The Aug. 6, 1951 issue of LIFE featured a back-to-college fashion spread that was all about the fabric. The pictures for the story were shot by LIFE’s legendary photographer Nina Leen, and they highlighted clothes which were light enough to be worn in those early days of the fall semester, when students were still figuring out where their classes were.
Here’s the sales pitch from LIFE’s story, which was headlined “Chameleon Cottons: New Eye-Fooling Fabrics Look Like Anything But What They Are.”
With more body and versatility than their gingham cousins, they are styled to substitute for wool and are a lot cheaper. A canny college shopper can pick cotton for any item in her wardrobe….Since college girls have always found wool uncomfortably warm during the first weeks of school, the smartest students are now likely to appear in fashionable year-round cottons that look like fall but feel like Indian summer.
Some photos show models on what could be a campus, while at least a couple show the young women out on the town. Still others have the models playing with a lively Dalmatian. While it’s the rare college student who takes a dog to college—Bruiser of Legally Blonde is more the exception than the rule—Dalmatians have long been a favorite of fashion photographers.
LIFE’s 1951 take of campus fashion is definitely of its time, both for the conservative nature of the clothes and also the fascination with cotton. This was 1951, and the real fabric revolution of the 1950s, the introduction of polyester and other synthetics, was soon on its way. And while LIFE’s story touted the affordability of cotton, some of the clothes in this shoot were not inexpensive; the quilted jacket cast $25, the equivalent of nearly $300 in 2023. That would be a lot for most college students, and it’s a sign of why cheaper substitutes would prove so popular.