Brown is the New Black: Uniforms at Georgia College, 1889-1934

Today, we will be starting a series looking at the history of Georgia College, specifically at its founding in 1889 as Georgia Normal and Industrial College. G.N & I.C. was quite different from the campus of today, with only one campus building, four departments teaching everything from pedagogy to sewing, and one dorm – the Executive Mansion. Today’s first post will be looking at the uniform, mandatory from 1889 to 1934.

Did you, dear reader, suffer through a uniform in your high school days? Perhaps ill fitting shirts, too long skirts, and color combinations that made you resemble an American Flag or Christmas Tree were all part of your high school experience. Now can you imagine carrying that tradition on into your college years? That is precisely what Georgia College required from founding in 1891 as Georgia Normal and Industrial College, until 1934, coincidentally or not so coincidentally coinciding with the creation of the first Student Government Association.

I was intrigued by the history of the uniform at G.N & I.C. when reprocessing the James C. Bonner collection for the past few weeks to reassess the organization of the collection and reduce the amount of folders. Dr. Bonner was the chair of the Georgia College History Department from 1944-1969 and was one of the original authors of A Centennial History of Georgia College along with Dr. Dawson and Dr. Hair and had some great gems related to the history of Georgia College. Included among these is a letter from President Chappell to accepted students from 1891 detailing the intricacies of making the uniform which were two suits – one for basic for day to day purposes (also called fatigue) and the other for dress occasions.

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After I saw these directions, I was hooked and wanted to know more about these supposedly “attractive,” yet inexpensive, mandatory outfits. I began to examine the Prospectus, a pamphlet created to introduce prospective students to G.N & I.C. and Milledgeville. Throughout the 1891 Prospectus, references are made to the “beautiful and becoming but at the same time inexpensive outfit” that would serve the purpose as a uniform. Through the directions listed, and dolls showing the outfits provided by the Georgia College Alumni Association to Special Collections, I was able to see exactly what students were required to wear.

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1891 & 1892

For the standard fatigue uniform, college regulations require it to be made out of any suitable cloth of brown color that suitably matched the brown sample included in the packet. The rest of the uniform was made up of a close fitting blouse with full shirt sleeves and a sailor collar and brown covered buttons with a close fitting skirt of brown material with box plaits in the back and two or three ruffles at the bottom. This uniform also acted as a traveling dress when coming to the college for the start of fall semester. I am sure that current students could not imagine wearing a brown traveling suit for move in day with the hot Milledgeville weather, but these girls endured for the opportunity to attend G.N. & I.C.

The dress uniform was required to be of brown cashmere, exactly like the sample. It seems that the college even partnered with local businesses to provide students with this cloth at greatly reduced rates. The Prospectus states that the dress will be “made like the fatigue suit in a general way, differing only in details of trimming, and ornamentation. It will be gathered at the waist with a silk sash tied at the left side and falling below the knee with one loop and two ends, the ends to be tied with silk balls.”

From 1897 to 1907, this uniform changed slightly to include an Eton jacket made of brown serge with modifications made to a provided pattern, as well as a brown skirt made of brown serge.

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1908 Sunday Dress
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1909

The school also instituted percale blouses of two color combinations – red with white stripes and blue with white stripes – as well as ones of regular white. The colored and striped blouses were assigned a day of the week (according to the Centennial History of Georgia College M-W was blue and R-S was red, with white reserved for Sundays).

These percale blouses made for one of Special Collections Staff’s favorite doll from the University Archive/Alumni Association collection – the doll sporting the uniform from 1906, who has been affectionately named “murder doll” by our Digital Archivist, Holly. Take a glance at the photo below and decide for yourself!

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1906

It was consistently stressed to students by President Chappell the importance of this so called “beautiful and attractive” uniform outfit. In a letter to accepted students just a few years after the creation of the college, he states:

You will not be permitted to wear at this college anything that is out of uniform as to the quality, the color or the pattern of the goods, or as to the style in which they are made up. I beg that you will not try to evade this regulation in the slightest degree, for it will only involve you in endless trouble and expense.

Obviously, staying in uniform was of utmost importance according to the sensibilities of the current president. In this letter, Chappell also adds to the uniform the Oxford Student’s Cap, brown glace kids gloves, brown leather belt, and a black satin tie. Students were also advised to purchase a cloak for the winter, although the exact specifications had not been worked out by President Chappell before sending the letter.

President Chappell was intent on retaining control over the “pupils” of G.N.I.C. and exerted that control over the uniforms as well, praising the compulsory uniform as what set G.N.I.C. graduates apart from other women’s schools across the country. His main philosophy in creating the uniform was the simple fact that it was economical for his students. In the second catalog issued in 1893 was released, it contained a short statement of this philosophy from President Chappell:

The principal object in requiring pupils to wear a uniform is economy. The outfit as described for the entire session costs less than many a girl at most female colleges pays for her commencement dress alone, or for a single Sunday hat. Under our regulations extravagance in dress is impossible, and a millionaire’s daughter (if we should have one among our pupils) could not be distinguished by her dress from the poorest girl in the school.

While this philosophy is a noble goal, the pessimism and control exhibited by other aspects of the student rule book and uniform made this sentiment less sympathetic.

Over the years, and the transition from President Chappell to President Parks, the uniform changed in blouse colors and adornments, but never deviated broadly from the brown serge skirt and jacket combination. In 1910, students were allowed to wear a plain white sweater during the fall and the winter, which changed to red in 1913, and black in 1924. Sweaters also became a large part of class pride as seen in the 1920 Senior Class Book which featured a segment on the wearing of the “Class Sweater.” The class sweater was made for Seniors as a way to wear the sweater – a black and gold one meant to keep Senior students at their best. The “instructions” and “penalties” are tongue in cheek at best, but still point to how the uniform was seen as a method of distinguishing between students, at the same time as acting as an equalizer.

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By the 1930s, mandatory uniforms were on their way out due to the slip in rules to no longer include students 21 or older, or students who have taught for 3+ years. By 1934 they had been abolished. But alumnae of the time still recall their time wearing the mandatory brown of the G.N.I.C. and G.S.C.W. Jessies. One alum recalls that when she arrived home after commencement “she removed her uniform, packed it away, and from that day has never worn brown again.” Others will debate whether the uniform actually accomplished it’s goal. Did it leave all of the students looking rich, or just leave them looking drab?

This, dear reader, is for you to decide. And remember, “Here lies a lassy who attempted to make her uniform look classy!”

Our next journey into the (18)90s will be looking at Housing, Room, and Board at G.N & I.C. concerning everything from housing, costs, and what your “college checklist” might look like then.

In the meantime, watch out for dolls. They might be right behind you.

Works Cited

Photos taken by Mikaela LaFave, featuring our Digital Archivist Holly Croft.

Chappell, J. Harris. “College Uniform (Fall Suit).” Letter. From James C. Bonner papers, Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College, Milledgeville.

Hair, William Ivy, James C. Bonner, Edward B. Dawson, and Robert J. Wilson III. A Centennial History of Georgia College, University of Georgia Printing Department, 1979, Print.

Prospectus of the Georgia Normal and Industrial College A State Institution for the Education of Girls to be Opened at Milledgeville, GA on Wednesday, September 30th, 1891. Augusta: Chronicle Publishing Company, 1891.

University Archives Dolls, fabric and porcelain, Georgia College Museum, Milledgeville, GA.

“1920 Senior Class Book.” GNIC Senior Class Book. 1920.

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