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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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.