Fashion Victims?

I have to ask. I've seen it every day for three years now. Take your pick of location: the main doors of Sever and Emerson ....

I have to ask.

I’ve seen it every day for three years now. Take your pick of location: the main doors of Sever and Emerson Halls when classes let out, the wooden pews in Sanders Theatre during “Justice” lectures, or the House dining halls at 6:30 p.m. This is what I see: hundreds of undergraduates clumped together in the common pursuit of intellectual excellence and the sharing of their multifaceted, different experiences, all of them dressed…exactly alike. So here is my question: Don’t you, you undergraduates—so convinced of your individuality—get tired of looking the same?

College students in America are the people freest to indulge personal tastes through clothing and style—hence the thousands of us running around with body piercings, platform shoes, green hair, and other fashion statements we’ll regret in 20 years. It’s also young people who set clothing trends: every major designer gets his or her inspiration from watching creative young people who, without money or regard for “high” style, make strong statements with their clothing. Fashion, as ephemeral and anti-intellectual as it may seem on the surface, is actually a very important outlet for creativity, ideas, and personality. Watching everyone on campus drift around in the same clothes, I have to wonder: is it just that Harvard students have none of those things?

First, let’s discuss the Harvard uniform.

Yes, there is one. I’m talking about an androgynous, finely tuned version of the all-American demi-preppie look, carefully laundered and label-conscious. This uniform consists of jeans (from the Gap, Diesel, or Levi’s), a fleece (Abercrombie & Fitch, EMS, or the North Face), a button-down shirt (Polo Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, or the Gap again), Nike or New Balance sneakers, and a baseball cap (often trumpeting some other university). The uniform can be expanded to include khakis and polos (see the labelmakers for button-down shirt, above) and some type of sturdy shoe (often a pair of Timberlands or hiking boots). In the wintertime, a coat (either a bubble coat from the North Face or a wool peacoat from J. Crew) is added;  for warmer weather, students lose the fleeces and strip down to tank tops and T-shirts from Express or the Gap.

Not only are the clothes the same, but so are the textures and colors: wool, cotton, rayon blends; black, gray, off-white, blue, muted shades of green and brown, maybe a splash of red for the adventurous. This is the Harvard uniform I’ve seen every day for the past three years; this is what people will still be wearing here once I graduate. Perhaps the clothing labels will change, but the essence of the look—WASPy and well-manicured and just sloppy enough all at once—will remain the same, as long as the current goals of Harvard undergraduates remain the same.

Part of the problem is that we happen to live in a shopping mall.

For those who haven’t visited the Square for awhile, sadly, it has been overrun by chain clothing stores. The same clothing stores that can be held largely responsible for the nobrowing* [*According to New Yorker writer John Seabrook, “nobrow” culture represents the mediocre space between highbrow and lowbrow culture; in this article it stands for the mass-produced, good-quality, but colorless clothing that has swamped the marketplace in recent years.] of American fashion culture are also here: the Gap, Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, Pacific Sunwear, and Adidas. These stores, and a few other culprits, are the staples of every shopping mall, and their wares can be seen on the backs of millions of Americans. Needless to say, with our cramped schedules and lack of guidance about the importance of clothing in expressing individuality, Harvard students find it easy to succumb to the temptation of shopping nearby.

“Those stores are like McDonald’s—they so pervade society that it’s impossible to get away from them,” said Brandon Walston ’01, who describes his personal style as “practical and comfortable.” Walston claims that much of the blame for the Harvard uniform can be placed on time constraints. “Right now, we just shop where it’s convenient. We’re students, we don’t feel the need to look anything but e?cient and comfortable yet,” he says. “Once we get out into the real world, we’ll worry about how we look.”

True enough. After all, most Harvard students certainly have enough on their minds without worrying about what they’re wearing, as long as it’s clean. And stores like the Gap sell simple, easy-care clothes that students (and the tourists who pack the Square on the weekends) are willing to buy. But it’s ironic—and a bit disturbing—that comfort and convenience, the overwhelming excuses I heard from undergraduates I asked about the Harvard “look,” all add up to a homogeneous, highly codified type of dress (and by extension, lifestyle). It’s not just that Harvard students look the same, it’s that they want the same lives as well.

The all-American demi-preppie uniform is the uniform of a certain type of person with a certain type of life. In the 1980s this person wore Lacoste polos, worked on Wall Street, and was often called a yuppie, but thanks to the minimalist 1990s, this person has mellowed into an earthier type—just as ambitious, of course, but more likely to wear jeans and Birkenstocks to the office. Demi-preppie stores all advocate the same message of upper-middle-class white prep homogeneity. There isn’t anything wrong with this ambition or this message, but what concerns me is that all of the students at Harvard—no matter what their background, race, interests, or experience—have bought into it. It’s one thing for people who come from a demi-preppie background and have lived the demi-preppie experience to dress this way. It’s another thing for people who don’t have access to this dream—and we often forget them at Harvard because, among other reasons, they’re dressed like everyone else—to come here and immediately look the part, to buy into this dream hook, line, and sinker.

Walston, for example, comes from a working-class family in West Philadelphia. On an extremely tight budget, he still manages to shop at the Gap and J. Crew. “Even when you don’t have a lot of money, you’re very aware of people who do have money and the stores they spend their money in,” Walston says. “When you’re living in a culture that emphasizes a certain type of lifestyle, you feel that pressure whether or not you buy into it.” Walston doesn’t really buy into that lifestyle—he wants to be a writer—but the ambivalence he feels toward the places he chooses to shop at is representative of many Harvard students who didn’t grow up with the lifestyle they now choose to emulate with their clothes.

“Sometimes I feel guilty,” Walston says. “[J. Crew] isn’t doing anything for me or for the causes I’m interested in, and they project this WASPy image that I will never be a part of. But I don’t really want to be noticed for my clothes, so I pick things that are of good quality and fit my personal tastes and….[often] they happen to be J. Crew.”

Susannah Hollister ’01, who describes her style as “understated Bostonian,” remembers the first time she saw style at Harvard take on an economic edge.

One of her first-year roommates, who was not wealthy, spent all her money accumulating clothing. “Every week she would get a letter with some money in it—an allowance of sorts—and she would use it to buy a new sweater,” Hollister says. “A sweater a week adds up. It’s not like she had a lot of money, it’s just that that’s where all of her money went.”

That behavior, says Hollister, is indicative of the pressures less-wealthy Harvard students feel to keep up with the image of privilege that Harvard naturally provides. “There’s a class element in how Harvard students dress, for sure, and it’s aimed to level everyone in the direction of wealthy —an intellectual, WASP wealthy, the type of wealthy that goes along with the careers most of us will be doing in the future,” she says. “But the dress here is deceptive. Often the people I know who have the most clothes and spend the most money on clothes are not the wealthy students, they’re the students who are just middle- or working-class.”

Given the ubiquity of the Harvard uniform, you really can’t tell how much money people have by the way they dress, and certainly some of that has to do with our attitudes towards conspicuous consumption. It’s no longer cool to be filthy rich. Instead of going all out with a couture ostrich coat, the undergraduates who have money hide it underneath $200 khakis and an expensive pile of designer basics that look the same whether they’re from the Gap or Calvin Klein. Some of that, surely, is about comfort, but quite a bit is about the tentative psychology that goes along with being a rich person at Harvard in an era where the ultimate ambition is to be an upper-middle-class WASP. No one wants to admit that a large part of the reason why we’re here may not be simply because of our brains, but because of the opportunities (and private schools, and Princeton Review courses) that money can still buy in America. Why draw attention to privilege, then, and be forced to confront some of those di?cult questions, by drawing attention to yourself through expensive clothes?

And for those students who aren’t so wealthy, it’s never been cool—and never will be—to look poor. Even in the nadir of the anti-fashion 1990s, when grunge was on all the runways, there was a luxurious, $500-a-day-heroin-habit vibe to all of it. Now, with clean-cut demi-preppie ruling the American consciousness—and Harvard College wardrobes—the less wealthy among us try to keep up. Just as rich students are uncomfortable with flashy symbols of wealth, poor students are uncomfortable with the idea of looking like they don’t have money. Harvard, for all its emphasis on economic diversity, still exudes privilege and old money in a way that can be overwhelming to those who didn’t grow up with much. Plus, thanks to the power of the Harvard degree, we’re all on our way to an upper-middle-class future, regardless of how much money we grew up with—so why bother trying to enforce economic differences through clothing in the interim?

Mikhaela Reid ’02 describes her personal style as “thrift-store lesbionic” with a healthy dose of the 1950s thrown in. A “punk kid” in high school, Reid cleaned up her act when she got to Harvard and wanted to be taken seriously by her teachers. Now she still wears steel-toed boots, but she’s much more likely to pair them with khakis and a tweed blazer than the ripped pants she used to wear. Reid takes the power of clothes seriously, but believes most College students don’t dress nearly as interestingly as they think they do. “Don’t believe anyone when they say their priorities are unique or their style is unique—even the bohemian kids follow a highly codified way of dressing to suit a particular lifestyle that is, in its own way, homogeneous.”

Now, how comfortable is that?

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Caille Millner ’01, who describes her personal style as “constantly evolving,” admits to spending way too much money on clothing, shoes, accessories, fashion magazines, dry cleaners, tailors, cobblers, personal shoppers, and seamstresses.

Read more articles by: Caille Millner

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