The Drapes of Wrath
I was proud to be a senior English major at Kent State University in 1971 and that my photograph would appear in the 1972 Chestnut Burr. But when I read the “instructions” for having my picture taken for the yearbook, I was incensed. I had spent four years at KSU, experiencing May 4, the rise of Black United Students and the rumble of women’s liberation. I learned not only academic lessons at Kent State, but gained a better understanding of the changing world and my own individuality.
And then I, like every other senior woman, was required to wear an ugly black drape for my photo, a uniform with no regard to one’s comfort level, personal tastes or consent. My father, a professional photographer, and my mother, an oil portrait painter, would never expect someone to wear something he or she disapproved of for a sitting.
So I wrote a letter to The Daily Kent Stater, which appeared in the October 14, 1971 edition, under the headline “Coed objects to yearbook ‘drape’”:
While I must congratulate the Chestnut Burr for its originality and liberal content of KSU’s yearbooks in the past few years, I find it unbelievable that its editors have slighted women’s liberation.
Although a male senior is restricted to a suit and tie, he has a myriad of styles from which to choose in order to enhance his individuality.
But the poor female senior who wishes her picture in the Burr must bare her shoulders and appear in a low cut Zorro cape.
I, for one, would rather not have my picture taken than don such an unnatural, ridiculous costume. —Jill Veleba
I admit to having a few qualms after I saw the letter in print, just a few days before my photo appointment. Would the company and photographers who contracted with the school be upset? Would they vandalize my senior photo with a Groucho Marx moustache and glasses drawn with a black marker?
To the company’s credit, they rescinded the dress restriction for female students. I was elated.
I decided to play it cool, just show up on time for my photo session and not say a word about who I was. A smiling photographer greeted me and pointed to a dressing screen where I could change into the drape. Not on your life.
The photographer glared at me, looked at the name on my appointment card and snarled, “Oh, you are the one who wrote the letter.” To his credit, after that comment, he treated me like everyone else, and my senior picture came out just fine.
Not every woman chose to forgo the drape that year. Many preferred the traditional drape look, and that was fine. It was their choice, and that was the important thing—to have a voice in the matter.
Almost five decades later, remembering the incident makes me smile. A number of women students had contacted me after the letter was published and thanked me for my one-woman campaign.
Was that the most important victory for women at KSU that year? Of course not. Not even close. And I like to think I left a small mark on KSU in more significant ways. If nothing else, than by being an unofficial ambassador for my college all this time.
I cherish my Chestnut Burr, dust it off once in a while, look at the senior picture of a younger, thinner, no-gray-hair me and recall with humor the Great Drape Escapade. And here’s the other thing: like many liberated women on campus in the early 70s, I wasn’t wearing a bra under the dress I wore for my senior portrait. Simply scandalous. —Jill Veleba Sell, BS ’72, Sagamore Hills, Ohio
Check out the Digital Daily Kent Stater Archive.