When Emily Buchanan ’81 penned a student column about fashion in 1979, Princeton’s cultural shift could be seen in the changing style conventions on campus. “The casual disrepair of the 1960s has given way to cleaner, neater, more stylish looks,” she wrote. “... Plastic dry-cleaner’s bags, nonchalantly draped over the arm, have developed into something of a status symbol.”These days, Princeton’s fashion reflects a more diverse and engaged campus community, and one prepared to challenge tradition. For instance, Princeton’s Sankofa festival, a runway show featuring professional designers and student models, has become a yearly event. Sankofa, a Twi word, roughly translates as “go back and get it again.” By celebrating the visual cultures of the African Diaspora, the festival serves as a reminder for students of pan-African descent to remember and renew their cultural heritage. Another yearly destination is Fashion Speaks, a charity show which benefits Eden Autism Services. Fashion Speaks, which was held in Whig Hall in 2019, is the largest student-run charity organization on campus.
Princeton has also seen the creation of student-run fashion brands such as Kotami. Founded by Sofie Kim ’20 and MC Otani ’19 (the brand is a combination of their surnames), Kotami “uses a combination of thrift and cultural inspirations to bridge the gap between sustainability and style.”
As in 1979, fashion says a great deal about campus culture. Now, though, the seemingly universal ensemble of “bright magenta and sky-blue cotton turtlenecks, Izod shirts, khaki pants, and topsiders” has been expanded and reimagined. Princeton seems to have become a community in the service of all styles.
On the Campus: A Change in Fashion
By Emily Buchanan ’81
From PAW’s Oct. 22, 1979, issue
A decade ago, when my older sister went away to college, my mother equipped her with skirts, stockings, and nice blouses ... all to my sister’s great dismay. She begged for a pair of Levi’s, a cotton shirt from India, anything but the clean new clothes so painstakingly sewn with name labels. My mother proclaimed that it was time for her to act like an adult, and dress like one as well.
A few weeks into the fall term, a long-distance phone call related the news: almost all of my sister’s new clothes had been stolen. “Then what are you wearing?” my mother asked, faintheartedly, “jeans?” “Yes!” my sister exclaimed, ecstatic — a thousand miles away, safe from my mother’s long arm of fashion-consciousness.
Ten years and two jean-clad children later, my mother sent me off to college equipped with not much more than Levi’s, corduroy pants, and a warm winter coat. She believed, I think, that once and for all she had triumphed. No more money wasted on nice skirts that would hang neglected in a closet! No more soft sweaters purchased only to be usurped by rumpled flannel shirts!
Imagine her distress when I told her, in another long-distance phone call, about the changes campus fashion has undergone: students have dressed up. The casual disrepair of the 1960s has given way to cleaner, neater, more stylish looks.
Silk shirts, tucked into snug designer pants and wrapped with a gold belt, seem to be many females’ uniform at even the most beer-splashed of parties. In every precept appears at least one representative of the “How to Dress for Success” contingent, replete in matching wool skirt and tailored blazer, quiet leather pumps on motivated feet.
This phenomenon has hardly confined itself to Princeton women. Only last week, a male junior who I had believed to be a confirmed mess turned out for a casual get-together in sparkling white pleated linen pants and a starched blue collarless shirt. He wasn’t just clean; he was undeniably chic.
An experience I had last spring typified this new male clothesconsciousness. After a long night of studying for an art exam, I showed up at 8:00 a.m. in the photo-study room, wearing the same skirt and shirt I had worn the day before. They were fairly nice clothes, still clean though a bit rumpled, and I felt relatively comfortable until I noticed the crisp dresses of some of the women around me. Soon a fellow student, cardboard miniature painting in hand, accosted me. “Emily,” he said, “You haven’t changed your clothes, I think.” When I explained that I had very little sleep the night before, he smiled generously — but with the generosity only those wearing freshly ironed shirts and spotless pants would be able to manage.
Within the general trend of dressiness, however, there are several different factions. The preppie style, indomitable and ageless, remains strongly in evidence: bright magenta and skyblue cotton turtlenecks, Izod shirts, khaki pants, and topsiders ... though nowadays the outfit is often topped with a fine wool blazer and accented by a shiny leather belt. The traditional “button-down shirt under crew-neck sweater” look, which just a few years ago was sported only by hard-core Ivy Club types, is now widely emulated.
Another look rapidly gaining ground is New York Chic, for male and female alike. Popular items include suede jackets, cowboy boots, and extremely high-heeled shoes; in short, anything to disassociate the wearer from the preppie or collegiate look. Last week, one New Yorker, drenched from a heavy rain shower, resignedly announced at lunch, “I’m going to have to do it. I don’t want to, but I’m going to have to.” Worried, I asked him what he was talking about. “Buying some of those bright plastic rain boots!” he answered with a sigh. “You know, the preppie kind.”
Part of the better appearance of students today can be attributed simply to better maintenance of their clothes. Plastic dry-cleaner’s bags, nonchalantly draped over the arm, have developed into something of a status symbol. The wrinkled look is definitely out, as is the scuffed shoe, the ripped elbow, and the patched jean. An indication of this is the new paraphernalia currently occupying dorm rooms. Two irons, two ironing boards, a dozen spools of thread, a sewing machine, three cans of shoe polish, and several bottles of Woolite grace the closets of the triple occupied by my roommates and me, and we are far from fastidious.
Of course, there are still a few students who defy change and continue to dress in baggy, torn jeans and old t-shirts, adding a ragged sweater or two in the winter. This is the “I don’t care about clothes” look, most common among those aspiring to appear intellectual. It is much more effective if the student is thin, perhaps even a bit emaciated, so the belt cinches in the waist, in the academic “food is less important than thought” style. While this still enjoys a certain vogue at the Grad College, it is becoming more and more rare among undergraduates, and seems to be edging toward extinction.
One of the most telling signs of these changing styles is the decreasing visibility of imports, girls brought in from other schools. As one recent graduate told me, when he was at Princeton in the early 1970s, “Everyone dressed like slobs. We could sit upstairs at the Pub and accurately pick out the imports by the way they looked — nice.”
That is no longer possible.
Emily Buchanan ’81, an English major from Pasadena, Calif., confesses to having tried out most of the styles she describes in this column.