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 â€“ 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 â€“ the icing on the cake. They didnâ€™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 didnâ€™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.