Why write a piece on clothing in a world where big questions are begging for attention and deep consideration? If dress is a less weighty topic than some others, it is at least worth giving a bit of thought to the place that clothes should have in our lives during the collegiate season. College is a time of great change, and habits formed during the college years can become some of the most fundamental, long-lasting characteristics of who we are for the rest of our lives. This is as true for how we dress—sloppily, or with care—as it is for how we learn—lazily, or with diligence.
Democratized fashion, the least common denominator style, is visible everywhere in our culture today, not just on college campuses. From flip-flops at the White House to t-shirts at the opera and business casual at the office, it seems everyone today opts for what’s most comfortable and casual, regardless of circumstance. It has not always been so, and the university campus may have played a key role in the change.
The baby boomer generation who set the style examples and the corporate dress codes today came of age in the social upheaval of the 1960s, when students everywhere were shedding the styles of their parents—along with their social and moral outlook—for sandals, tie-dye, and free love. Since then, nonconformity has become the established pattern, and everyone tries to set himself apart from all the rest. It’s difficult to be rebelling constantly, though, and one is faced with terrible dilemmas: Which, among the dozens on display at the casual clothing store chain of choice, will be the t-shirt with the just-right, witty slogan to display the proper insouciance and show my friends I’m a nonconformist, too—just like them?
There was a time, however, when colleges were the centre of the men’s clothing industry. Haberdashers—that’s an old word for someone who sells shirts and ties and such to men—spent big money trying to attract the business of college men. Partly this was because campus fashions were at the leading edge of the style world, and partly it was because they knew if they could get a man’s custom when he was young, they’d probably have it for life. A certain “Ivy League” look that started at Princeton and Yale became the dominant look for men all over North America in the years after World War II.
Why care about dressing well?
So, what does all this have to do with students today? It’s merely my attempt to demonstrate that the way college men think about clothes today—roll out of bed, throw on a hoodie, and sprint to class—hasn’t always been the paradigm, and it need not be, today. There are, I believe, several reasons why a man in college should care about the way he looks and dresses, and should aim a little higher than the norm.
First, dressing well shows respect for others. I’m not a teacher, but I’ve talked to a number of professors who find it frustrating that their students, as a rule, come to class looking like they’ve just rolled out of bed and would really rather be there still. No professor likes it when students seem not to care, and you can communicate “not caring” by wearing a shirt that hasn’t been washed in weeks as well as you can by staring out the window during the lecture.
The look that is common to college students and others today—cargo shorts, t-shirts, jeans, even pajamas—is mainly one that emphasizes comfort and individualism. Walking around in a hoodie and pajamas communicates, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks about how I look; I’ll wear whatever I want and whatever I’m comfortable in.” Dressing up a bit, on the other hand, tells those around you that you care about the image you present to them, that you don’t want to give offense, and that you take things seriously, including your studies.
Second, dressing well promotes respect for you. We are not just minds trapped in a skin suit. We are embodied creatures, whole people made in the image of God. We are made to do everything we do with all of us—body, soul, mind, and spirit. This means we don’t exercise well when we’re bored, we don’t worship well when we’re hungry, and we learn best when we take care of ourselves. I had a professor who was devoted to waking up at 4 a.m. every morning so he could exercise for about two hours before starting the rest of his day. He said he did it because staying physically fit helped keep his mind in shape as well.
Taking care of our appearance is part of caring for what God has given us and making the most of it. When we take care to dress well, we promote the same kind of well-being that comes from eating healthy food that tastes good. In an unfallen world, I suppose we might not wear clothes, but in the world we do inhabit, we can redeem our embodied existence even through small things like clothes. Making ourselves look good can be an act of worship, as we adorn what He has made and live lives dedicated to His glory.
Third, dressing well is part of being a man. I’ve been consistently referring to college “men” throughout this piece, rather than “guys,” and that’s for a reason. By the time he gets to college—which usually involves moving out of his parent’s home and becoming in some measure self-sufficient—a guy is ready to start acting like a man. He isn’t yet as mature as he’ll be in twenty, ten, or even four years, but university studies are both a privilege and a responsibility, and require maturity to handle well. Obvious as it might seem, simply dressing like a man can be a big step in the process of becoming a man.
Most men learn, within just a few years of graduation, that just wearing whatever’s most comfortable isn’t really good enough to do well in the post-college world. Employers have dress codes, and clients have expectations that force one to put away the jeans and learn to wear ties and suits. Casual culture notwithstanding, most men are still expected to dress up when it’s necessary, and not knowing how can betray an element of immaturity. Why not begin learning how to dress like an adult, and do it with style and elegance, before it’s absolutely necessary? If you dress like a man, you’re more likely to be treated like a man. But if you continue to dress like an adolescent, you’ll probably be treated accordingly.
How do I dress well?
The goal, then, is to dress well: respectfully and maturely, yet with style. But what does that mean? So far, I have been fairly light on specifics, and that’s for a reason. I’m more concerned with encouraging a way of thinking about dress than I am with prescribing a specific wardrobe. I’d like to see more men, including college men, embracing the elements of classic style that were far more common in previous decades and that still remain in our collective consciousness in images of men like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Frank Sinatra.
I am not, though, suggesting a wholesale return to the campus fashions of the 1930s. Much as we might admire their elegance, I readily admit that the man who goes to class in a three-piece suit every day will probably just end up looking like he’s wearing a costume. A more reasonable goal is to take some of the elements of style of those classic years past and update them in ways that will look good but not outlandish.
I should also point out there’s a wide variety of sub-cultures within the umbrella of stylish good taste, from the tweedy, “professorish” look to the preppy Ivy League styles to those that are thoroughly modern, even hip. What they have in common is that they rise above the shapeless, tasteless, comfort-idolizing fashions that predominate today.
So, understanding that the adaptation of classic style may vary considerably from one person to another, I shall offer a very few suggestions that may serve as a starting point for someone who wants to think about dressing well. First, avoid blue jeans and especially shorts, at least for when you’re going to class and engaging in other academic pursuits. These never quite manage to have the appropriate level of seriousness for what students should treat as a vocation—their studies. Instead, opt for cotton chinos, corduroys, and other stylish trousers in cotton, wool, or linen. Likewise, leave t-shirts and hoodies for the gym and sports field, opting instead for polo shirts or dress shirts. These can be dressed up with a jacket, sweater, or tie, or just worn alone, neatly ironed, for a basic but smart look. Shoes can be a great way to bring some class to your wardrobe, when you keep your athletic shoes for the court and wear well-made, stylish leather shoes for more serious endeavors. Some of the best shoes are made in the US, England, and Italy. For outerwear, skip the ski jackets and windbreakers, and instead go for pea coats, leather jackets, and coats made of wool and other natural materials. Lastly, while wearing a suit to class every day isn’t necessary or even recommended, every man should have at least one or two tailored, well-fitting suits in his closet for convocations, academic presentations, and other occasions that call for greater formality. A dark, solid-colored suit in navy or grey wool will serve you best.
These are just a few suggestions; it’s up to you to dig deeper and develop your own sense of style. Catalogs from particular retailers can help—for instance, check out Brooks Brothers (U.S.) or Tip Top (Canada) for inexpensive retailers of the “tweedy” look I mentioned earlier, J.Crew or Polo Ralph Lauren for a younger, more preppy style, or Banana Republic and Calvin Klein for the hip, fashion-forward approach.
Lastly, I should recommend a few resources for those interested in learning more about what it means to dress well. Books are always a great resource, and you will find the works of Alan Flusser, Bernhard Roetzel, G. Bruce Boyer, Russell Smith, and Nicholas Antongiavanni as enjoyable as they are informative. Classic Style magazine is a new periodical that seems quite promising. There are also several web sites and discussion forums on the internet that can be lots of help, such as Ask Andy Forum, Ask Mr. Smith (subscription necessary, but free), and The Fedora Lounge. Each has its own flavor or particular areas of style that the discussions tend to focus on.
Sadly, dressing well is not common these days. Unfortunately, the principles of classic, timelessly elegant style are no longer so widely known that many of us are likely to pick them up by accident or osmosis. It may take time and effort to learn how to wear clothing in a restrained and tasteful way that communicates respect and maturity, but it is well worth it. I encourage every college man who takes himself and his studies seriously to take up the challenge and make his years at school stylish ones.