Interview: Deirdre Clemente on Fashion Trends and College Students

Deirdre Clemente

Deirdre Clemente

In the following interview, Deirdre Clemente, author of Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style, discusses how college students are at the epicenter of casual fashion.

Q: You attended the Fashion Institute of Technology as a Masters student. How would you describe your own college fashion while at FIT, and how would you describe your personal style today?

A: At FIT, students walked around in everything from dirty sweatpants to capes made of stuffed animals, so my bizarre ensembles hardly turned a head. I mixed quirky thrift shop with couture pieces scavenged from the sale racks at Century 21. I remember a purple, men’s Jean Paul Gaultier suit I bought for like $75 and had tailored to fit. I used to pair it with vintage t-shirts or raggy tank tops. Looking back, I think I must have looked like Barney the dinosaur, but I thought it was cool. That’s half the battle with fashion—thinking that you’re cool.

I am six feet tall, so I look like an oversized baby in many of the cutie-cute dresses we see at fast fashion places such as H&M. They don’t even come in my size. I have to have nearly every pair of pants I buy tailored. I play up my height with caftans and painter’s coats. I love high-waisted, wide-legged pants, à la 1940s screen stars. I love Italian knitwear. I am very into ethnic clothing (I collect dashikis), and I accessorize with chunky jewelry and berets. Living in Nevada it is all about cowboy boots—beat-up cowboy boots, of course.

Q: What inspired you to focus specifically on college students as the source of change and innovation in fashion?

A: My first year teaching at Carnegie Mellon, I told my class of freshmen that anyone who showed up in seasonally inappropriate clothing would get a C- for the course. Shorts and flip-flops in the Pittsburgh winter blew my mind because it made no sense. Fashion and personal style have been dissected by the greatest minds of the 20th century—sociologists such as George Simmel, David Riesman, and Herbert Blumer. Everyone acknowledges that in many ways fashion is not supposed to make sense. Once I accepted that, I began to inquire about the historical context of student dress, and I found that student dress had been baffling onlookers for nearly a century. That’s when I knew I was onto something.

Q: You mention that the spread of “casual” clothes has had a great cultural democratizing influence in America and around the world. How so?

A: Clothing has been used to demarcate socioeconomic class for millennia. There were no or very limited options to disguise one’s class. In the 20th century, casual dress provided a sartorial middle ground for rich, for poor, and most of all, for the vast number of us who consider ourselves somewhere in between. Casual dress is the uniform of the American middle class. Sure, there is a difference between a blazer from Old Navy and one from Armani, but most people can’t really tell unless you look closely (I can tell from across the room!). Casual dress allows anyone to instantly associate themselves with the values of the American middle class. On a global scale, casual dress is American dress. T-shirts and jeans, tennis shoes, sweaters—these clothes were popularized by Americans, by college students, and are now worn around the globe.

Q: You note that the rest of the country followed college students’ lead in fashion. What did you find inspired college students themselves? How did they develop a new kind of style?

A: College students were a primary part of the push towards casual dress—there were other factors, including Hollywood and the rise of California as a fashion trendsetter, for example. But college students had the critical mass to initiate widespread change. In many ways they were the foot soldiers of casual dress. In addition to having the numbers, college students lived in a largely self-regulated environment that allowed them to flout convention. Their fashion choices were not driven by social standards prescribed by parents or fashion editors. Rather, they chose clothing that was practical and comfortable—and those two qualities have come to define the modern American wardrobe.

Q: You focus on a few schools, including Radcliffe, Penn State, and Princeton, as the sources for various trends. Why did you choose these schools as fashion epicenters?

A: The project really began at Princeton and with my work on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Princeton was the acknowledged arbiter of men’s fashion. In 1942, Life magazine wrote, “As Paris is to women’s clothes, Princeton is to college youth’s.” Princeton men were an obvious choice because they defined men’s dress since the early 1900s. Radcliffe was chosen because these students were the opposite of Princeton’s. The women of Radcliffe were openly ridiculed for their sloppy attire and for their interest in books rather than fashion. So they make a great foil to places such as Princeton, or their Seven Sisters counterpart, Wellesley. Penn State had a strong home economics program, was markedly middle class, and grew exponentially during the time period studied. Spelman and Morehouse were chosen because they were historically black colleges in the South. University of California was a logical place to study student dress because the American sportswear industry was born in California. The school also had amazing sources.

Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American StyleQ: You also spotlight a few individual college students, painting detailed portraits of how their fashion interacted with and influenced their lives. How did you choose whom to include and how did you collect information on them?

A: Student letters are integral to my analysis because they provide such an intimate portrait of campus life. These letters to mothers, sisters, and friends detail students’ wardrobe needs down to their favorite pair of socks. The students selected really depended on the content of their letters—while most student letters mention clothing in some form or another, some got really into the nuances of campus clothing. For example, Chalmers Alexander (Princeton, Class of 1932) wrote to his mother in Jackson, Mississippi nearly every day. He was very keen to fit in with his colleagues, and mother and son plotted and planned how to do that. So we get the personality of the student and the standards of dress for a Princeton man in the late 1920s.

Q: Did you find significantly different fashions at the historically black schools that you examined, such as Spelman College?

A: Race is a defining factor in the adoption of casual dress. Administrators’ control of student culture was incredibly strong at Spelman and Morehouse, so they were held to outdated dress standards into the 1960s. For example, women at Spelman had to wear girdles by dictate of the administration long after other colleges had abandoned the garment. More interesting than the administrators’ control was the policing of the students themselves. Students watched for and reported dress code violations with vigor and purpose.

Q: Are today’s college students still redefining American style, or has the innovation shifted to another group?

A: College students are still a primary focus group as manufacturers develop and market new products, but starting in the late-1940s, you really see a shift to teenagers as the trendsetters. I think that the teenage demographic has only increased in importance and that has taken on even more momentum in the arena of technology. But college students still set trends. Ugg boots, for example, were popularized by college women, and then picked up by teens.

Q: Your book suggests a long-running tension between students and administrators over casual dress. What role did conservative pressures from school authorities play in the development of college style?

A: College administrators of women defined what kinds of casual clothing were allowed to be worn, when, and where. At the Seven Sisters, for example, administrators took a very “hands off” approach, and these women were the first to wear pants, men’s collared shirts, and tennis shoes. In comparison to places such as Penn State and Cal, Seven Sisters students were highly self-regulated. At co-educational schools, Deans of Women dictated dress codes until the late 1940s and then worked with students (or at least pretended to) to define appropriate dress. The cafeteria was a highly contested space and many rules for Sunday night dinner persisted into the late 1960s.

For men, administrators were far less active in defining campus dress. Sport coats and ties for dinner were highly encouraged, but the men were slow to police each other and rules fell by the wayside. Here we can clearly see the gendered nature of higher education.

Q: College students continue to dress ever more casually, including wearing leggings and sweatpants to class. Would you say this is a linear continuation of the trends you identify in Dress Casual, or a new direction for college style?

A: A defining aspect of casual is comfort, but the emphasis on comfort has been taken to new heights (or perhaps lows) by today’s collegians. Casual is an absence of formality, but pajama pants to the classroom is more about the blurring of lines between public and private spaces. Casual got the ball rolling by breaking down the barriers between genres of dress, but the American insistence on comfort has created a no-rules environment that enrages social critics, grandmothers, and fashion bloggers alike.

Q: What’s the connection between personal aspirations and personal style?

A: There is a strong connection between personal aspirations and personal style, and there always has been. Fashion theorist J. C. Fluegal wrote that fashion thrives best in societies with upward mobility. He also wrote about the strong connection between personality and personal appearance. So not everyone is a clotheshorse, mixing and matching Gaultier suits and Van Halen t-shirts. Some of us are okay with going into Old Navy and buying the same shirt that thousands of other people have purchased. I think that is what makes the rise of personal style in the second half of the twentieth century so interesting. Whether it is carefully crafted or off-the-rack, it’s still yours.

Q: What were some of the differences you found between the way men’s and women’s styles evolved? Or would you say the changes followed similar paths?

A: Men’s casual dress became socially acceptable a good ten years before women’s. Male students at many co-educational schools wore jeans to class in the late 1940s. For women, that’s the late 1950s, even 1960s. Again, there is a strong geographical component to such timelines. Southern women were certainly not wearing jeans on campus in the 1940s, except perhaps for picnics or painting a theatre set. West Coast women and women of the elite, single-sex, northern schools were much more aggressive in pushing boundaries.

Q: Did your research on this topic change the way you think about your personal style at all?

A: My work on the rise of casual dress has made me accept that I like comfortable clothes, and it has pushed me to be creative with how to stay comfortable without looking like I just rolled out of bed. I strive (but struggle) to not judge someone’s choice to wear pajama bottoms on a plane or flip-flops with an evening dress. Yet, it still does irk me.

Q: You talk about clothing as a barometer of social change. What makes clothing such a good measure of cultural shifts?

A: Thorstein Veblen wrote, “Clothing is always in evidence.” Clothing is an amazing indicator of cultural change because it is incredibly apparent on the historical record (for those who are looking for it) and it is a central part of the human experience. We all have to wear clothes, don’t we? Well, maybe not my four-year-old, who removes her clothing whenever possible.

Q: You consulted on the fashion in the recent film The Great Gatsby. How would you compare the fashion on a movie set to the fashion in the “real world”—or on college campuses?

A: Nobody ever wants to watch a historical film with me because I can’t keep my mouth shut about inaccuracies. That said, films are interpretations of eras. When Gatsby was released, so many people wanted me to be critical of the film because it was a creative interpretation of 1920s fashion. The skirts were too short and the heels too high. But it wasn’t wrong. How can an interpretation be wrong?

Q: Would you call clothing an equalizer, and, if so, why?

A: I wouldn’t call clothing an equalizer because the modern fashion industry is about diversification rather than homogeny. Modern shoppers can mix and match pieces from their wardrobes to create individual identities as they see fit. Many of us do not choose to do that, but the options are out there. I do think that more people have more access to more kinds of clothes. Does that make a more democratic society? I don’t know.

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Deirdre Clemente is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She acted as a fashion consultant for the recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann and curates a website about F. Scott Fitzgerald called Fitzgerald & Fashion. Her book Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style is now available.

One Comment

  1. Glimmers of spring.

    The sound of
    the springtime
    near a path full
    of desires, the
    matin serenity,
    a delicate sadness
    where the sunshine
    outshines with
    an inner recall.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

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