Rather than embarrass Matt and make him add pictures of himself in various states of fancy dress, I decided it would be fairer to add pictures of myself to help emphasise his points…
— Jamie Lepiorz
Folklorists, like myself, use the term ‘costume’ when referring to what other disciplines call ‘fashion’ or ‘dress’. Perhaps that’s because we emphasise the performative aspects of culture. With this in mind, I hereby propose five general categories of costume in which students ‘perform’ the identity of being a student. Here they are: uniforms, going out clothes, fancy dress, daily clothes and legible clothing.
The first category is easy: clothes specified for a particular job or role. These have little to no element of ‘self-concept’ to them. Lab coats, sport strips or uniforms worn for a part-time job.
Going Out Clothes
The second category is also straightforward: clothes worn when interacting with the night-time economy. Glad rags. Clothes you think you look cool and attractive in (or clothes you think that your friends/strangers/the patriarchy think you look cool and attractive in).
Third category, fancy dress, is more a subset of going out clothes. There’s lots to say about it, but in a nutshell fancy dress provides students with a carnivalesque socialising script: instead of going up to someone and asking whether you did the Library module together, students can instead say, “oh, what sort of dinosaur are you?”, which is a lot more fun.
Daily clothes is the broadest and most general category. They are worn when going about one’s daily business. Students have the most freedom to privilege self-concept here (“this is me!”) but also display cultural affinities (“I’m into the gothic look/the gym/the class system etc.”).
The fifth category, legible clothes, is a subset of daily clothes. By ‘legible’ I mean any clothing with writing printed on it. This is, to me, the most interesting category. Of course it technically includes Coca-Cola t-shirts and ADIDAS track-suits, but we’ll conveniently ignore them and focus on university-branded clothing and student-printed clothing. Everyone should recognise the former (typically ‘hoodies’ with a crest and the university’s name on them). The latter are those sweatshirts printed by student groups: perhaps members of a society, friendship group or residents somewhere. They’ll often have the surname or nickname of the student on the back and perhaps a humorous phrase.
The popularity of legible clothing is striking. Every grouping of students, especially in the daytime, seems to contain someone wearing legible clothing. It is the daytime ‘yang’ to fancy dress’s night time ‘yin’. Both project low levels of self-concept, both scream out the group identity of ‘typical student’. Legible clothing is the twenty-first century university scarf, an identity performed for lectures, around the house or even in the evening, when “you can’t be bothered or haven’t got the time to wear decent clothes.” It’s easy to buy or make. There are too many places selling it. So, what might explain its popularity? There are three reasons, to my mind:
1: Firstly, the rise in participation rates, which have thankfully made the student body less socially distinct and more diverse. This has, however, torn a few holes in its collective sense of identity, which is patched up by legible clothing.
2: Secondly, more students now accept and internalise the logic of branding. Considering the extent to which Universities have invested in this over the last decade it’s not surprising that students are happy to join in and also mimic it in their own student-printed clothing.
3: Finally, legible clothing is used tactically as a way of avoiding the pressures of having to look constantly ‘good’. Even dressing for the day, let alone the night, can be a competitive, time consuming chore for many students, men and women. The Uni hoodie provides a convenient, socially acceptable way out, a day off from increasingly defined and sexualised projections of gender and youth.
And, of course the Uni hoodie is very quick to put on. Always useful if you’re running late…