New Year, Regular Clothes: Introducing Office Hours With Professor Caplan

Professor David Caplan’s recent articles were met with a warm reception, and so Ivy Style is honored to kick off the new year with a regular column for the tweedy professor. Aptly entitled Office Hours, Caplan will  use it to continue exploring the intersection between traditional clothing and American culture past and present.

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Regular Clothes
By David Caplan, Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University

An English friend at Oxford told me she could spot the American students even before we opened our mouths. “How?” I asked. “All of you wear those shoes,” she said, pointing at mine.

I was wearing LL Bean’s blucher moccasins, ordered in the pre-Internet days from the catalogue. Nice shoes, to be sure, but also somewhat unremarkable, neither particularly expensive nor cheap, neither stylish nor unfashionable. They lacked the sophistication of the suede brogues I admired when another rower sported them at the college pub. Unlike the Doc Martens combat boots the punkier students favored, the blucher moccasins did not aggressively announce each step. They were so familiar I hadn’t noticed how many of the other Americans wore them.

 “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it,” the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky observed. “The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it.” Shklovsky called this process “habitualization.” “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war,” Shklovsky noted. Art reverses this damage. Variously translated as “defamiliarization” and “making-strange,” it restores the familiar items, people, and emotions to their original state. 

Three decades later, I am wearing LL Bean blucher moccasins as I write this column (a different pair, to be sure. Those original shoes long since fell apart.) Something Shklovsky discounted adds to the pleasure that the shoes give me: namely, the pleasure that familiarity brings, deepened by years of associations and use. 

Like many others, I first experienced the full freedom to dress as I liked in college, “practicing to be grown-up,” as a character in a Benjamin Black mystery puts it. That freedom encourages an emerging adult style, a maturing awareness of individual preference that develops as students see how classmates from around the country and the world dress. These formative experiences do not relinquish their influence at commencement but follow the graduates as they leave campus. Often, we judge the clothes we wear later in life against them. 

In his novel, The Final Club, Geoffrey Wolff makes a similar point when he describes a Princeton twenty-year reunion. Wolff fictionalized his own class, depicting characters that, like the author himself, graduated from Princeton in 1960. At their tenth-year reunion, the alumni showed the effects of the late 1960’s sartorial and pharmaceutical revolutions. At the twentieth-year reunion, they return to “regular” clothes: 

Gone were the wild, wide neckties of ten years ago. Gone the wide lapels, wide bell-bottomed cuffs, wild doped eyes, dilated pupils, mutton-chop whiskers. Here was nothing extreme. Jake wore a blue button-down shirt with a frayed collar, khakis, battered loafers. This was what Benjamin wore, with boat shoes, and the shirt was white. This was what Pownall wore. Everyone dressed as everyone used to dress. Regular. The men and boys looked like the men and boys of 1956. Regular. 

I grew up in a Boston coastal suburb, a little younger than the children of the characters Wolff depicts, and entered college in 1987, seven years after the publication of The Official Preppy Handbook. Certainly not all of my classmates wore khakis, button-down shirts, and boat shoes, but enough did for us to think of them as “regular,” as well as polo shirts, CB ski jackets, and yes, blucher moccasins.  

Recently, I asked my students which clothes they regarded as normal. They offered remarkably consistent responses, naming sweatpants, sweatshirts, tee shirts, and, least frequently, jeans. No one mentioned khakis, button-down shirts, or boat shoes, and no one disagreed with the other students’ assessments.

Their answers should not have surprised me. As everybody has noticed, American culture has grown more casual, a trend that the social isolation of Coronavirus accelerated. When I taught the semester’s classes remotely, I dressed as formally as I would have for an in-person session, but it is certainly understandable if the students did not. “We Are Living In the Age of Sweatpants and Never Going Back,” GQ prophesized in a headline. “Everyone wears sweatpants now,” the article explained, “and sweatpants are perhaps the one true universally flattering article of clothing.” (As an aside, I would say that my impression is the opposite: sweatpants are universally unflattering, except to the very fit.)

When I asked my students why they favored these clothes, none mentioned how they looked. Instead, they described the many demands that college life places on their time and the daily stresses they endure. They talked about the need to dress quickly, racing between commitments, and the comfort, both physical and emotional, that the sweatpants and sweatshirts bring them.

My students are not alone in seeing college life as stressful. Summarizing the results of a Fall 2018 survey of undergraduates, two Harvard researchers reported, “63% of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year.” Other studies show high rates of student depression. Theories abound to explain the reasons for this situation, assigning blame on economic uncertainty, the turbulence of the Trump presidency, Coronavirus, school shootings, social media, or some combination of these factors or others. The clothes the students favor express this social reality as well as guard against its effects. They address a perceived need.

That is not to say none of my students wear polo shirts, button downs, or boat shoes, but those who do tend to reserve them for particular occasions: a party, a date, a meeting with a professor or a coach. The clothes themselves also have changed. The preppy look, as we called it, grew more outlandish in the years after I graduated from college, like the logo on a Polo shirt that swelled from the size of a fingernail to a fist. Neo-prep offers many pleasures, but they are not “regular” clothes. They resemble a costume, a stage wardrobe for a character few of my students wish to play. “Not to acknowledge your privilege,” a bright senior told me, “is the worst thing a liberal arts college student can do.” The boat shoes, polo shirts, button downs, and khakis my classmates and I wore also expressed a practiced identity, but did so more quietly. The lift passes clipped to our CBs announced that we had spent the weekend skiing, which is why we did not cut them off. 

That style amounts only to one option among many, even on campuses that retain a reputation for traditional collegiate style. In a remarkable commencement address, Chanwoong Baek described to his fellow graduates the nervousness he felt getting ready to leave his native country, South Korea, to attend Bowdoin College. “I was not fully confident in my decision to study at a school abroad in a place I had never been,” Baek recalled. “I was under a lot of stress to be successful, and the first step to my goal was ‘fitting in’”: 

Before I left South Korea, I surfed the Internet for hours gathering information about Bowdoin. I wanted to know what I needed to be successful there. Then, I read a description online that said Bowdoin students are very “preppy.” The problem was, at the time, I did not know what preppy meant so I had to look up the word in a dictionary, which told me, “Preppy: typical of a student or graduate of an expensive prep school, especially with reference to their style of dress, the preppy look.” Then, of course, I did not know what the preppy look was so I had to do more research. After going over many Google images and asking my friends who had lived in the States, I realized that the essentials for the preppy look were a button-down shirt and khaki pants. I went out that afternoon and bought four pairs of khaki pants. Not because I wanted four pairs but because I was not sure what color range khaki covered.

Baek made an important discovery shortly after he arrived at Bowdoin:

Soon, I realized I was not worried about how I needed to dress, but that I was actually concerned about what not dressing preppy would mean. Most Bowdoin students wear sweatpants everywhere anyway.

Privilege is a slippery concept, sometimes treated as if it were not. A Cornell student from an untraditional background observed to me that his more privileged classmates—those who graduated from elite private schools or public high schools that groomed their graduates to enter America’s top universities—often dress the most casually, taking for granted their place there.  In Baek’s terms, the relative outsiders, those most nervous about “fitting in,” are surprised to find themselves wearing more formal clothes while their peers “wear sweatpants everywhere.” Ironically, they imitate a look associated with privilege that that many of the privileged have abandoned. 

With apologies to Simon Crompton, no style is permanent. The clothes I often appreciate have survived changes in fashion, less popular but still relevant because they are both traditional and flexible, familiar and capable of conveying individuality. They would be a lot less appealing if they felt obligatory. To adjust Wolff’s term a bit, I prefer regular clothes to required ones. I prefer them because I like how they look and because they recall the times I wore them, rolling up a button down’s sleeves at a party in an overheated apartment, laughing at a joke a friend told, or feeling the collar grow a little tight during my PhD oral exams, when I struggled to remember an obscure poet’s name and sound as if I knew more than I did. At least to me, those clothes still express a certain optimism, looking better after they have been broken in and beaten up a bit. 

28 Comments on "New Year, Regular Clothes: Introducing Office Hours With Professor Caplan"

  1. I never thought I’d be pleased to see students wearing jeans to class, but compared to sweatpants (no different than pajama bottoms, to this member of the khaki generation), they are a sight for sore eyes.

  2. Professor Caplan perfectly captured the essence of what it means to dress “regularly”. To me, his comment of “The clothes I often appreciate have survived changes in fashion, less popular but still relevant because they are both traditional and flexible, familiar and capable of conveying individuality.” That says it all.

  3. Interesting how Pericles was misquoted on the blackboard.

  4. There is something disrespectful about wearing sweatpants and sneakers to class.

    I am 48 and I would be offended if I had to lecture on Chaucer in front of a class full of students wearing athleisure.

    I suppose it has something to do with exorbitant tuition fees and the relative low cost of purchasing and caring for fleece, knits, and cotton jersey.

    Shopping for, laundering, and ironing polo shirts, khakis, and button downs from Brooks Brothers ain’t cheap!

  5. Andrew Summar | January 4, 2021 at 4:05 pm | Reply

    Mitchell made a good point. Do you dress for yourself or do you dress out of respect for others?

  6. Today’s students stressed out by college life? “Overwhelming anxiety”? They wear sweatpants because of difficult daily demands? Really? First, note that the Harvard survey was published in 2018, when Covid wasn’t a factor. Now, here’s what it was like to be a college student in the md-1960s, as I was. Most colleges had a set of required courses, typically physical and biological sciences, mathematics, two years of a foreign language and so on. No good at math? Too bad. If you couldn’t pass a math course, you were history. There was no grade inflation, no leniency. Old-school professors were tough and uncompromising. No computers, no Spellcheck, no Grammarly. We had to pound out endless papers on manual typewriters, which usually meant a lot of retyping–first draft, second draft and then perhaps a final version. There was no Internet–no vast, global source of instant information. If you wanted to do research, you had to go to the library, which often proved to be limited source of information. Overall, the pressure was intense. The 1973 film “Paper Chase,” about the struggles of a group of law students, provides a fairly accurate idea of what it was like. Looking back, I don’t know how we did it.

  7. Trace,

    Do have an ever-so quick peek at an inflation-adjusted housing-price index, the inflation-adjusted median household income, and inflation-adjusted tuition figures. Compare today’s numbers to when you exited school, and then add on top of that the precipitous rise of credentialism in the job market that sees a great many students begin life in a hole of debt. Add to that too colleges are more meritocratic in present day, which mean fewer people’s parents are footing a bill an order of magnitude larger than it was is your musty day.

    My father’s cousin, upon graduating with a liberal arts degree in the late ’50s, was hired by 3M and they taught him accounting and paid him to learn it. Approach a Fortune 500 company today with an English degree and see if they’ll keep you on the payroll while you study to become a C.P.A.

    If it doesn’t make sense to you that the kids today are stressed, it’s clearly those damn kids not appreciating access to the internet, which will in no way differentiate them from their peers as they try to get a leg up in their future professional endeavors.

    “Looking back, I don’t know how we did it.”

    We should erect a monument to the generation that proceeded their parents’ seeing every first-world economy save Uncle Sam’s bombed to rubble, and gifted an empire at its peak, who ultimately left a deficit to subsequent generations that has now eclipsed 15% of GDP. The hippies who became yuppies and gave rise to what Wolfe accurately dubbed “the Me Generation”, what a mighty example, born of adversity, you have set.

  8. Wow, M.R., don’t get your Weejuns in an uproar. I didn’t intend to inspire a long rant about how horrible things are today and it’s somehow my fault. I was only trying to convey how challenging actual schoolwork was sans all of the technology that college students have available today. By “I don’t know how we did it,” all I meant was how hard it was to spend all night typing and re-typing a 20-page paper, minus the book you really needed but the library didn’t have, and then get a C- because of a misspelling or two or a dangling participial phrase. I have no idea what the housing-price index has to do with it. By the way, at the same time, we also faced a little set-to in a country somewhere in Southeast Asia and a relentless military draft that regularly delivered a fresh supply of live bodies to replace the dead ones returning in bags to the tune of 50,000, including three of my best chums. As for your last paragraph, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Which first-world countries were “bombed to rubble”? Which war? Which “empire at its peak?” Hippies, yuppies? I had no idea my little description of college life in another century would trigger a deeply angry person. Jesus, man, I’m just here for the clothes. I don’t why you are.

  9. @Dutch Uncle
    Rather than calling the Pericles quote on the blackboard a mistranslation, I would have called it an abbreviated paraphrase that does not run counter to the spirit of the original statement. I have even seen it in the form “Time is the wisest of all counsellors”. I don’t think that Pericles would have objected.

  10. Old Bostonian | January 5, 2021 at 1:57 am | Reply

    Re: the illustration
    Student garb has certainly changed for the worse, but one thing hasn’t:
    students who are more interested in how many minutes are left till the end of the class than they are in the content that the professor is trying to impart to them.

  11. M.R.’s comment may have been jarring, Trace, (like you, I’m just here for the clothes, and I do wish more people could be a little more respectful of self and others when it comes to their sartorial choices,) but his point seems clear to me: Most college students today face a variety of economic pressures that your generation simply didn’t. My own responses when I hear members of the older generation marveling at how easy the younger cohort has it range from weary to indignant. Sure, the Internet’s a marvel. But academic inflation means an undergrad degree is no better than a high school diploma in most cases. And it costs a small fortune to attain. And for most college students (whether clad in sweatpants or khakis) that cost can defer at least a decade’s worth of life milestones that for your generation were simply a matter of course. We’ve all had our challenges. I didn’t live in fear of getting drafted, for instance. But it’s not going to far to say that in many ways, once your generation climbed its ladder, it pulled that ladder right up with it.

  12. “Today’s students stressed out by college life? ‘Overwhelming anxiety’? They wear sweatpants because of difficult daily demands? Really?”

    Yes, Trace, you were just politely adressing the advent of word processing in reply to mention of the pressures of modern college life.

  13. In the midst of the president comitting yet another crime, you guys are concerned about sweatpants. WOW!

  14. This is not the platform for an endless debate about relative generational pressures on college students, so I will leave it at that. I do think that our conversation here reflects a country that is hopelessly divided in so many ways. I also will agree that today’s college students are facing a bleak future once the smoke from the wreckage of Covid has cleared, perhaps unlike anything my generation ever experienced. That’s heartbreaking.

  15. @Trace
    I also walked 10 miles through the bitter snow and blazing desert with papers typed five times. However, we need to keep in mind that the technology that allows us to work faster also allows teachers and bosses to demand more of us. And they do.

    The kids are working very hard and doing so under heavy financial pressure — before they even graduate from high school. Once they make it to college, they’re under heavy pressure to make good grades so they can go to graduate school and acquire a great job and a great deal of debt. Through it all, they probably have a helicopter parent badgering them about work and money (and waxing about the snow they trudged through to school).

    A couple of decades from now, they’ll probably be whining about how as high school students they programmed nuclear missile launches in the middle of dangerous blizzards and hurricanes caused by climate change (minor political joke, so keep your panties out of a twist). Alas, they’ll probably be wearing their “normal” sweatpants as they do it.

  16. Trace,

    Thanks for bringing back memories of the typewriter. I was awful at typing and instead paid a coed 50 cents per page to type my papers. And I also remember trips to the library – “all-nighters.”

    On another note, “Bluchermoc” and “M.R.” seem to enjoy picking a fight rather than looking for common ground. Your replies to “M.R.” were polite, and he/she/it did not respond in kind. Arguing with the likes of them is a waste of time.

    Ivy Style is mostly a friendly online community, and I have enjoyed reading your comments over the years. Please keep time coming and ignore the Trolls.

    Cheers,

    BC

  17. Love these articles from Prof Caplan! And Go Battling Bishops!

  18. I should add that OWU has its fair share of prep school alums, so the Prof knows of what he writes.

  19. Thanks for your kind comments, BC. I’ve always enjoyed your pieces here and at the other place. In fact, I recently looked up the piece you did for IS on Bermuda in June 2018. Here was my comment: “Glad to see BC turn up on Ivy Style after what happened to him on that other site. His perspective is always a delight.”
    Cheers,
    T

  20. You liberal guys are really breaking my heart. Take responsibility for your stupid decision to go into massive college debt and be men. Can I still use the word men? Sheesh.

    Will

  21. Will, please provide the youngsters a tutorial on how one gets an MBA from a good school without accumulating significant debt. You and I didn’t encounter this problem at state universities in the 70’s. Tuition has soared because conservatives cut state support for the universities when they cut taxes. As usual, they’re not man enough to admit their selfishness and blame the schools instead.

  22. Whiskeydent, well, I would suggest youngsters consider their field of study very carefully. A doctorate in women’s studies, for instance, qualifies one for a position at Starbucks. Realize that you are not special and the world does not owe you anything and that maybe college is not the right path for you. Stop blaming everyone and everything else for your problems, ie. conservatives and tax cuts. If college is for you, take advantage of community colleges for as much of your classes as possible.

    It looks as though this country will become New Venezuela later this month so all college debt will more than likely be forgiven anyways. A college degree will be even less valuable than it is today. When that happens will everybody also demand an automatic master’s degree. Wait, isn’t master’s degree a racist term?

    Cheers,

    Will

  23. Charlottesville | January 6, 2021 at 3:56 pm | Reply

    To my buddies Will and Whiskeydent — For what it’s worth, I graduated from college, with debt, in the midst of a recession and got the only job I could find, selling third-rate clothing in a department store in my home town, living with my parents for the first year or so and later with a room mate, eventually getting a 2-room apartment of my own. After a couple of years of door-knocking and submitting resumes, I got an entry-level desk job with a state agency. I went to school at night to earn a master’s degree, paying my own way, and got a promotion at work. I even managed to get married to a girl I met when she was 16 and I was 17, and we are still married today.

    7 years after college, I decided to go to law school, relying on a combination of scholarships and loans that took another 10 years to pay off. My wife supported us for the 3 years I was in school, with me contributing what I could from part-time clerking for a local attorney, and summer employment at a firm in Washington. A dozen years after finishing law school, we put a down payment on our first house, in which my wife and I still live and on which I still pay the mortgage every month.

    That should not sound like a sob story. I think it’s pretty normal. My wife and I have been very fortunate, and we have even managed to save a bit, travel (at least before the plague struck) and live pretty comfortably, but it’s hardly ever a piece of cake for anyone. I wish the younger generation well, but don’t think “free” college is the panacea.

  24. To my buddies Charlottesville and Whiskeydent, poor grades in high school and an exceedingly high SAT score, attended a private college for a year and a half and dropped out with debt. Political Science…imagine. Moved in with parents for six months and because of the dignity of shame that I felt, got a job selling paper. Became engaged a couple of times but never married…the Big Guy was looking out for me. I paid my student loans and kept plugging along. Sowed many wild oats. Wore great clothes.

    Charlottesville, your story is most certainly not a sob story and is much better than mine. I was, however, lucky enough to have married a wonderful woman whom I do not deserve and my family lives comfortably. All men should be as lucky as we.

    Will

  25. Charlottesville | January 6, 2021 at 5:18 pm | Reply

    Will – Amen. We have much to be thankful for, especially for the women foolish enough to have fallen in love with us and tough enough to put up with us for all these years. Hope you have a wonderful evening.

    Just looked in on the news, which was a mistake. Lord have mercy.

  26. I just saw that a young lady was shot in the neck in the Capital. I will be hugging my wife and kids a bit more closely tonight.

    Good night and God bless

    Will

  27. Henry Contestwinner | January 22, 2021 at 12:12 pm | Reply

    whiskeydent, it is all well and good to blame “the conservatives” for the woes that beset state universities, but the position doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

    Taxes are sky-high in California, where income, property, and sales are all taxed, and the state has been a left-wing bastion for ages, yet CSU and UC tuitions are every bit as bad as everywhere else, and probably worse.

    I don’t believe that the blame lies with either “the conservatives” or “the liberals.” Rather, it’s a constellation of factors, with Federally-subsidized student loans at the heart. Colleges charge more because students can pay more because students can borrow more—and that debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Government interference in the market has distorted the market.

    Yes, there’s more to it than that—I did say it’s due to a constellation of factors. Regardless, Federal student loans are the most important part. Remove them from the equation and tuition would plummet.

  28. You hit on it,”remembering”,this is the motivation of my today’s dress. I’m in my 70s,remembering my youth, the way I dressed then, not much change,it’s all a cycle.

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