trends.”