Thursday, July 24, 2008

The University Uniform

I am a college student. I dress like a college student. At least I think I do. What I have noticed lately is that most college students no longer have a "style" (or budget, or shred of modesty?) that matches their place in life.

I wear clothes that are comfortable and durable. Many of them have useful pockets. Most of them are cotton. This is what I think of when I picture the quintessential college student, especially the older student or the grad student: cargo pants, t-shirts, Converses or Birkenstocks, an old backpack whose zippers are held together with zip-ties.

My kind of students. They even call this grassy knoll "Hippy Hill."

This is at Appalachian State University.

Maybe I live in the wrong part of the country. Or the wrong decade. People don't even sit on the grass in the quad.

At my school, we have two main "types" of college students that look nothing like college students:

Perpetual Teenager

Career Thirty-Something

The perpetual teenagers wear the same clothes they wore in high school. Their shorts are still too short, they carry their stuff in Nike sport sacks (which only hold about two small books), and they invariably have glitter or sequins on one or more of their garments. They are not ready to be here in some ways, if their exterior is any reflection of their interior.

These un-university like ladies trouble me because I thought I escaped the pressure of being "cool" when I finished high school. Luckily for me that was more than ten years ago, so I dont feel too much pressure. But I can see how it would be applied to more youthful incoming students who don't wear the right color hot pants for this season. I do get strange looks, even though I'm not the one wearing pajama pants to class.

I think the Career Thirty-Somethings bother me even more than the "barely-legals." These women are my age, or nearly my age (usually they are upperclassmen or grad students) but they dress like they work at a bank. Heels every day, jackets or cardigans over camisoles, real jewelry, and the crowning accessory that makes me cringe: the giant Gucci hobo purse that holds their textbooks. My first thought is why would you waste so much money on a wardrobe for college, and my second is, how can you be comfortable? And how can you enjoy being in your twenties? And how do you throw your bag on the floor, or put food in it, or ride a bike with it?

All dressed up and ready for her . . . midterm exam.

There's nothing wrong with a professional look on a young woman if it's sexy. But this is the midwest. Not exactly the fashion capital of the world. These girls aren't making themselves look better, they just look old. And their career-focused outfits make me think they are only in school because they want to make more money than people who don't go to school. "Ok, I'm here, give me my paper so I can get an easy job."

Here's what I love about being a college student and being in my twenties: I am young enough that I don't have to dress like a tool, I am old enough that I don't give a shit what teenagers think about my idiosyncratic wardrobe. Personally, I think I look pretty good most of the time. But to them I probably look like a cross between an Anthropologie and an L.L. Bean catalog. And I carry . . . a backpack! (GASP!)

I have often thought about what I would wear once I am a professor. I have some good role models in that department. Even among the overdressed students the faculty at my school maintain something of my philosophy on utilitarian clothing. They wear the same outfits every few days, and most of them look comfortable. My favorite professors even fit my description of "grad school student" sometimes, with their baggy shirts and wrinkled pants. They aren't allowed to wear jeans or t-shirts, but they dress down as much a possible. Once I complemented one of them on her simple taste. I don't think she took it as a complement, but I think she understood what I was getting at once I stammered out an explanation.

So even as I wince on seeing the goosebumps form on the arms of pink-camisoled, blow-dried women in the cold of the classroom A/C (while I am bundled in a Columbia sweater), and watch bewildered as they change out of their "presentation" shoes and into patent leather flats (I have kicked off my shoes and am sitting cross-legged on top of my sock feet) I can take heart in the path I've chosen for my future. Grad school will find me in the same comfy duds, and besides the interviews and other functions that will precede my employment, I need not worry about wearing any uniform except that of the university. Which, as in the case of a small liberal arts college such as mine, will hopefully be nothing more than a loose dress code.

I suppose I heeded Thoreau when he warned "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothing," and I set my path from there.

Here's me leading a hike in Kauai. I would wear everything here to school -- I've even incorportaed carabiners into my wardrobe since the trip. Why not!?

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