That Ol' College Style Gets Old

Harvard male stylings in need of an update

Boys at Harvard dress like 40-year-old men.

I walked into my seminar the other day and literally had to do a double take. After backtracking out the door to make sure I was in the right classroom, I crept back in and took my seat among the old boys’ club.

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Harvard, with its ivy-covered buildings and portrait-covered walls, is the epitome of New England pomp (or charm; call it what you will). But button-down shirts tucked into khakis, wool sweaters worn over collared shirts, and tweed jackets with suede elbow patches? Such spruce style goes against every notion I have of what it means to be male and in college.

After some digging through The Crimson’s archives, I realized that varsity sweaters and schoolboy blazers are just as central to the pretense of the school as its final clubs: collegiate fashion can’t be separated from our institution because it was, in fact, invented right within Harvard’s own hallowed halls.

To bring some historical context into this, college campuses in the 1920s saw the development of a distinct youth culture. No longer under the watchful eyes of parents, adolescents were able to structure their social lives among their peers by joining fraternities. For many students, away from the comfort of home for the first time, this peer society offered the reassurance of one’s identity—reassurance through conformity.

The increasing prosperity and consumption of the period made it easier for students to engage in constantly changing fashion fads, and by doing so, one could openly express his allegiance to this elitist, collegiate culture. Collegiate manners and styles were clearly defined, as a November 12, 1925 Crimson article demonstrates: “Neck, drink, occasionally study and all will be well. Whatever you do, Freshmen, don’t be original. Be collegiate. Wear the right clothes at the right time.” Though mocking this new obsession with what it meant to be “collegiate,” the writer revealed not only an awareness of this new social group, but the pressures to conform. One had to follow a single dress code—one of navy blazers and cable knit sweaters—in order to be even considered for membership to this group.

This collegiate tradition still remains integral to Harvard dress today. But the disparity between Harvard style and the normal get-up of sweatshirts and jeans sported on other college campuses makes me wonder: are Harvard guys an anomaly, distinct from the everyday college male elsewhere?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the occasional tweed jacket and corduroy pant, and bowties tickle my fancy. But suspenders and pocket squares, horn-rimmed glasses and woven belts—surely classifiable as the “sundry haberdashery” that a 1926 article refers to—seem a bit too dapper and impractical for everyday wear. That is not to say that Harvard students are all about form over function; Barbour jackets offer quail pockets that are useful for storing the dead pheasant one may find on his way to class, and they make for handy and spacious pencil cases, too.

While within the safe confines of the Harvard bubble, boys will be boys (or in this case, 40-year-old men), but on any other campus, these modern-day dandies would surely get their suspenders snapped against their backs.

—Columnist Victoria D. Sung can be reached at vsung@fas.harvard.edu.