Written and photographed by Stella Ho '22, Michelle Wang '23, Rachel Wu '23, Ana Rubin '24
Directed and photographs edited by Serena Chan '23
February 28, 2021
In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, Wellesley students have retraced their roots as they returned back home for winter break. Hailing from different cities and towns, Stella Ho, Michelle Wang, Rachel Wu, and Ana Rubin—dressed in different styles depicting their hometown pride—explore the history of how each style has arisen and made its mark in popular mainstream culture.
STELLA HO and the UNKNOWN HERO of MARYLAND
Claire McCardell isn’t a household name today (kind of an unsung hero), but from the 1930s to the 1950s, she was one of the most influential designers in America. Born in Frederick, MD (about 30 miles from my hometown of Rockville, MD) in 1905, she studied at Parsons and traveled to Paris in 1927 to study from the era’s couturiers. She started to gain name recognition in the 1930s; she wasn’t interested in copying Paris high fashion, and instead looked for inspiration in art and everyday street fashion, becoming a pioneer of the “American Look.” Also called sportswear, the American Look was versatile, accessible, and affordable, and is considered the U.S.’s most important contribution to the history of fashion design. In McCardell’s words, “I belong to a mass production country where any of us, all of us, deserve the right to good fashion.” In between formal and informal, McCardell’s sportswear designs were made to be wearable and comfortable the entire day, without sacrificing style for utility—they flattered a variety of body shapes, too. Among her 1930s innovations were sashes and spaghetti string ties. She frequently used denim, calico, and wool jersey, which came in handy during WWII because they were among the rare fabrics available for clothing production. In 1955, she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. She was a trailblazer for her time, and her influence—not just design-wise, but in democratizing fashion and raising the status of sportswear/ready-to-wear—lives on in the casual clothes that Americans wear every day.
The dress that launched McCardell’s career was the Monastic dress in 1938, a bias-cut tent-like dress. A 2018 Washington Post Magazine article described it as offering “American women something they’d never had: independence in the form of a washable, ready-to-wear dress capable of fitty any body size.” The initial order of 100 sold out in a day. Her other famous design, the popover dress released in 1942, spoke to its time of rationing and price-consciousness. More than 75,000 sold during its first season. It was a versatile wrap dress that could be used as a
cover-up, house dress, dressing gown, or party dress—and came with a matching potholder! Other innovations included popularizing ballet slippers as everyday footwear, menswear details (her signature), sashes, spaghetti string ties, trouser pockets, revealing sundresses, frequent use of common, natural-fiber fabrics such as cotton, twill, gingham, denim, and jersey, no more highly-structured undergarments, fabric draping and gathering to accentuate the body’s natural shape, and the use of rivets and other work clothes fasteners. Thanks to her, many of these characteristics have become staples of casual wardrobes. Isaac Mizrahi, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali, and Cynthia Rowley have all named her as an influence.
Stella Ho '22
Maryland’s not exactly known as a mecca of style—in fact, McCardell really started her career in NYC—but I’m proud that someone who had such a profound impact on the trajectory of American fashion came from my home state. In my outfits for this project, I tried to channel some of McCardell’s design characteristics through a modern lens to show how much today’s day-to-day fashion owes her and her radical vision of what getting dressed could look like in mid-century America. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them were present in my own closet. (Proof that her influence is long-lasting!) I love dressing up, but I’m grateful that she pushed for the acceptance of comfortable, functional, yet still stylish clothing, since that’s what I wear most days.
MICHELLE WANG and SUNNY SAN DIEGO
While San Diego is an incredibly diverse city, much of its local culture can be tied back to its historic beach towns. As a result, the style, at least among the youth, can be described as laid-back, practical, and unpretentious. While much of LA has picked up its pace, San Diego beach towns remain reminiscent of 70s Malibu. Life moves slower here.
Michelle Wang '23
Emily Ratajowski, an Encinitas native, explains how San Diego has influenced her personal style and clothing line: “I remember when we were driving around we didn’t have extra outfits in the car, we had extra bathing suits. It was our uniform. We were so lucky to have the experience of seeing girls of all shapes and sizes walking around, shamelessly, in their Brazilian cut bottoms on D Street.” In a city where you can frequent nude beaches, comfortability takes precedence, which means board shorts, bathing suits, and sandals year-round.
The popularization of the quintessential Southern California style originated largely from Hollywood. Think Beach Party or Baywatch. Now, the typical image of Southern California style is ingrained in the American consciousness thanks in part to surfers, skaters, and The Beach Boys. It’s also something we see heavily capitalized on in advertising. Major brands like Vans, PacSun, Hollister have centered their brand and image around selling the Southern California dream, regardless of whether or not their brand is locally based.
I’m unashamed to say that I wore Rainbows, the staple Southern Californian sandal, almost every day during my senior year of high school. While many locals are true examples of “function over fashion”, I’ve settled into a nice middle ground. I love venturing out into different styles and buying statement pieces, but the pragmatic side of me understands the value of investing in a practical, albeit slightly tame, pair of brown leather flip-flops.
RACHEL WU and into the SUBURBS of the GARDEN STATE
VH: Who are these judges usually? Are they volunteers?
CER: So the judges that ballroom competitions have are professional dancers that have undergone different certifications in order to be able to judge ballroom. There's a really strict system called the YCN point system where a competition only counts for points if it's judged professionally. They also do immature competitions where judges will be champion dancers who haven't gone professional.
AML: What we do, it's considered collegiate ballroom. There are definitely people who do this professionally and a lot of the judges have danced professionally, ranked, and been in national and international competitions. A lot of them are also coaches for either professional couples who are also competing all over the world or collegiate teams at different colleges and universities.
TC: Thanks for helping clarify that! Cece, earlier you mentioned there being costumes based on skill level, how does that system work?
CH: Kind of like Charlotte said, there's a point system that helps determine which level of dancing you're in for each style. We have newcomers for if it's your first few competitions and then it's bronze, silver, gold, and then open, which is more of the pre-champ. For each level, there are specific moves that you can do in each dance or that you're kind of expected to know. So within that, our costumes are assigned to a level based on how complicated they are. How extravagant they are and how old they are. Because as you move up, I think there's more to accentuate. Whereas maybe as a beginner, you still want the sparkle, but you can take it down a notch a little bit.
CER: We’re constantly in this process of re-evaluating what level our costumes are, but Wellesley is really lucky that the costumes we have are very nice because we take care of them. We have great team members to do that. But like Cece was saying, it has to do with the cut and how many stones there are. The general movement for a champion level standard dress will be like a huge ball gown that when you move, it looks like what a princess wears. Bronze standard will still be really nice, but it might not have as many layers of under skirt or be as grand.
AML: I think that's also one of the fun things about ballroom. Looking forward to upgrading the dress, right? Because every level, it seems like it gets better and better. So it's kind of like a motivational factor of wanting to compete to get good points. Move on to the next level and get a new grander costume.
Cece Henderson '23
SC: Asides from the costumes being based on different skill levels and categories, does the emotion or mood of the song and dance factor into how you choose your costumes? Do you consider your ballroom costume as a part of the “bigger picture” in telling a story through dance?
AML: In some ways it does because like Cece mentioned before, our costumes are already kind of different depending on the style that we're doing. So in Latin rhythm, the costumes tend to be shorter and tighter to the body versus standard smooth where the costumes are actual ball gowns and we wear gloves. The costumes in Latin rhythm do not change often, in the sense that the music does not change what we necessarily wear, but it will change how we dance. An example is rumba which is very romantic and sensual and another example is samba which is very energetic and fun, so we might be more flirtatious and excited rather than romantic. Our entire persona and character almost changes based on the style of dance. I don't think that the way we use the costume to dance changes, but I think that a lot of times, the persona that we embody when we dance changes.
CER: I want to clarify a little bit that this is mostly specific to competitions, but there is a side of ballroom that is more “showy” or more performance and show based. For example, if you were to do the rumba at a show, we have costumes in our closet that are a better fit for that. If you were to wear a Latin costume with a long skirt and dance and jive, you would get your feet caught and trip over which would not be a great fit. But we have some dresses that are specifically for that purpose. In terms of if you were to watch ballroom professionally, you would see professionals change between dances because you can use costumes to help you tell your story. For example, if you were dancing the mambo or salsa then wearing something that's kind of tiny and very fringey would accentuate your movements.
HS: For standard smooth, the dresses you wear make you feel like a princess. There is one dance that I always think about, the Viennese Waltz, which is often the dance you see in princess or period films. Whenever we are in costume and doing that dance or just practicing it, the mood always changes because I always feel so elegant and fancy and I feel like I am in that period piece. This is especially when one watches the Viennese Waltz at competitions when everyone is in different dresses and going around in a circle because our floor moves counterclockwise. Sometimes one can feel like they are watching an old-fashioned ball and it is so cool, I love it.
Hailey Sweeney '23
EL: I was looking at your team’s Instagram page and I see that the leader is often dressed less flashy and wears more tone-downed costumes. I think the most different costume I saw was someone with a deep v-neck with rhinestones. I was wondering since it is a partner dance, why would one partner be almost overwhelmed by the other partner’s more expressive and colorful costume?
HS: I can start with this question because I am a female leader. It is definitely an interesting dynamic when both of us are females, but normally, the stereotypical female part (I am not saying that followers have to be female though) tends to have the more flashy and expressive costumes. I think this may involve the history of dance. Maybe men just did not want to wear rhinestones and sparkles whereas now, as times are changing, Latin rhythm is a style where you see the deep V necks worn by the lead. This really helps catch the eyes of those who are watching. I know for me, personally, I like to use a little sparkle so for my costume for Latin rhythm, I wore a crop top that had sparkles on it and fringe pants which are common among female leaders. I felt really confident in what I wore and I think the same applies to men where they want to wear costumes that they feel really confident in. Some men feel confident wearing deep V necks with some sparkles and match their partners a little bit, whereas others prefer wearing a black t-shirt and black pants. I think it also depends on the leader’s level and how comfortable they feel.
CH: I agree with Hailey. We also have a lot of variety and I think when we do have female leaders on our side of the team, they tend to want a little bit of sparkle. I am thinking of one silver-level costume specifically; it's a fringe bodysuit with a silver rhinestone bra. But I also think presentation has an influence, which I sometimes see in our choreography. We have moves where the leader is not necessarily doing the same thing as the follower–such as the follower doing a spin in front of the leader–so in a sense, the leader is presenting the follower, whereas the leader themself, is kind of in charge of the couple and leading them around the floor.
EL: Follow up question: why do most leaders choose to wear black?
CER: I think most leaders actually choose to wear white but black is perhaps just representative of what our leaders wear on our IG. However, most leaders will generally wear a white top and black pants. As Hailey was saying, this is influenced by the historical part of ballroom dance. At the upper level, in Standard at least, the leaders will wear tailcoats, resembling a formal event. I think this tries to emulate that old-fashioned and formal style, but when we have female leaders, we ensure that they feel comfortable and powerful in what they wear, so we have invested in clothes like jumpsuits. As to why the jumpsuit is black, I am not sure. We can get a white jumpsuit, but I think the problem lies in wearing bright colors like neon green because there is a chance that what the leader wears can clash with what the follower wears.
AML: I wanted to add that historically when you think of the leader and follower, a lot of the spotlight is on the follower because of the different dynamics in the movement. As mentioned beforehand, the leader is in charge of actually leading the turn right, but the person who's actually doing the turn is the follower. Therefore, there are more opportunities for those momentous movements for followers and a dress that has more of a flow would accentuate those movements versus the leader who is not doing those types of turns. Also, I personally think that wearing black gives a good contrast because when everyone is on the dancefloor, it is easier to identify who is a leader and who is a follower based on what they are wearing. If you have a female leader and a female follower both in dresses, it becomes difficult to tell who is leading who. There is also a functionality aspect of what leaders wear because they have to wear numbers on their backs so judges are able to identify us and mark us for the next round. This, however, does not apply to followers because a lot of dresses for followers do not have fabric covering their backs.
Christina Yin '23
EL: Thank you for your responses! I just have an additional question. I was wondering if there have been any wardrobe malfunctions or any fun stories to share?
HS: So, Beatrice is my ballroom partner and at our first competition wearing costumes, which we only had one before we were sent home because of the pandemic, Beatrice had more of a revealing and tight costume with slits on the side, a deep V, and a built-in bra. Standard and smooth were in the morning and rhythm and Latin was in the afternoon, we were in rhythm and were in the finals. We were really excited because this was the first time that we made it to finals for rhythm. We were doing a dance called “swing,” which has a lot of up and down movements, and when we were almost halfway through, I realized that her dress was almost at her bellybutton. The whole costume was down and I was trying to let her know that, but she did not realize, so I had to grab it and hike it up. We were right in front of the judges and we were trying to keep dancing and keep the dress up, but the dress was not cooperating. Next, we got off the floor and we were a hysterical mess. Luckily, Cece had safety pins so we took the straps and hooked it on the back. What a day that was! There were no more malfunctions after that and I am not sure if any happened before that. I die a little every time I think about it.
CER: I can report, that dress was mine before it was Beatrice’s and that dress has always been a problem. I didn’t have any dramatic experiences like that, but that dress has been prone to nip slips since the beginning of time. I wanted to share a story that happened to a team member. We were dancing at one of our competitions and she was wearing a newer dress from the closet, and while she was dancing in the final, between rounds, some people just saw her run off the stage to the back scenes area. I did not see this happen, but apparently, the whole leotard ripped and she had to run off holding it in place. Things like that happen but that is why we have sewing kits to fix it!
AML: I remember someone telling me when to pre-pack your bag for a competition. I would bring a mini sewing kit, extra practice clothes, and an extra pair of shoes because you never know what could happen. Always be prepared because sometimes things could happen!
HS: I always have a little tin of safety pins. You can even fix things with bobby pins and hair elastics. For newcomers, since we do not wear flashy costumes and usually wear a leotard and a skirt, I always bring those with me and I will continue to do so if something ever goes wrong. You hear horror stories of people forgetting their shoes and such, and when you hear those stories you get paranoid so you end up packing the night before and bring everything you could possibly think of just in case things go wrong. It is kind of like a doomsday bag.
Hailey Sweeney '23, Christina Yin '23, Charlotte Emily Ryan '21, Cece Henderson '23, Beatrice Chen '23, Alexandra Martinez Lopez '22
Charlotte Emily Ryan is a current senior and the president of Wellesley’s Ballroom Dance Team. Charlotte is majoring in neuroscience and has been on the team for 4 years.
Alexandra Martinez Lopez is a current junior and the team's publicist. Alexandra is majoring in neuroscience and has been on the team for 3 years.
Beatrice Chen is a current sophomore and majoring in anthropology. Beatrice has been on the team for 2 years.
Hailey Sweeney is a current sophomore and majoring in history. Hailey has been on the team for 2 years.
Christina Yin is a current sophomore and majoring in both math and computer science. Christina has been on the team for 2 years.
Cece Henderson is a current sophomore and majoring in math. Cece is the current costumes coordinator and has been on the team for 2 years.