Dressing Up Our Differences

BY THE YARD

“What will we wear?” the pair of high school girls who stayed with us last weekend kept asking as we dressed to go out Saturday night. “Who will they think we are?”

I had forgotten just how closely those two questions could be linked. The girls’ concern reminded me of my Balkanized high school, where the cliques identified themselves by what they wore; an unbridgeable gulf lay between the preppy soccer players and the black-clad, black-nail-polished kids (for whom I feel a nostalgic pang every time I pass the Harvard Square T station) who haunted an alcove by the soda machine; another gulf lay between those Goths and the swaggering boys who affected a gangsta style. Each of the major clothing-based castes was further subdivided; the school’s social structure was as well-ordered as any ant colony’s. In retrospect, it seems odd that 2,000 suburban high school students believed themselves so splintered by ideological differences that they required sharply divergent wardrobes. At the time, though, we all asked ourselves the same two-part question the high school girls put to us Saturday night: “What will we wear? Who will they think we are?”

At Harvard, the girls’ question seemed anachronistic. Here, when I dress in the mornings the question I ask myself is not, “Who will they think I am?” but, “What’s clean?” Most Harvard students’ clothing decisions seem to have a similar basis. Although a few first-years begin their college careers with stridently unique wardrobes, by sophomore year even the majority of these outliers have slouched into jeans, tugged on a North Face jacket and disappeared into the streams of similarly-attired students hurrying across the Yard. It can be a challenge to identify your own clothing in a laundry-room drier.

I had taken this conformity for granted until the girls asked their pair of questions on Saturday night. Then it struck me that, for a college that prides itself on its diversity, we look an awful lot like one another. Is it sloth that induces us to pull on our jeans and sweaters? Or is it something more menacing—peer pressure to conform? No, the kids at my high school sporting black, safety-pin-perforated clothing hadn’t been very clean, but they always had something interesting to say about civil liberties. In high schools like mine, clothing was meant to signal political views as well as social membership. And at high schools everywhere, clothing can also be a means of sparking debate; just this past week, Bretton Barber, a 16-year-old high school student in Dearborn Heights, Mich., was sent home for insisting on wearing a T-shirt that labeled President George W. Bush an “international terrorist.” Of course, the phenomenon of clothing-as-speech is not limited to high schools; even adults use their clothing as an ideological shorthand (as Lamar “I’m Wearing This Flannel Shirt to Demonstrate That I’m un Homme du Peuple” Alexander’s 1996 presidential campaign made clear).

In our current political environment, clothing enjoys a vogue as a conveyor of principles. New York’s Journal News (“The online information source for Westchester, Rockland and Putnum”) recently reported that a young woman from Mount St. Mary College wore a stars-and-stripes halter top to her school’s women’s basketball game against Manhattanville College to signal her support of our nation’s flag. She felt the star-spangled banner needed supporting because Toni Smith, a senior forward on the Manhattanville College team, has turned away from the flag during the national anthem at the beginning of basketball games this season to protest what she calls “the government’s priorities” that “are not on bettering the quality of life for all of its people, but rather on expanding its own power.”

Compared to Smith’s action, wearing a stars-and-stripes halter top seems, well, juvenile—a way of expressing a view that the halter-top wearer can’t articulate. “I’m against the war, but the flag stands for more than war,” the young woman with her torso wrapped in the flag proclaimed. Her comment reminded me of nothing so much as the kids who stitched jagged, circled “As” onto their sweatshirts and told us they stood for more than just anarchy—what exactly, they couldn’t say. As Lamar Alexander’s ill-fated Presidential campaign showed us, ideologically-inspired clothing is no replacement for well-thought-out, well-articulated ideas.

And while I sometimes miss those black-clad, soda-machine-haunting Goths from high school, I realize that the political message conveyed by the rest of their clothes were almost as garbled as that conveyed by a stars-and-stripes halter top or by a red flannel shirt. They were terrified of conformity—but it’s intellectual, and not sartorial, conformity that should frighten us. We dress alike at Harvard because we are able to articulate our differences. I’ll keep selecting my wardrobe based on cleanliness.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.