In National Lampoon’s classic comedy Animal House (1978), the “animals” respond to Dean Wormer’s decision to put them on “Double Secret” probation by planning a decadent roman orgy or “toga party.”
“They’re going to nail us whatever we do, so we might as well have a good time . . .
. . . Toga! Toga! Toga! Toga!”
John Belushi’s (as John “Bluto” Blutarsky) primal toga chant ushered in a resurgence in American college fraternity “Toga parties.” A toga party is a type of costume party in which attendees wrap themselves in bed sheets reminiscent of ancient Roman or Greek togas, in keeping with the nominal “Greek” theme of a typical American fraternity. The toga party in Animal House is said to be derived from screenwriter Chris Miller’s experiences at Dartmouth University during the late-1950s and early ‘60s.
A number of sources online point very specifically (and almost unbelievably) to the precise time and place of the first known college toga party – Mark Neuman’s home on Hillcrest Avenue in Flintridge, California in 1953, while he was attending nearby Pomona College. Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have hosted a toga party in the White House to make light of the fact that many people likened her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to an American “Caesar.”[i]
|Image from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library|
But the toga party, under other names, is much older even than Eleanor Roosevelt who was born in 1884. Eleanor Roosevelt’s parents or grandparents could have attended a toga party (then generally known as a “sheet and pillow slip party”) in the 1870s. The earliest known college fraternity toga party (if not by that name) was held at the Ohio State University (where else?) as early as 1886.
It all started, as these things often do, in California:
Sheet and Pillow-Slip Parties.
They do things differently in California than in any other known spot on the face of the globe. Henceforth the drolleries of leap year parties must “pale their ineffectual fires” before the last California social novelty called “sheet and pillow-slip parties.”
The San Francisco Call, of the 10th inst., describes glowingly the last one given there, under the auspices of Pensacola Lodge No. 333, Independent Order of Good Templars. The ball-room is described as presenting the supposed appearance of the Ku-Klux in full regalia. About one hundred persons were entirely enveloped in white sheets and pillow-slips arranged in every conceivable shape and style. Some wore white dominoes, and others were dressed in a costume which led the blushing reporter to imagine that the ladies had taken their costumes from under the pillow rather than from over.
. . . For merriment and fun at the “sheet and pillow-slip” are said to exceed even the leap year parties now prevailing. If the “new departure” should break out here which it may do (there is no telling how soon,) the important event will be duly chronicled. There is something as suggestive as it is spicy about the “sheet and pillow-slip” party, and it may be the first step in the great reformation in dress tending towards increased simplicity and economy, now occupying the minds of thinking women, and husbands with large milliner bills to pay.
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), March 22, 1872, page 4.
There are reports of “pillow slip parties” during every decade from 1870 through the 1960s. The latest example I could find was a single reference to one held in 1970. Most of the “pillow slip” parties in the 1900s were hosted by fraternal organizations (like the Order of Templars, Freemasons, Oddfellows, Sisters of Malta, and Easter Star, Order of Moose or the like), civic organizations (like the American Legion or the YWCA), or church groups. I imagine these parties to have been more innocent that a late-20th century fraternity bash, but you never know. Some of those societies were secret-societies and may have just kept those secrets well.
The notices for several early “pillow slip” parties played up the (relatively) titillating nature of the event:
“Pillow slip” parties are the latest sensation at Dalton, Ga. They are very popular, and – immensely suggestive.
The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina), October 31, 1872, page 2.
Dressing up in loose, suggestive clothing presented a perfect opportunity for dancing – as it did for Delta House to the music Otis Day and the Knights in Animal House:
Grand Sheet and Pillow Slip Party
As well out of the world, as out of fashion. Another rich treat is in store for all lovers of the terpsichorean art in this section, and the announcement will be received with pleasure that a grand sheet and pillow slip party is to be given under the management of the Terpsichorean Social Club, at Dyer’s Hall, New Year’s Eve., Dec. 31, 1874. . . . The music will be all that can be desired, the calling will be good, and the floor in prime condition for dancing, and a fairer galaxy of ladies or a handsome set of men will probably never again assemble under a roof in Reno.
Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), December 6, 1874, page 3.
Ghost Party. – A sheet and pillow slip party will be given at the Pavilion Skating Rink this evening in addition to the other attractions, and after the masquerading everybody will have an opportunity to dance.
Sacramento Daily Union, March 25, 1876, page 5.
In 1878, a steamboat en route to New Orleans from Cincinnati, Ohio treated its passengers to a dance party:
Thursday night the young folks on the boat indulged in a “phantom ball,” or, as Pilot Kenley characterized it, “a pillow-slip party.” The performance had a decidedly ghostly look, but nobody seemed frightened, and for an hour or two the dance (and fun) ran “fast and furious.”
Gettysburg Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), March 8, 1878, page 2.
At some point before or during 1886, the Terpsichore society of the Ohio State University (Terpsichore is the Greek muse of music and dance) put on what may be the earliest known college “toga party” (even if not by that name):
Genesis of the Terpsichore.
In the beginning, Uncle Sam created the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Ohio State University. . . . And William said, “Let Terpsichore bring forth the Pillow-slip Party . . . ;” and it was so.
The Makio (Published Annually by the Fraternities of the Ohio State University), Volume VI, 1886, Columbus, Ohio, Gazette Printing House, 1886, page 79.
In 1892, a pillow-slip “ghost party” caused a stir in Richmond Hill, Queens in New York City:
GAVE A GHOST PARTY.
Richmond Hill Excited Over a Grewsome Gathering.
It was a grewsome thing to do and no one knows exactly how the idea originated. Although it occurred three weeks ago all Richmond Hill is still talking about it. . . . In the vicinity of this quiet little village are several cemeteries. Pine grove is one of the most beautiful and best kept, although not so long established as most of them.
A man named Leonard is in charge of it and he lives with his family in a cozy little house, near the main entrance. In his household are two bright and vivacious young women . . . and they decided about a month ago to give a party to those who were not away for summer vacations. . . .
Someone suggested that it be a ghost party. . . . The guests were all to come with sheets and pillow slips as their fancy dress. Holes to look through and to permit the entrance of air to breathe were to be cut in the pillowslips. The arrangements were similar to those for a masquerade ball. But the crowning feature of the occasion was to be a parade of the guests attired in their ghostly garb through the cemetery at midnight.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 7, 1892, page 8.
On Saturday evening several friends of Mr. J. D. Wallace went out to his country residence and surprised him with a pillow-slip party. In spite of mishaps, the gay group finally arrived, and first gave the astonished host a ghost dance on the porch and all over the front yard. Each visitor was arrayed in a weird pillow-case, and wearing masks. After the fears of Mr. Wallace had been allayed the crowd went inside and continued the ghastly proceedings, to the amusement of Mrs. Wallace, who had been a party to the deal.
The Wichita Daily Eagle (Wichita, Kansas), October 23, 1898, page 6.
References to “toga parties,” by that name, appear regularly in college fraternity yearbooks during the 1950s, 1960s and into the early 1970s. The earliest reference I could find is from Theta Delta Chi in 1952,[ii] a year before students at Pomona College held their first toga party.
The “toga party” was only one of many party themes used by 1950s fraternities. During a typical November pledge-dance evening at Gettysburg College in 1959, for example, one might have attended a “Roman Toga party” at the Phi Gam house, Beatnik-themed parties at Tau Kappa Epsilon, Alpha Chi Rho or Kappa Delta Rho, a Beachcomber party at Sigma Chi, a “hobo” party at Phi Delta Theta, a German party at Sigma Nu, a days of chivalry “When Knighthood Was in Flower” party at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a Bohemian attire party at the ATO house, a gangster party at Theta Chi, or a totally theme-free party at Phi Sig (although they were giving away brandy snifters). [iii]
Animal House did not invent the “toga party,” but it did turn them into a permanent and popular fixture in American pop-culture. College fraternity members of the 1950s did not invent “toga parties” either, although they may have raised them to a higher art form than the civic, church or fraternal order “pillow-slip” parties practiced by generations of their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.