Why did The Radcliffe College graduates of 1935 not wear makeup?
September 23, 2017 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I found a brief news article from 1935 stating that none of the Radcliffe College Class of 1935 had worn makeup at their graduation. The article played this for laughs, but it seems there must have been some larger statement or protest. However, I can't find anything else online describing this event (assuming it was true and not concocted by the reporter as 1930s clickbait).

The article is a short AP newswire report that ran in several papers around the US. Here it is in its entirety.


BOSTON, June 19. (AP)--Dame Fashion was handed a jolt at the Radcliffe College commencement here today.

Each senior--and there were 215 in all--went for her diploma sans rouge and lipstick.

And each senior shoved Dame Fashion farther into the background by wearing black hosiery instead of lighter colors.

The girls also wore white dresses and the traditional black caps and gowns.
posted by Tsuga to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've been poking around in what was happening at Radcliffe in 1935. There were some changes happening on campus, but nothing major but it might be (noting the black tights) because of the death of William Byerly the last living founder of Radcliffe but Wikipedia shows his death as late in 1935 so that's unlikely. The early 30s were when Radcliffe and Harvard were fighty. The then-president of Harvard, Lawrence Lowell, didn't want to sign Radcliffe diplomas which was right around that time. If you don't have any luck, I am certain the nice folks at the Schlesinger could help
posted by jessamyn at 12:13 PM on September 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is probably not it, but according to this long survey of the history of lipstick regulation (!), in the 1930s in the US, lipstick and other cosmetics routinely contained dangerous ingredients, and women's groups were doing major lobbying efforts to pass cosmetics-safety laws.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:17 PM on September 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

This notice in the Radcliffe News says that "special gun metal stockings" are required and this one confirms that they were sold specially to graduates.

I guess it's possible for gunmetal to have been misreported as black, but I think there's a possibility that this piece was a bit of a joke.
posted by acidic at 12:37 PM on September 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lots of interesting info in this paper:

“Prettier Than They Used to Be”: Femininity, Fashion, and the Recasting of Radcliffe’s Reputation, 1900–1950, Deirdre Clemente
Between 1930 and 1950 Radcliffe’s publicity department worked to convince naysayers that “smart” and “pretty” were not mutually exclusive categories. Besides their partnerships with the fashion industry and women’s magazines, publicists pitched stories to major media outlets and radio programs. [...]

Because they understood the power of dress, Radcliffe women developed codes regulating what could be worn and when. In 1928, an editorial in the Radcliffe News reminded readers that clothes “matter immeasurably.” To convince students to keep up their appearances during finals, the editors linked attire to academic success: “Your mental attitude depends a great deal on your personal appearance; as you feel sloppy or scatter-brained, or neat and methodical, that what you are writing will take on a different appearance.” It was a winning argument for the grade-conscious ’Cliffies. Through student-led organizations, Radcliffe women regulated not only dress codes but other activities as well....
posted by melissasaurus at 12:56 PM on September 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Acidic's links suggest that the dress code was tightly regulated by the powers that be. Given that, the lack of makeup could have been mandated to the students, rather than being their own statement, as I'd been imagining it. So would there have been an attitude at the time, at least among the cultural background of the New England elite affiliated with the school, that dignified, respectable young ladies would not wear makeup? I would have thought that the opposite would be the case.
posted by Tsuga at 1:04 PM on September 23, 2017

This would seem like a job for the Radcliffe College Archives, where a good friend of mine happens to be an archivist. If you can't figure it out, MeMail me and I'll put my friend on the case.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:35 PM on September 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

So would there have been an attitude at the time, at least among the cultural background of the New England elite affiliated with the school, that dignified, respectable young ladies would not wear makeup? I would have thought that the opposite would be the case.

Historically, makeup on women has often been considered quite disreputable, the province of sex workers, basically. I don't know if this would still be the case in 1935, though. (Literally, there's an Athenian court case involving adultery where the man says: I should have known that my wife was cheating on me, she was wearing a whitening cream!)
posted by praemunire at 3:05 PM on September 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

My WASP grandmother -- born in 1913, I believe -- was brought up believing that identifiable makeup was "fast" and (worse) vain and (even worse) in vain.

"Fast" didn't map monotonically to class; both society women and shopgirls were more likely to rouge than rock-ribbed Episcopalians, however rich the latter were.
posted by clew at 3:38 PM on September 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

My automatic interpretation was that the author of the piece was jeering at the Radcliffe graduates saying that being intelligent and being feminine were mutually exclusive. Combine that with the likelihood that the students at Radcliffe were encouraged to take their studies seriously and not to get distracted into the traditional, non-intellectual feminine pursuits of primping and of seeking for a spouse.

This comes from an era where nurses were required to wear white stockings, and many ordinary girls wouldn't consider going into nursing because white stockings were so ugly. It was an era when if you got engaged while in school or while working in certain jobs you were automatically discharged - During WWII women in the forces were forbidden to get engaged or they would be discharged so they kept secret engagements and wore their engagement rings pinned to their bras. That was roughly ten years later - there was a strong assumption that women could be typical women, pretty, get married etc. or they could do something else - work, or study, but not do both.

In 1935 there would still be older people alive who believed that studying made a woman infertile. That was a common belief some sixty years earlier. (And the birth stats bore evidence to this too!) There were many people who believed that an education ruined a woman for fulfilling her real purpose in life, that of being a help meet for men.

Somewhat after this stage came be saying that he went to school to get an MD and she went to school to get a Mrs. But n 1935 women who went to Radcliffe really wanted an education. The MD/Mrs quip only came after the schools became co-educational. In 1935 the women probably had come from better schools that were gender segregated or girls only schools, ones that provided a much better than average education.

Info as per Wikipedia on 1930's education and attitudes
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:09 PM on September 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

My first thought is that it could have had something to do with the Great Depression and the rise of left-wing/socialist politics on campuses during the 1930s. I went to another Seven Sisters school (Vassar) and wrote a research paper about 1930s student activism there, which involved lots of digging through old microfilms of 1930s issues of the student newspaper. According to my research, campus politics made a major leftward shift after Roosevelt was elected in 1932: 64% of the student body voted Republican in 1932 and only 36% did in 1934. There was also a growing sense of shame among the students about participating in expensive upper-class activities like Prom when so many of their fellow Americans were out of work. (Tickets to Prom cost $12 in 1932, the equivalent of over $200 in today's money, which caused the more left-wing girls to castigate Prom attendees as a bunch of "Marie Antoinettes.") In such a politically charged environment, perhaps the decision to go without makeup and wear plain dark stockings at graduation was a declaration of left-wing serious-mindedness.
posted by clair-de-lune at 4:55 PM on September 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm with "proper young ladies do not wear make-up". When I graduated back in the olden days (1980's) my college decreed that young ladies wear dresses, stockings, and dress shoes, and young men should wear dress trousers, dress shoes, collared shirt and tie. This of course was under black caps and gowns in 89 degree heat. Urg. Trials of being proper.
posted by PJMoore at 5:01 PM on September 23, 2017

I don't think this falls under the category of proper young ladies not wearing makeup...not in 1935. This little tidbit appeared in a number of newspapers around the country on June 20, so it seems not wearing makeup was an unusual occurrence, not something normal or mandated by the college.

On June 21, this tidbit appeared in the Burlington, VT newspaper: "Manufacturers of cosmetics and the proprietors of beauty parlors will not be very happy over the action of Radcliffe College graduates in eliminating the use of rouge and lipstick in connection with their graduation exercises. If this custom spreads, another industry will be in for hard times, but the girls will be entirely honest in determining whether a girl's face is really her fortune." (my emphasis)

Students at women's colleges tended to be "woke" and I suspect something happened that year, perhaps in a local context, to cause the graduates to make a public statement. It was probably well covered in the college newspaper, so hopefully someone who has access could check.
posted by Preserver at 8:17 AM on September 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for your insights. Per the suggestions of jessamyn and Dr. Wu, I've now written to the Schlesinger librarians (keepers of the Radcliffe archive), and will report back what I learn.
posted by Tsuga at 7:36 PM on September 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Yay! I heard back from Schlesinger Library! In short, they couldn't find any evidence of no makeup being either a protest or a requirement, or even something that actually happened, so we're back to it just being some misogynist reporter making the whole thing up. Oh well.
posted by Tsuga at 4:03 PM on September 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

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