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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.”
When I interviewed her, Maybank’s outfit was more one of a well-established, confident actress like Julie Andrews who just also happens to be a grandmother: smooth lines, rich grays, and conservative but not plain. To construct her clothes, Maybank culls from this retro inspiration via vintage stores like Second Time Around as well as Oona’s and the GAP for affordable knit fabric to cut up and rework. In addition to viewing fashion as an artistic process, she sees it as a way to discern personality.
“I’m just happy when I see someone wearing something that you can tell is so incredibly unique to that person. I don’t expect anyone to dress like me or to wear anything that I’d like. They’re wearing it because they love it and are following their own inspiration, not necessarily what they see mirrored around them. Anything that tells me a little bit about that person.”
Is there a golden ratio of thigh—61.8 percent skin and the remainder fabric—that somehow appeals to the eye? Yes, the night is young, and a veritable chorus line of young women in their best approximations of Hervé Léger bandage dresses and young men in tieless tuxedos spill out onto the runway of Mt. Auburn. This is “trying”; certainly, there are no sweatpants here. The women are wearing low-platform, three-inch-heel wedges (most likely a compromise between flats, which are not trying, and stilettos that pestle the mortar of Cambridge sidewalks). All of the men are smoking cigarettes—the ash dropping on black and navy blazers. Everybody really is a bright, young thing, but I agree with Jay that there are few risks here, no mutations or attempts to set oneself apart; there really isn’t even a feeling of ‘I want to stand out and be beautiful or handsome,” for how can a glittery star in a constellation capture your attention surrounded by so many of its kind?
Maura A. McGrath ’15 stands out, surrounded by none of her kindred fashion spirits—Japanese street style artists. Today, a pink-ribbon-brimmed hat covers her glasses, the chunky frames of which resemble pixels. Cumulatively, McGrath rotates between more American conventional wear like skinny jeans and t-shirts and a dramatic combination of layered, elaborate skirts, a litany of hair color changes throughout the year, and on occasion, a pair of arresting lavender contacts.
“I don’t think I dress beautifully, because that’s kind of not the point,” she says. “Generally, it’s more if I saw a person walking down the street wearing what I was wearing, would I think “do I want to know them?” And if I wouldn’t want to know me, then why would I want to be me?”
McGrath’s interest in fashion began during her gap year, when she discovered Tumblr, which served as a more satisfying, diverse source of fashion inspiration compared to her prior haunts, like Lookbook.
McGrath found that artists and models on Tumblr encouraged alternative ways of thinking about personal style. “Like Minori. She is this shironuri artist who paints her skin white and has these crazy hair wigs. It’s very beautiful,” she says. “But [she’s] no longer a person. It’s an object that’s been dropped, not for our admiration, but just to show a different kind of a being. It makes me realize that there are more options than jeans and a t-shirt.”McGrath also uses fashion as a means of personal expression, but more in the sense that she believes it gives her a mark of individuality that has come to define her person.
“I’m not a phenomenal writer, a math genius, or the most caring person in the world…. There’s nothing that marks me out as an individual that has a place here. If I didn’t dress the way I did, I’d lose that,” she says. “I say, ‘oh, I dress differently,’ but then by saying that, I feel so stuck-up. Then I have to explain to people that it’s not because I’m stuck up, but just because I need that.”
In the case of one Thomas Dai, he had no idea that his Harvard career would find a similar sense of joy and identity from fashion. Dai recently finished producing Identities, worked as creative director for the show last year, worked for Eleganza his freshman year, took an internship last summer at net-a-porter.com, and will publish a fashion magazine this week through Vestis.
And yet, even though he has become a person heavily associated with the fashion scene on campus, Dai had little idea when he came to Harvard that the professional dress style of many students would be his onus to become more aware. “My style has gotten a lot more serious in college. I come from a place where I could be wearing just a fitted shirt and jeans and feel dressy. And then you come here and everyone is so clean and polished. Based on this sort of atmosphere, I thought I had to up the ante and invest in things I always wanted but never had the occasion to wear.”
Wearing a well-tailored blazer—pocket square included—leather shoes, and cropped coal-colored pants, Dai has clearly upped the ante. However, despite a clear individualistic streak in his clothing, he does not believe that his converse—the uniformed style groups of Ivy League, collegiate, and tired—are necessarily negative.
“I think there’s obviously much more important and systemic problems in the world besides whether the girls of Harvard are wearing Longchamp bags and Barbour jackets. And maybe we should talk about whether that should change and ask if it has a WASPy, exclusive feeling that makes people feel like an other. But on the other hand, this is college,” he says. “Harvard style can feel oppressive if you look at it in the wrong way, but I highly doubt that all these people will go off into the world and wear exactly the same thing for years and years.”
For Drummond, fashion is a way to express your heart and soul on your sleeve. For Gao, it is a new world coming over the crest of the horizon. For Pretto, fashion is art—a bottomless well from which you can draw inspiration and use it to coalesce people and the environment they inhabit. For Maybank, fashion comes from history, a complicated process of cutting and deconstructing swaths of fabric to create something new and you. For McGrath, fashion is a way to stand out, to create the person you want to be. And for Dai, fashion is exploratory, a step that he didn’t even know he would take and yet has drawn craft from.
But fashion is not necessarily so neat as these categorizations. In order to enjoy it, you don’t have to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion trends and figures. As Drummond so aptly puts it, all that’s needed is thoughtful consideration of what is around you. “You don’t even have to pinpoint influences exactly. Look outside, it’s part of you. Just take in what’s around you and impress yourself upon it. It doesn’t have to be about Vogue or what have you. Really, it should be much easier,” Drummond says. “This is not fashion with a capital F.”
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