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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

School uniforms — in college?

<hool, I had to wear a uniform: a white polo shirt and a forest green skirt, which you could pair in a variety of stylish ways with forest green sweatpants, forest green tights, or—wait for it—forest green leggings. And don’t forget the truly fashionable forest green sweatshirt!

Everyone loved to hate the school uniform; it was universally unflattering, uncomfortable for all varieties of weather, strangely colored, and extremely boring. But in the long run, I found it to be beneficial. It helped to take away at least some, if not all, of the judgment based on clothing that you can expect to occur among groups of teenagers forced to spend most of their day in each other’s company.

But you might be surprised to learn how much of it still existed at a school where, at least in theory, we all wore the same thing every day. People in the same social groups wore the same kind of thing from the same kind of store in the same kind of way. I remember the almost soul-crushing self-doubt that came in middle school when I wore my knock-off Ugg boots to the movie theater on the weekend, when all of my classmates seemed to have the real thing. In reality, of course, they could have been wearing knock-offs, too. Somehow, I never stopped to consider this possibility.

I didn’t expect to encounter such judgment in college. We’re all adults now; surely we have all grown up and no longer care what other people decide to wear on their own bodies. And I think that, largely, this is true. I’ve never encountered the kind of brazen gossiping about other people’s style at Carleton that would be commonplace in a high school environment.

But clothing still divides us here, whether we like to admit it or not, and it often works across other social identities. Things like expensive winter coats and brand-name boots are visual markers of socioeconomic status. The plethora of jokes and spoken or unspoken norms about certain clothing brands or trends at this school is enough evidence of that. Or just look at Midwinter Ball, when everyone I know seems to be buying a new dress. It feels an awful lot like the pre-stages of a high school dance. (At least there isn’t a Facebook group to make sure no one buys the same dress. That, at least, I can definitively leave behind in high school).

It works in subtler ways, too. No one’s ever told me at Carleton that what I’m wearing is uncool, but I have definitely felt pressure to follow trends and conform to what other people have decided is cool. Would I pick out these jeans on my own? Or do I want them because everyone seems to be wearing them these days? Beyond that, do I only want new jeans because I feel like I’m the only one wearing my current style of jeans, and not because I actually need a new pair? And if I am the only one wearing this style, why would that mean that it’s not cool? These are questions that, more often than not, I forget to ask of myself.

I have to admit that some of this pressure is internal. I’ve always felt slightly behind the waves of fashion trends, whether or not it was actually the case. I have a feeling that no matter what environment I’m in, I’ll always hesitate for a moment in the morning when I’m trying to put a shirt and pants together into an outfit. And some of it, too, is societal; it’s hard to grow up in America without learning to attach any importance to visual appearance and “cool” clothes. But wherever you go, there is a concept of what is cool and what is not—even at a place like Carleton, even considering its student body’s emphasis on acceptance and celebration of diversity. Even here, there are still some things that definitely aren’t cool.

Let me be clear: I think fashion is a cool and often exciting way in which people can express themselves, their styles, and their identities. It can be art; it can be comfort; it can be self-love; it can be activism. But if we aren’t careful, it can also be division, elitism, judgment, and self-doubt. I’m definitely not advocating a return to the uncomfortable and mandatory uniforms of my high school, but I think we could do with a little reflection on the current norms and trends surrounding clothing and fashion on this campus. If you dress like all of your friends, ask yourself: what might be some reasons why? If you’re like me, and you find yourself worrying on the way to your 1a whether what you’ve decided to wear on a particular day is “cool” or not, ask yourself: who defines what “cool” is?

In an ideal world and an ideal Carleton, everyone would define “cool” for themselves. In the meantime, we should all make more of an effort to hang out with people who dress differently from us. We might all learn something in the process.

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