I sit on the steps of Memorial Hall, gazing somewhat predatorily on the bobbing hems of camel, smoke, and coal-colored coats. In one week, Thomas N. Dai ’14 will tell me that fashion journalism sometimes prematurely wishes to merely categorize trends, and that this is dangerously reductive. But how else can I sufficiently inspire myself to make observations about The State of Harvard Fashion when Columbia fleece #1, tapping an iPhone, collides rather violently with Columbia fleece #2? Here passes a girl wrapped in indigo skinny jeans tucked into brown leather riding boots; she holds a navy blue Longchamp bag crushed into her Barbour coat, and then she passes a woman thrice her age wearing the exact same thing. Oops.
When I walk through the yard, I don’t hold a cardboard sign with resume-ready writing samples printed neatly for your judgment. VES students don’t display their rousing photographs on the outsides of their cardboard rolls. The winners of Lamont library’s Visiting Committee book-collecting prize do not wheel around a cart of signed first editions. When an apparent musician strolls by, we don’t know if that black case contains a violin or a tommy gun. But even for those not vocationally creative, fashion and style is displayed freely on the street, and for those with an artistic perspective, it is a dialectic of “appearance is important” and “this is who I am right now.” Here at Harvard, those who have taken on a mantle of advancing fashion as art simply want students to take risks: wear that crazy print, leather vest, or ’40s dress. But for some, the truth of the matter lies in the simple question: if you saw someone wearing what you are, would you want to get to know them?
Harvard offers several official outlets for those interested in the construction and display of clothing: Identities; Eleganza; Vestis, a newly begun fashion magazine on campus, and costume design for HRDC productions. For those interested in style that goes beyond the normal day-to-day uniform, overlap of membership between organizations is common practice.
Jay A. Drummond ’15 sits in front of me in a casual button-up looking quite relieved that the school day is over. Hailing from Cypress, TX, Drummond moved to Harvard from a land of camo suits, flattened caps, and overalls worn commando. He rushed toward the opportunity to make fashion his extracurricular focus, joining Eleganza, Identities, and Vestis his freshman year. Now, striking out on his own independent of these organizations, he offers the perfect scope for comparison between them.
“The vision Identities definitely wants to put forward is haute couture, traditional fashion-week fashion show. Like a Night in Milan or something,” he says. “Eleganza is more a spectacle centered around fashion. This is definitely BlackCAST putting their stamp on it. It’s theater, dance, and the works, and you get all of that and some sex.” For Drummond, Vestis would more ideally bolster a year-around sense of community for people interested in fashion.
Drummond’s own personal style is rather a rejection of Ivy League-collegiate style, and he dresses primarily to fit his mood. Asked about the style of Harvard students, he eyes me mischievously and takes a big breath. “Oh, don’t get me started. You don’t want to talk to me. Most other people have good things to say, but I own one blazer! You’re catching me on a lucky day with this button-up shirt. I’m much more about skater,” he says. “I’m using my clothing to express myself, and inside I am a middle-school child. Good Charlotte is on the radio—but not really. Don’t judge me.”
Drummond is more of a moderate in terms of what he wishes Harvard students would improve upon. For him, it’s not only about the end result—the outfit that would put any Sartorialist post to shame—but also about the process of expressing oneself. “The easiest way that people identify is through clothes. Sometimes there is a disconnect between knowing that appearance matters and actively doing something about it without doing what somebody told you to…But I don’t know why that disconnect exists. It might be stress or ‘I just woke up from an all-nighter,’” he says. “There’s very little making it your own. Even if you look at a magazine, you’ll think ‘I want to emulate that.’”
Whitney T. Gao ’16, a freshman who was on the production team for Identities, looks towards traditional sources such as magazines like Elle, InStyle, and Teen Vogue for ideas to inform her style. She also has noticed a sort of uniformity that expresses itself mostly as professional everyday wear and has come to appreciate deviations. “I like it when people take more risks,” she says. “[At Harvard] there’s a spectrum of people who really care about how they look. And then there are some people that go out sweatpants and don’t really care. And most people are in between.” For her, playing off of what is popular in magazines can lend a fresh perspective to classic fashion.
For other sources of inspiration besides magazines and runways, street style fashion blogs can be a local source for ideas and also a reminder that fashion can be engaged daily. Jack A. Pretto ’14 is the creative director for Identities and the mind behind The Offbeat Bowtie, a Harvard-centric fashion blog. For Pretto, his interest in photography and fashion collided to create a holistic picture that takes in more than the clothes themselves.
“What interests me is that I really like the environment people are in and how that works with what they’re wearing. The photo is more interesting to me than the outfit—making the photo work with the context it’s surrounded by,” he says, camera in front of him.
Last year, Pretto gave a speech for Harvard Speaks entitled “Fashion as Unavoidable Art” about both art history and modern street fashion photography.
“I thought it would be a more interesting speech than if I just talked about the blog. While a lot of people already think fashion is art, my goal was more explaining where fashion and art kind of meet, like Yoko Ono and Opening Ceremony—just seeing an overlap of these ideas,” he says. “It’s this thing where people don’t realize it, but they’re in it. If I have this garment and it’s made like this, what is its origin? Does it come from art or architecture?”
Inspiration from art and architecture also influences Susannah L. Maybank ’15, who designs and produces her own clothing; this year she will contribute pieces to Eleganza. For Maybank, an interest in fashion was born young: she learned to sew at three, started making her own clothes at eight, and began creating her own patterns two years ago. Her inspiration comes from her focus in 20th-century German architecture in the History of Art and Architecture department combined with a more general love of the past.
“When I grew up, I would watch black and white movies with my father. And we would sit there and critique all these famous femme fatales from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. So my style has never been contemporary-based,” she says. “I’m not a messy dresser. I like things to be fitted and tucked in and neat. I was described in high school as looking like someone’s grandmother.”