Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style

Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style

Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style

Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style


As Deirdre Clemente shows in this lively history of fashion on American college campuses, whether it's jeans and sneakers or khakis with a polo shirt, chances are college kids made it cool. The modern casual American wardrobe, Clemente argues, was born in the classrooms, dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and gyms of universities and colleges across the country. As young people gained increasing social and cultural clout during the early twentieth century, their tastes transformed mainstream fashion from collared and corseted to comfortable. From east coast to west and from the Ivy League to historically black colleges and universities, changing styles reflected new ways of defining the value of personal appearance, and, by extension, new possibilities for creating one's identity.

The pace of change in fashion options, however, was hardly equal. Race, class, and gender shaped the adoption of casual style, and young women faced particular backlash both from older generations and from their male peers. Nevertheless, as coeds fought dress codes and stereotypes, they joined men in pushing new styles beyond the campus, into dance halls, theaters, homes, and workplaces. Thanks to these shifts, today's casual style provides a middle ground for people of all backgrounds, redefining the meaning of appearance in American culture.


What are you wearing? Whether it is jeans and sneakers or khakis with a sports coat, chances are college kids made it cool.

The modern American wardrobe was born on the college campus in the first half of the twentieth century. Its creators were the knickers-clad members of Princeton’s Cottage Club, the women of the University of California’s “Committee to Wear Pants to Dinner,” and the sweatshirted students of Penn State. Collegians such as Dick Eberhart (Dartmouth, Class of 1926) and Erin Goseer (Spelman, Class of 1955) cherry-picked a collection of functional garments and wove together a manner of dress that was initially suited to campus life, became a default for grown-ups on weekends and vacations, and is now worn to worship on Sundays and to the office on days other than Friday. Dick prized a shearling-lined, leather bomber jacket perfect for New Hampshire winters, and he paired it with tweed knickers. Erin wore a loose-fitting, pleated skirt with her broken-in saddle shoes—but the conservative deans at her college insisted she wear stockings instead of ankle socks. Whenever possible, students ignored the old guard’s meddling. In 1938, the Radcliffe News told freshmen, “Every store in the country has joined with Harper’s, Vogue, and Mademoiselle to present college fashions,” but their take was what really mattered: “We want to tell you.” In four pages they did: “you can never have too many” sweaters; don’t bother wearing a hat; beat-up sports shoes are “at the head of the list for tearing over Cambridge cobblestones.”

Dubbed “casual” by journalists, the fashion industry, and the students themselves, this style varied by campus, by decade, and, most significantly, by individual. Yet casual style uniformly stressed comfort and practicality— two words that have gotten little respect in the history of fashion but have transformed how people in the United States and, eventually, in many . . .

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