Saturday, 11 September 2021

Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style (Gender and American Culture) by Deirdre Clemente


Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style (Gender and American Culture)

by Deirdre Clemente


As Deirdre Clemente shows in this lively history of fashion on American college campuses, whether it's jeans and sneakers or khakis with a polo shirt, chances are college kids made it cool. The modern casual American wardrobe, Clemente argues, was born in the classrooms, dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and gyms of universities and colleges across the country. As young people gained increasing social and cultural clout during the early twentieth century, their tastes transformed mainstream fashion from collared and corseted to comfortable. From east coast to west and from the Ivy League to historically black colleges and universities, changing styles reflected new ways of defining the value of personal appearance, and, by extension, new possibilities for creating one's identity.


The pace of change in fashion options, however, was hardly equal. Race, class, and gender shaped the adoption of casual style, and young women faced particular backlash both from older generations and from their male peers. Nevertheless, as coeds fought dress codes and stereotypes, they joined men in pushing new styles beyond the campus, into dance halls, theaters, homes, and workplaces. Thanks to these shifts, today's casual style provides a middle ground for people of all backgrounds, redefining the meaning of appearance in American culture.


Deirdre Clemente

Associate Director, Public History program

Expertise: 20th century American Culture, Fashion and clothing, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Museum studies



Deirdre Clemente is a historian and curator of 20th century American culture, specializing in fashion and clothing. She is an expert in the use of fashion in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and served as a historical consultant for costume in Baz Luhrmann's film, The Great Gatsby.


Clemente is the associate director of the UNLV public history program. She holds a master of arts degree in Museum Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in history from Carnegie Mellon. Her research on the intersection of clothing and social change has been published in the Journal of Social History, New England Quarterly, Journal of American Culture, and others. Her book Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style was published in spring 2014 from UNC Press. The book explores how and why collegians pioneered the adoption of casual dress – one of the most pervasive cultural shifts of the 20th century. Clemente is currently working on her second book titled, Chic Streets: Urban Development, Shopping, and the American Fashion Industry which considers the evolution of New York's Fifth Avenue, Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive and Miami Beach's Lincoln road as places where American clothing was made and marketed.


Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American



Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style

Deidre Clemente

Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2014, ISBN: 9781469614076; 208pp.; Price: £24.50



Professor John Potvin

Concordia University, Montreal

Sportswear is as much a signifier of American cultural identity as are apple pie and the Super Bowl. As Deidre Clemente shows in her expansive study of the history of fashion on American college campuses, the comfortable and casual sportswear adopted by collegians made their way gradually, over the course of the first half of the 20th century, into the mainstream, forever affecting the ways Americans dress. College campuses across North America are not simply indicators of fashion trends and collegiate taste, but material registers of cultural ideals and social mores. As a means toward providing historical evidence for her central argument that ‘[t]he modern American wardrobe was born on the college campus in the first half of the twentieth century’ (p. 1), the author delves into the rich archival legacies of a select set of Ivy League, state and historically black colleges and universities across the United States. Unfortunately absent is a rationale for the selection of the colleges under review.


Clemente focuses her attention on the turn of the century to 1960, the period she argues witnessed the ascendancy of youth culture and its direct and palpable impact on American culture, taste and everyday fashion. The period’s changes, she argues, demonstrate a ‘seismic shift’ in collective notions of taste, wherein collegians across the United States played a formidable, if not the most important, role. Youth culture’s impact on the American wardrobe was in turn greatly aided and abetted by eager retailers whose role was no longer that of educators of style, elegance and taste as it had previously been, but of savvy marketers responding to the needs and desires of collegians in what was a shifting cultural and moral landscape. For as Clemente rightly asserts, ‘[t]he book is about how cultural standards are forged, challenged, and then recast’ (p. 4). This book, then, within the American context, is more than just about mere sweaters and plaid jackets, it demonstrates how these garments, amongst others, and one’s choices are the very stuff of culture itself.


For this reviewer, it was fascinating how the author elected to concentrate each chapter’s thematic purview on an important space in the life of all collegians. The five venues under consideration – popular culture, the classroom, the dorm, the dance and the gym – helped to define the eagerness of students to adopt and adapt comfortable clothing befitting their environments of work, rest and play. While this seems a useful and productive way to organize the material culture of campus life, I was left wanting and needing more of a theoretically nuanced discussion of the ways in which space works in and through its agents. Given the rich literature on the study of space, cultural studies and geography and given that the author herself has contributed an invaluable essay to a volume devoted to the subject of the places and spaces of fashion, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have worked through the issue itself further. Moreover, given that the field of fashion studies, which cuts across numerous disciplines including history, has blossomed over the past decade to provide us with countless inspired texts, it was unfortunate that Clemente did not avail herself of this literature; particularly useful would have been those studies attending to the complicated relationship between fashion and identity. After all, if there is one conclusion that Clemente draws at the end of nearly every chapter, it is that the move away from formality toward comfortable and casual clothes brought the increased individuality collegians sought for their wardrobes. Her conclusions, therefore, left this reviewer wanting more than a string of historical facts and more critical analysis of the rich historical materials she so ably draws from.


The book, however, provides some compelling and fascinating discussions of race and gender throughout. The issue of race and its differing impact on campus fashion is brought out with the examples of Spelman and Morehouse, historically black colleges, which both placed considerable emphasis on simplicity, particularly as it concerned party dressing. Simplicity, for these colleges, signified respectability and became an important means to combat white perceptions of African-American’s purported fondness for bright colors and outlandish patterns or more poignantly, ‘the proneness of the Negro for pomp and display’ as one administrator put it (p. 50). Fashion, for many administrators was deemed ‘morally dangerous’ (p. 64), and as result campus administrators throughout the United States were often at odds with student desires and choices.


Much to her credit, Clemente focuses her attention on both men and women, which is all too often not the case in studies on historical fashion. Through her various readings of fashion choices for campus venues, however, she clearly shows the different experiences of gender and the perceptions that resulted. As early as 1910, clothes once confined to the sports arena were now the mainstay throughout campuses. Shorts and sweaters, staples in the athletic collegian wardrobe made also their way into the mainstream and became a regular part of the suburban family weekend, whether picnicking in the park or barbequing in the backyard. However, as Clemente demonstrates, though male and female students who wore shorts and sweaters were met with social criticism both on- and off-campus, the tone and the nature of this criticism was markedly different. Men seen in Bermuda shorts were deemed ‘silly’ while their female counterparts were said to look ‘sloppy’, their chosen garments deemed ‘unflattering’ and ‘unfeminine’ (]p. 108). As with many emerging collegians’ sartorial choices, a woman’s femininity was called into question, whereas men’s masculinity was rarely the subject of debate.


Through the various themes of each chapter, the author also importantly explores the ways collegians’ choices and their gradual rebellion against dress codes outside the walls of academia were often a result of flaunting moral and social codes. Gender equality, or often the absence thereof, is often highlighted in the way campus deans and administrators attempted to control and codify clothing, with this being especially evident in co-ed institutions. According to Clemente it was on university campuses that American women began to wear pants and even jeans to venues like the cafeteria, much to the consternation and dismay of administrators. For their part, men flaunted institutional rules by wearing sweaters and khakis to the classroom. The new spaces and customs of courtship were another important area of change. Here, as in all other aspects of collegiate life, the formality of the tuxedo was replaced by flannel shirts, penny loafers and trousers. Formal dances made way for a new sort of date night, often taking place in the cinema. In the end, in very different ways, both men and women were equally engaged in redefining not only their own wardrobes and lifestyle, but that of all Americans regardless of whether they were ready for it or not.


Dress Casual is a serious and genuine contribution to the history of American fashion and cultural life precisely because it traces one of the most significant ways Americans became associated globally with sportswear. Perhaps worthy of future investigation would be an examination of the collegians’ impact on the growth and development of the American sportswear industry itself and by extension New York’s epicenter of the trade, Seventh Avenue. After all, the importance of college students cannot be underestimated, for as Clemente reminds her readers their population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960 from 1.5 to 3.7 million (p. 13).


More than ever before collegians were not interested in the mores, morals, patterns and rituals of the previous generation, but by mid-century sought to determine their own paths and demand new sartorial options. While their seemingly consistent goal was to incorporate more individuality into their clothing and style, it must be said that they also assumed a new equally uniform style in the process. Part of the take-charge ethos of emerging youth culture also meant students wanted to control their own wardrobes, much to the dismay of the well-wishing mothers who often sent care-packages of new clothes. For the university student of the 20th century, who knew better than the students themselves? After all, college life had become an entirely new, unprecedented lifestyle, which broke all the former rules their parents and grandparents once knew. Practicality, versatility, comfort and casualness became the hallmarks of the collegian who was also keen to embrace the more affordable synthetic fibers on the market. Durable and less expensive, synthetic fabrics ushered in a whole new way of building a collegian and by extension American wardrobe. Chemistry, after all, according to Dupont, could change the face of America. As Clemente rightly and smartly concludes her study: ‘The mass adoption of causal style does not reflect cultural change. It is cultural change’ (p. 145).


July 2015



Why and When Did Americans Begin To Dress So Casually?



 AUGUST 5, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.



I study one of the most profound cultural changes of the 20th century: the rise of casual dress. I study casual dress as it evolved on the beaches of Miami. I study casual dress as worn by the Black Panthers and by Princeton undergraduates. As a professor, I teach seminars on material culture and direct graduate students as they research and curate costume exhibitions, but my bread-and-butter as a scholar is the “why” and “when” our sartorial standards went from collared to comfortable.


I happen to own 17 pairs of sweatpants, but I am a convert to casual. As a teen, I scoffed at the wrinkled khakis of my high-school colleagues and scoured the thrift stores of central Pennsylvania in search of the most non-casual clothes I could find—wasp-waist wool dresses, opera gloves, and evening bags. By my mid-20s, I realized I no longer wanted to pry my 6-foot-tall body into uncomfortable clothes and stay in them for hours. While my Clergerie-clad best friend chased down taxis and potential husbands in 3-inch heels, I chose cowboy boots and a pair of overalls that same friend said made me look like an oversized baby. For me, casual is not the opposite of formal. It is the opposite of confined.


As Americans, our casual style uniformly stresses comfort and practicality—two words that have gotten little attention in the history of fashion but have transformed how we live. A hundred years ago, the closest thing to casual was sportswear—knitted golf dresses, tweed blazers, and oxford shoes. But as the century progressed, casual came to encompass everything from worker’s garb (jeans and lumberman jackets) to army uniforms (again with the khakis). Americans’ quest for a low-key style has stomped on entire industries: millinery, hosiery, eveningwear, fur, and the list goes on. It has infiltrated every hour of the day and every space from the boardroom to the classroom to the courtroom.


Americans dress casual. Why? Because clothes are freedom—freedom to choose how we present ourselves to the world; freedom to blur the lines between man and woman, old and young, rich and poor. The rise of casual style directly undermined millennia-old rules that dictated noticeable luxury for the rich and functioning work clothes for the poor. Until a little more than a century ago, there were very few ways to disguise your social class. You wore it—literally—on your sleeve. Today, CEOs wear sandals to work and white suburban kids tweak their L.A. Raiders hat a little too far to the side. Compliments of global capitalism, the clothing market is flooded with options to mix-and-match to create a personal style.


Despite the diversity of choice, so many of us tend towards the middle—that vast, beige zone between Jamie Foxx and the girl who wears pajama bottoms on the plane. Casual clothes are the uniform of the American middle class. Just go to Old Navy. There—and at The Gap, Eddie Bauer, Lands’ End, T.J. Maxx, and countless others—t-shirts, sweaters, jeans, sports shoes, and wrinkle-free shirts make “middle classness” available to anyone who choses to put it on. And in America, nearly everyone wants to put it on because nearly everyone considers himself or herself to be middle class.


The “why” behind casual dress is a hand-clappingly perfect demonstration of fashion theorist, Malcolm Barnard’s idea that clothing does not reflect personal identity but actually constitutes it. As one of my students put it, “So, it’s not like ‘Hey, I’m a hipster and then I buy skinny jeans and get a haphazard haircut,’ but more like in becoming a hipster, I get the jeans and the haircut.” Yes.


In wearing cargo shorts, polo shirts, New Balance sneakers, and baseball hats, we are “living out” our personal identifications as a middle-class Americans. Our country’s casual style is America’s calling card around the world—where people then make it their own. It is witnessed by the young boy on the Ivory Coast wearing a Steelers jersey and in the price of Levi’s on the black market in Russia. Street styles in Tokyo harken the campuses of Harvard and Yale in the 1950s—tweed sports coats paired with t-shirts and saddle shoes. Casual is diverse and casual is ever- changing, but casual was made in America.


As far as the “when” of our turn to casual, three major milestones mark the path. First, the introduction of sportswear into the American wardrobe in the late 1910s and early 1920s redefined when and where certain clothes could be worn. The tweed, belted Norfolk suits (complete with knickers and two-tone brogues) of the Jazz Age seem so formal by our “flip-flops-can-be-worn-everyday” mentality, but these garments were truly revolutionary in their time. As were the sweater sets and gored skirts worn by women. The trend towards casual flowed in one direction, as one period observer noted in a 1922 article in the San Francisco Call and Post: “Once a woman has known the joys and comfort of unrestricted movement, she will be very loath to go back to trailing cumbersome skirts.” The mass acceptance of sportswear coincided with the consolidation of the American fashion industry, which had previously been disjunctive and highly inefficient. By the end of the 1920s, centralized firms produced designs, worked with manufacturers across the country, and marketed specific kinds of garments to specific demographics.


A second milestone towards casual was the introduction of shorts into the American wardrobe. A flare-up in the popularity of bicycling in the late 1920s brought about a need for culottes (looks like a skirt but is actually shorts) and actual shorts—usually to the top of the knee and made of cotton or rayon. Shorts remained time-and-place specific for women (gardening, exercising, and hiking), until the Bermuda shorts craze of the late 1940s, when women turned plaid wool shorts into legit fashion and began experimenting with length.


At all-male Dartmouth College in May 1930, the editors of the student paper challenged their readers to “bring forth your treasured possession—be it tailored to fit or old flannels delegged” so that the men could “lounge forth to the supreme pleasure of complete leg freedom.” The students listened. The Shorts Protest of 1930 brought out more than 600 students in old basketball uniforms, tweed walking shorts, and newly minted cutoffs, and introduced shorts into the American man’s wardrobe.


With a higher tolerance for different genres of dress and a newfound appreciation for non-constraining garments, Americans moved into the 1950s with more options to self-create than ever before. Fundamental to this freedom—apart from the suburban department store boom and the onslaught of media (magazines, television, film)—is a “unisexing” of our wardrobe, a third milestone on our quest to go casual. While bohemian types wore pants in the 1910s and 1920s, women really didn’t wear them until the 1930s, and it was not until the early 1950s that pants made it mainstream. There were still discussions and regulations about women in pants well into the 1960s.


That decade saw seismic shifts in “unisexing.” Women adopted t-shirts, jeans, cardigans, button-down collared shirts, and for the first time in nearly 200 years, it was fashionable for men to have long hair. James Laver, a renowned historian of dress, told a group of fashion industry executives in 1966, “Clothes of the sexes are beginning to overlap and coincide.” He recounted a recent experience walking through his town “behind a young couple” who “were the same height, both with long hair, both with jeans, both with pull overs, and I couldn’t tell them apart, until I looked at them from the side.”


To dress casual is quintessentially to dress as an American and to live, or to dream of living, fast and loose and carefree. I’ve devoted the past decade of my life trying to understand “why” and “when” we started dressing this way—and I’ve come to many conclusions. But for all the hours and articles, I’ve long known why I dress casual. It feels good.


Deirdre Clemente is a scholar, public historian, and teacher. She is the author of Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style (UNC Press, 2014) and has published articles in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar, among other publications. She served as a historical consultant for the Baz Luhrman film, The Great Gatsby (2013). For more information, visit She wrote this for What It Means to Be American a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square

No comments: