Those jeans in the drawer, that loose-fitting top in the dryer and the sneakers under the bed wouldn’t be an accepted part of American fashion if it weren’t for college students in the 20th century, according to Deirdre Clemente. She is the author of Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style  (University of North Carolina Press). The book takes readers back to the early 20th century, when students on campuses such as Princeton and Penn State Universities were beginning to resist the dress code of their parents’ era. These rebels wanted to be comfortable as they sat in class or participated in campus activities. College administrators didn’t approve. It was these students’ disregard for the dress code for men and women that eventually made some colleges stop enforcing old policies. Dress Casual explores issues surrounding race, gender and class, with Clemente arguing that once higher education became more open to those other than white elites, college administrators had to shift their attitudes about which clothing was considered appropriate.
Clemente is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. She responded to questions via email.
Q: What are some ways colleges were affected when students challenged society’s fashion norms in the 20th century?
A: The push toward casual dress is directly in keeping with new ideas at the administrative level of how to handle and patrol student activities. As the century progressed, students gained more freedom to make social and moral choices that had been highly restricted by administrators in the first decades of the 20th century. Until the mid-1960s, most school administrators practiced in loco parentis -- a policy that basically made university officials students' acting parents while they were on campus. The ability to decide not only what to wear but when to wear it demonstrates that students pushed for -- and won -- more control of their own lives. They killed off elaborate curfew systems (mostly for women), rules that limited time off campus, and dress codes.
Many of us think that students became radical in the 1960s as reaction to social and political change. However, throughout the century students became increasingly vocal and organized on issues much closer to home. Before they protested social injustice in the world, they protested it on campus, and dress codes were part of that perceived injustice.
Q: What are some of the main reasons college students in the 20th century challenged prevailing fashion norms?
A: The campus culture at many universities prioritized sports and physical activity. Even if you weren't a member of the basketball team, you had to take long walks across campus, sit in a drafty classroom, and then hike to the other side of campus for a fraternity meeting. The need to go from one event to another, coupled with the physical demands of campus life make comfort and practicality in dress a priority. So there are legitimate, tangible motivations for dressing casual.
At a cultural level, this is the first real blush of American youth culture -- a development covered by historians including Paula Fass, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, and Beth Bailey, all of whom influenced this study. Students wanted to dress and behave differently than their parents. This need to create and monitor their own student culture is at the heart of their push to dress casual. As more and more students went to college, more and more went out into the world with new standards of dress. It is important to note that the number of college students grew tenfold in the first half of the 20th century.
Q: What types of obstacles or pushback did students experience from college leaders?
A: College leaders were far more interested in policing the activities of women and, in the 1940s, they developed elaborate dress codes as to when and where particular garments could be worn. Before that, dress codes were enforced by peer pressure or one-on-one interaction with the administrators. So, it was not until jeans, pants, and shorts on women that there was a need for written rules. More than downright outlawing garments, administrators controlled the parameters of when the clothes could be worn. The cafeteria was a highly contested space. For men, they were pushed to wear sport coats and ties, but many protested these rules or simply did not comply. There were very few repercussions for men; women were given demerits or grounded to campus for breaking dress codes. Of course, so much of this enforcement depended on the inclinations of school administrators.
Q: Dressing formally in the early 1900s meant wearing uncomfortable, restricting clothing, but for those who could afford to dress in that manner, it meant they ranked high in society. Eventually, the casual look started taking over and became more acceptable. What did this do to the gender, class and race lines?
A: Formal dress was the cultural standard through the 1930s, meaning if you wanted to distinguish yourself as being a member of the upper class or upwardly mobile person, you had to dress up. Casual dress, which became the cultural standard in the 1950s, is closely associated with the rise of middle-class culture. No longer was "acceptable dress" determined by the upper crust, but rather the masses, and by the 1950s large swaths of the American public culturally identified as middle class. In the process of this cultural identification, they dressed the part. Clothes were not about becoming a member of the middle class and then going to buy a couple pairs of khaki pants. In buying and wearing khaki pants, you lived out being middle class. Hence, I often tell students that clothing is constitutive of identity not reflective of identity.
Q: The book focuses on how white college students changed fashion. What was happening at historically black colleges, such as Spelman College, during that time? How were black students keeping up with the new trend that their white middle-class peers had created?
A: The case studies for the book are Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, two of the most conservative colleges in the country. So, in many ways, these students were still held to cultural standards espoused by their administrators. Administrators hampered casual dress at these schools because they encouraged a sense of respectability. These schools were highly religious and restrictive on student behavior. African-American students at places such as Penn State were far more willing and able to embrace casual dress. They were dressing like their peers. At Spelman and Morehouse, conservative dress was the standard well into the 1960s, and that was more a function of the administration than of student desire. Students reported sneaking off campus to change or lying about their intended destination in order to be able to wear certain garments that were prohibited to be worn to town.
Q: To what extent were colleges forced to accept the new casual look that its administrators didn't understand and called "sloppy?"
A: Students were indeed the pioneers of casual dress but as more and more middle-class Americans took to polo shirts, tennis shoes, chino pants, and the occasional sweatshirt, the cultural standard of American clothing changed. The "lesson learned" from the coming of casual is that changes in cultural standards are slow but unrelenting. The sheer demand for casual dress swallowed up the cries of the critics (and there were many). Those who opposed casual dress either eventually converted or they died off.
Q: Can you describe your style, or sense of fashion, during your college days? What do you think of the way students today dress?
A: I study the history of fashion and clothing, so my clothing is certainly constitutive of my identity! I am a lifelong thrift shopper, with an interest in ethnic clothing. I love a dashiki or caftan for almost any occasion. In college, I was perhaps more bold in my choices -- cutoff overalls, combat boots, crazy hats. Even I have to snicker at some of my ensembles. My wonderful mother, a fashion lover in her own right, encouraged many of my choices. As a parent, I struggle to allow my girls to dress in their own unique ways. My middle daughter wore a tutu with striped leggings and a polka dot shirt this morning, and I really couldn't say a darn thing.
In terms of student dress today, you know you are getting old when you think to yourself at a passing student, "Honey, you looked like you just rolled out of bed." And she likely had. As a historian I try not to judge, but even I have to draw the line at pajamas in my classroom.