Picture college life in the 1920s – perhaps young women dressed as flappers and men in oversize raccoon coats? Or are they formal, in dresses, coats and ties? Fashion – what people wear and where they wear it – can be a fascinating source of inquiry. Grounded in deep desires for social capital and acceptance, fashion is also a site of creativity, individuality and expression. It is big business and small decisions. When looked at carefully by a cultural historian, fashion can tell us a great deal.
Other than an occasional comment about the casual dress of so many college students today (Uggs, flip-flops, and pajamas), I had not given much thought to the role of fashion and higher education. That changed with Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style by UNLV historian Deirdre Clemente. A solid work, Dress Casual is cleverly researched, avoiding too much reliance on publications and advertisements. Clemente relies on first person accounts of college students and their families, painting a picture of what clothing was desired, what was rejected, and why. She argues that collegiate fashions and their consistent push for comfortable casual clothes played an important role in the rise of casual clothing for all Americans.
Clemente looks at student dress and fashion from 1900 – 1970 at a select group of residential colleges. Her sources places the question of fashion within particular collegiate contexts. Every college has its own culture. Princeton, as epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was known for being very stylish. Spellman and Morehouse were formal. Cal – the University of California at Berkeley – featured casual styles and was an early adapter of jeans. Clemente situates the choices of what students wore within cross-cutting currents of race, class, gender, and comfort, as well as dress codes and trends. She also talks about how it as purchased, paid for, located and cleaned – all not unimportant questions.
Dress Casual may seem esoteric. It is specialized history, but it also reinforces a much broader point about the role colleges play in culture. If you want to understand where America is going, take a close look at its colleges.