The Conundrum Of College Clothing Conformity

During my middle school years, I, like many teens and preteens, found myself a victim of the dark (literally), strongly cologned lure that was Abercrombie and Fitch. The stores were covered in a wallpaper of interchangeable, half-naked male models that all looked eerily the same. Perfect teeth, deliberately tousled hair, and nearly identical sculpted abs, each draped with a perky, slim, long-haired girl. Abercrombie offered the perfect all-American look—if every American had straight blond hair and spent eight hours a day in the gym. In sixth grade, it occurred to me that an overpriced tee-shirt was the ultimate status symbol. Well into high school, the tiny moose proudly remained the gatekeeper to the paradise that was peer approval. I’m not saying that it helped all of us to skyrocket to popular status (bespectacled, bookworm, clarinet-playing high school version of me can attest to that), but it was definitely deemed necessary for anyone that wanted a fighting chance. So basically, scads of teens and preteens strolled down the halls in the exact same shirt, by the exact same brand in a few different colors, hoping that Abercrombie and Fitch would work their magic on their social status.

One of the cliché, but totally valid of pieces of advice that you hear people saying they wish that they could offer their younger selves, is to be unafraid of being yourself. But I think even if wise-old-sage-20 year-old me traveled back in time, and bestowed that wisdom onto awkward, high school me, I still probably wouldn’t have completely listened then. Particularly as someone from a small town and a small school—a quite shy someone at that—it’s hard to go against the norm, to do, say, or wear something that will draw unwanted attention. Middle school and high school are a delicate balance of trying to get noticed, while still going with the flow, all while figuring out who that “self” that you’re supposed to be even is. But college, in nearly every movie and every imagination always seemed to represent the beacon of liberation from those confines.

The prospect of college offers a slew of freedoms. For many students that excitedly yet nervously cram their clothes into plastic bins, confusedly search for textbooks on Amazon for the first time, and precariously stuff their car to the brim with rolled up posters, a shower caddy, rubber shower shoes, and tons of other things the Bed Bath and Beyond checklist tells you that you need, university offers the freedom to sever ties with the reputation and the history that may have supported you or haunted you up until then, and to reinvent yourself if you so feel the desire. It’s during this transition that you may have the surreal realization that aside from the occasional Facebook Farmville invite, you may never, and I mean never, see or hear from some of the people that you have known since grade school. And you may find yourself wondering why you ever cared how cool your classmates thought you were. College is the chance to better and enrich yourself, while nurturing the person that you already are.

However, upon my arrival, I found myself making the sleepy trek to my morning class each day surrounded by a sea of students donning the same jacket and boots, not a similar pair, but the exact. same. ones. Remember when Uggs (uggly but actually quite comfortable) first became a thing and every middle school girl coveted them knowing that they were the essential missing piece to complete that oh-so stylish blue jean skirt ensemble? It was just as bad.  Sometimes it seems nearly every person—male and female—at my school has this same pair of shoes. And it didn’t stop there. At first I thought it was a coincidence. “Hey, those two girls are both wearing the same vest!  Wow, so are they, and so is she! Huh.” But then I realized there are certain brands and styles that just seem to be staples of college clothing. Go to an event and you can see dozens of girls wearing slight variations of the same dress by the same designer in the same cut and color palette. It seemed that in higher education the same pressure remained (while becoming considerably more expensive).

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I’m still not exactly sure why I see the same outfit repeatedly day in and day out on different people. Sometimes people are subconsciously inspired by those around them. Which is okay, as long as you don’t get lost in the process. I think we take away a little something from everyone we connect with, and we can only hope to do the same in return. It also is arguable that many people genuinely like these styles. I mean, tons of people like pizza and no one accuses them of being conformists. Personally, I don’t see the allure of dizzingly busy pastel dresses and those sandals with the round thing on the front that look like something that my mom would have made me wear on Easter Sunday fifteen years ago. Nor do I see the point in wearing boots that were designed for trekking through the wilderness of Maine when simply strolling to class in a southern drizzle. It is disheartening to discover that perhaps visual uniformity remains just as much an integral part of being a member of a community as it did in high school.

Towards the end of high school, I realized that I actually like fashion. And not as a way to impress my classmates, like in fourth grade when I told my mom she wasn’t dressing me anymore and I proudly picked out my first outfit (purple cargo pants and purple striped top) from Limited Too, but as a living art—a way to experiment with color, texture, shape, and pattern everyday. So if you really like Bean Boots, wear them. Wear them until their little funny shaped soles wear down and then glue them back and continue to wear them, but don’t wear them because you feel the need to adhere to some unspoken social dress code.

View Comments (2)
  • Very eloquently written! FYI It never gets better. I’m 39 and still trying to figure out what is the right thing to wear. Unfortunately, I’m a little too attached to sweatpants and leggings and shirts that are way too big for me. I care a little less what others thing though. Just a little!

  • I love this because I can relate so much! I know exactly what items of clothing you are referring to because I have seen (and, admittedly, worn) some of them myself. I really appreciate you highlighting the importance of finding your own style.

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