Clothing, class, and the community college

From July 2006.

This post about the “tell your boyfriend I said thanks” t-shirt briefly diverted onto a subject of dress and class.  I wrote:

To generalize enormously, the less privileged the background, the more intense the sense of competition among young women.  Far too many young ones grow up with a sense that their sexual desirability is a more marketable commodity than their intellectual accomplishments; this is all the more likely to be true in families where there isn’t a history of women going to college.  (If you don’t believe me, visit any American community college on a hot day — and then visit an elite university in the same weather.  You’ll see more mini-skirts and heels in five minutes at Pasadena City College than you will in five hours at Berkeley or Stanford.  That’s anecdotal, sure, but don’t take my word for it — try it yourself.)  The bottom line: class and sexual competitiveness among women are, to say the least, not unrelated!

Glendenb’s comment was so good I wanted to repost part of it:

I think the difference was between people who saw education as a right and those who saw it a privilege. Among the students at the cc, they dressed in their best (which for some was heels and mini skirt) to show that they deserved the privilege but also to combat a social dis-ease; they were aware that they were moving across a social dividing line and were attempting to prove they belonged. Students who were first in their family to attend college were straddling a social dividing line – breaking from a set of values that weren’t comfortable with the extreme casualness around sexuality, but not yet fully embracing a set of values in which sexuality was (far too often) separated from emotion.

Students at my undergraduate college perceived education as their right – the hedonism, brazen sexuality, deliberate crossing of behavioral barriers that were not crossed in their upper-middle class families were seen as part and parcel of the college experience – the icing on the cake. They didn’t have to prove they belonged at college to anyone, least of all themselves. At the community college, many students were trying to prove to themselves that they deserved to be there. What to my eye was sexualized behavior, was really a more carefully studied mimicking of what was perceived as appropriate collegiate behavior. Clothing choices were made that would help students feel brash, or strong, or confident in ways that students from the upper middle class didn’t feel they needed.

The bold emphasis is mine.  To use the Anglicism to which my passport entitles me, that’s "spot on".

I note this phenomenon is not merely confined to women.  Many first-generation male students, particularly but not exclusively East Asian (PCC is over 33% Asian), are ostentatiously fond of labels, particularly those that they associate with the "establishment."  Every year, even on hot summer days, my classes will be filled with remarkably neat young men in pressed khakis wearing Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, A&F, or even — oh, flashbacks to ’80s preppydom! — Brooks Brothers polo shirts.  The labels are always conspicuous.  Reading Glendenb’s comments, it occurs to me that these young upwardly mobile fellows are indeed mimicking what they imagine to be the appropriate attire of the privileged.  (Only later will some of them transfer to Cal, Stanford, and Georgetown and discover that the real privileged tend to be far more unkempt.) 

The names of many young men — particularly young Chinese from Hong Kong — are often rather touchingly quaint.  This summer, I have — these are first names, mind you — a "Fitzgerald"; a "Woodrow"; three "Benedicts" (my middle name); two "Henrys"; one "Maxwell"; and, my favorite, one "Colfax."   It sounds like a parody of the membership roster of my grandfather’s fraternity, circa 1926!  And at the risk of sounding horribly classist, it strikes me as a rather naive attempt to deliberately appropriate WASP cache.   Imagine all of these parents, newly immigrated, working long hours to clothe young "Winston Wilberforce Chan" in what television has led them to believe is the outfit of success: polo shirts and chinos with shiny penny loafers.   From the perspective of someone who grew up in WASP country-club culture, this sincere attempt at imitation strikes me as, at the least, oddly misplaced!

But as Glendenb points out, those of us who have "made it" and have an easy sense of entitlement ought not to be too quick to judge those who are eager to ascend the social ladder our ancestors climbed for us.  This morning, I’m wearing a pair of slightly distressed women’s jeans and one very bright multi-colored paisley cowboy shirt.  I’ve got a Paul Frank watch on (with Julius the Monkey in Mariachi garb.)  The affect is no doubt garish, and probably — outside of major urban centers — decidedly effeminate.  But I’ve got tenure, and I’ve got the security to know that my authority in no way hinges on whatever get-up I get myself in to.  I can afford to dress for comfort and to honor my own admittedly odd fashion sense.  Even when I was younger, as an undergrad or a grad student, I slouched around Berkeley and Westwood in old concert t-shirts and ripped 501s.    Like most of my compatriots, my certainty that I "belonged" gave me the freedom to be slovenly.  It wasn’t "affected working-class chic"; it was laziness, and a laziness reinforced by the certainty that such sloppiness would not be an obstacle to acceptance in a milieu that was, after all, mine by birthright.

In thirteen years of community college teaching, I’ve learned to be a hell of a lot less judgmental of my students.   I’m not offended, aroused, angered, or distracted by anything my students do or don’t wear — though from time to time, I’ll confess I’m still amused (a reaction I keep to myself as much as possible).  Glendenb’s point is well-taken: what students wear tends to reflect not only their personal style, but also their perception of what college is, and their own ease with being here.  I do well — we all do well — to remember that as we comment on the remarkable diversity of choices our students make each morning as they dress themselves.

0 thoughts on “Clothing, class, and the community college

  1. I, too, find Glendeb’s comment spot on. As an instructor at a community college instructor in the rural South, I can also support this observation and analysis. While I wouldn’t call my female students’ attire particularly “sexualized,” I absolutely agree with this point:

    “At the community college, many students were trying to prove to themselves that they deserved to be there. […] Clothing choices were made that would help students feel brash, or strong, or confident in ways that students from the upper middle class didn’t feel they needed.”

    I have attended numerous colleges and universities in the US and abroad where I have had the chance to observe many different kinds of students in different situations. My undergraduate college had a reputation for being “preppy,” which was very off-putting to me. I was beyond my dress-to-express-LOUDLY phase for various reasons but I still found the passion with which many students sought to emulate and perpetuate the preppy stereotype to be annoying and even embarrassing. (My friends and I, from modest backgrounds with at least one parent who had attended college, sometimes joked about being “the scholarship kids.”) Granted, many of the students from more affluent backgrounds chose a preppy style but only later did I realize that so many people emulating the style, especially those who did so with the greatest fervor, were also those from the most modest backgrounds. I remember mentally rolling my eyes upon first glance at a student’s dorm poster featuring the words “Reasons for Education” superimposed on cheesy painting of some mansion in Malibu, complete with sports cars, palms and beach view: how much more clichéd can you get?! When I learned about the student’s truly humble background later on, I was embarrassed to have been so critical of her poster choice in the first place; whereas I could strive for knowledge and see what happened, she was honorably working towards her goals. (I think about a high school student from an emotionally supportive but economically disadvantaged background who is studying to be an accountant because it’d mean she could earn enough money to live comfortably as well as keep track of every cent.) While it’s unfortunate that people feel they “need” to dress or act in certain ways to fit in, I now better understand where they are coming from as well as their motivation for their choices. As more experienced community college colleagues pointed out, making community college students feel like they belong is such a key part of our job; I assume that education is a right that everyone deserves but it’s my duty to make sure to make those students feel that they have earned it!

    I am proud to say that I am, or at least strive to be, very non-judgemental as an educator; however, as alluded to above, I felt very differently as a student not knowing the whole picture. This was mainly in reaction to growing up with the idea that polite self-expression is important, that I should speak my mind and never let anyone make me feel that I don’t belong. I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged at my high school full of “wannabe-preps” so that become a lot to unpack.

    Speaking of clothing, I actually find seeing students’ outfits to be a small perk of being a community college instructor as well as teacher at a small urban high school. This isn’t due to judgmental or inappropriate reasons; instead, it’s simply because I truly enjoy fashion and most all students put a great deal of thought and passion into their clothing choices, whether they’re sporting the latest trend or a I-don’t-care-but-yet-I-do look. Because personal style is one of the, unfortunately, few ways many young people can express themselves, it can be so important for an adult to acknowledge and, better yet, compliment a student’s fashion choice or new hairstyle. (The emphasis on “choice,” in that one is commenting on their taste and efforts rather than natural appearance, which could easily be inappropriate.) A little, “I love how colorful your dress is!” or “I think it’s neat that you’re wearing such a bold scarf!” (the later, especially to a male student) can really help give a hesitant student a confidence boost to start the day. Many educators will focus on how they might find clothing too revealing or how they dislike a particular style, but it’s too bad they’re missing the point– and an important opportunity.

  2. This is so true. And I am so guilty of judging the girls who dress like their going to a club instead of school; I never considered the class implications of what goes on at PCC.

  3. Reading Glendenb’s comments, it occurs to me that these young upwardly mobile fellows are indeed mimicking what they imagine to be the appropriate attire of the privileged.

    Ha ha ha, how droll those naive fellows are. It’s really this impossible for you to conceive of other value systems than your own, is it? Some people, many of them middle- or lower-class, but some of them rich, upper-class, and the children of immigrants, are brought up to believe — and continue to believe, of their own free will, once adult and out of their parents’ control — that one dresses in one’s best for particularly formal or momentous occasions, to ‘show respect’ as the misleading shorthand has it, or to ritually mark off certain areas and times of life as being of more or simply of different significance than others. Your particular insular ethnic subculture is not the only one that exists or contributes to mainstream norms — no, not even at Georgetown or Stanford.

    Lots of college kids dress up in their best for things that matter because in their milieu, that’s what decent well-brought-up people do, not because nobody ever told them that rich white people at Stanford wear pajama bottoms to class and nobody minds. You don’t have to gently, patronizingly, oh-so-patiently explain to them that the rich, lazy and spoiled are not as well brought up as they are. They are acutely aware of that. They aren’t unaware; they simply don’t see that as a reason to relax or throw away their own standards.

    While it’s unfortunate that people feel they “need” to dress or act in certain ways to fit in, I now better understand where they are coming from as well as their motivation for their choices.

    Yeah, well, I think you missed it by a mile. I realize this is an old post and maybe you’ve been enlightened since then. I certainly hope you’ve figured out that lower-class students as well as middle- and upper-class students from immigrant families are fully capable of both self-awareness and pride. Dressing up in clothes that are simultaneously more formal and more ‘trashy’ than the rich kids wear doesn’t, in fact, mean you’re too dumb to know that the rich kids don’t do that. It means you’re behaving more correctly than the rich kids, and you know it, and you’re proving it.

  4. sophonisba, I think you bring up some excellent points, which really illustrate the limitations of the blog commenting format. Indeed, one can only express so much in short written responses, which nicely provides new opportunities for obtaining a bigger picture of posters and their thoughts. However, this can also lead some of those following to make certain assumptions about the writer or to focus on a short excerpt rather than remaining mindful of the whole.

    I see such developing conversation as a wonderful opportunity for dialogue: a chance to get to know people and their backgrounds, piece by piece through a very honest, straightforward medium without the aesthetic barriers that we normally encounter in our day-to-day interactions. What freedom! And how wonderful to see someone has found what we have written to be considered worthy of their response!

    That said, I am so grateful to have so many different venues to truly explore and exchange thoughts on this and other topics beyond the blogosphere, and I wish you the same.

  5. sophonisba – I think you’re making the same point Hugo is making but from a different perspective.

    The attitude that one dresses a certain way – to “show respect” if you will – for certain times and places is part of a general ethic and view of the world, it’s about how you see the world and how you believe the world sees you. The kids who slob around college see the world differently – to put it another way, how they dress is not how they show they respect you, it’s how they do in class – “I show respect for you by taking your teaching seriously”. I think there are two unique value systems playing out in this dynamic one is not right and the other wrong.

    To put it another way: I went to college with a woman whose college appearance ranged from artistic odd to a hippie shambles. Yet as an adult, when she decided it was time, she stepped into being a doctor in private practice; her father was a physician and for her the professional world was her “birthright” – how she dressed and acted in college could never bar her from it. She was going to be part of that world because she wanted to and she didn’t need to dress the part to feel she belonged or to show her respect for those already there – it was simply her milieu from birth. Does that make sense?

  6. Exactly, glendenb. FWIW, I knew guys who came from similar backgrounds to my own who were told that what mattered at Cal was making the right connections, and that a “gentleman’s C” would suffice. The jobs were lined up for them on the other side regardless. That’s becoming rarer and rarer, and I’m glad — the teaching is too good and the learning experience to valuable.

    Respect isn’t just about outer “form” (dressing up). It’s about “content” (the substance of how one interacts with others and the learning one does). Those who are surest they belong are clearest on the distinction; their privilege allows them to flout (however temporarily) the outer form of seriousness. Those who don’t have that privilege know they have to kick ass in the classroom and “look the part”, even if “looking the part” is based on a misunderstanding of what “belonging” always looks like.

  7. I’m making an odd connection here. My congregation had an interim pastor who was with us for a while, a brilliant woman from an African American denomination. She commented to me near the end of her ministry with us that it was odd in the African-American church she was called “Reverend Doctor” but treated like “Gwen” while with us, she was called “Gwen” but treated like “Reverend Doctor”. As we unpacked that experience, we realized in a church where almost everyone is some sort of educated professional (or married to one), the content of almost every interaction is informed by respect that allows a casualness in interactions – we can treat one another casually and very playfully without being afraid of disrespecting one another. I can call my pastor by her first name and joke with her because she and I are equals with equal respect for one another’s gifts and skills.

    Translated back to college, it’s a matter of seeing your professors as peers, not as authority figures. I trust my peers to see past my slovenly and/or eccentric clothing and respect the content I give them. I suspect the casualness, the dressing shabbily, is also part of alleviating anxieties in a different way. I know I can live and succeed in the professional world but I’m not sure I’m ready for it – in a very real way, my college experience of wandering around barefoot and dirty is about trying on an identity, a break from being me before becoming more of me.

  8. I can’t say that my experience fits your post, prof. In middle school, wearing pajama/lounge pants to class was the popular thing to do, but my mom pretty much banned me from wearing sweats out. She said, as best as I can translate, disrespectful. When you’re outside, you wear outside clothes because it’s rude to cause other people’s eyes discomfort. Dressing nicely is being courteous and says that your parents taught you your manners. As far as I know, this notion of dressing politely holds true for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, so from here on out, when I say “Asian,” I mean these countries listed.

    That’s why you’ll see upper-middle class Asian women pushing a grocery cart in a lace cocktail dress and 3-inch platform espadrilles (in Taiwan, they’ll distinguish Asian American women from Asian women by whether or not they wear heels). It’s why young Asian men wear shirts emblazoned “FITCH”– did you know that the biggest market for high-end labels is China? (Wal-Mart thought they would do well in China because of the poverty there; they thought wrong.) And so on. I understand that you’re talking about American culture, not Asian culture, but it appeared to me that you were trying to explain Asian (not Asian American–just Asian) dress etiquette with American motives. Which I hope wasn’t the case.

  9. Let me clarify, Mon-Shane: it’s not that “respect” is a uniquely American motive, and I didn’t mean to imply that. It’s the allure of certain brands over others that is so telling, particularly those brands that portray WASPiness: Brooks Brothers and Abercrombie carry British names with the cachet of Britishness — something socially conscious strivers around the States and indeed many other places, including people from all ethnic backgrounds, wish to be associated with. Ralph Lauren, for example, was born Ralph Lifshitz and never went near a polo pony as a kid. He appropriated something very consciously WASPy. (His parents started it by naming him Ralph — the fascination that Jewish parents in the inter-war years had with Anglo names like Barry and Irving and Norman and Sherman is well-known, and it matches the same “social striving” towards WASPy acceptability we see elsewhere.)

    Ask real estate agents: street names matter (and I know that for many Asians, numbers matter even more). Streets named “Knowleton Court” and yes, “Wisteria Lane” have more appeal for a wide variety of buyers than “Lopez Avenue.” If it brings to mind a pastoral scene in England (or New England) folks jump on it. And I have no doubt A&F would sell less well in Shanghai and in Sioux Falls if it were “Andreotti and Finkelstein”.

  10. Heh, time after time Hugo I manage to end up here at the strangest of times…just ranted about being a White Trash Gal recently, and low and behold, I see this.

    The whole idea of class and dress makes me laugh, just for the record…but hey, it’s me.

    I think what some people forget is wardrobe choices are influenced by so MANY different things: sense of identity, comfort zone, sense of tribe, expression of oneself, opinions of others, and, well, frankly, I went to school in the South…often, wearing a short skirt and all…more to do with weather than men, really…its HOT in the South often. And sometimes, well…

    You know I think you’re not bad, Hugo, but as I read this, grinding my teeth the whole time, I kept thinking…wow, spoken like a male academic with privilege…who does not maybe get various cultures or class assumptions as well as he thinks he does. I can tell you, a lot of things sometimes people figure lower class girls do out of competition or over men? Maybe not so much. Sometimes it can be as simple as about tribe with other women of the same standing, or because well, its hot outside, or because well- everyone you’ve ever known is “like that”.

    Do Upper Class Young Men wear designer suits because they like them, or because women like them, or because…well, thats what successful men of their class wear, what dad says they will wear, what mom says will make them look nice, what their friends says looks slick? Though the class and clothes might change a bit, why would the basic motivation and reasoning be?

    Women Not Of My Class probably get told how lovely and sophiscated and what not they look in…well, something. Women Of My Class get an oddly similar reaction for different attire. And I tend to think we’re more comfortable :)