On no distinct occasion, UChicago students once paraded the quad in unique costumes and capes. A quirky mind was complemented by a quirky wardrobe. The norm was to embrace the avant-garde.
Today, flocks of Canada Goose coats storm our campus. Gucci sneakers add to the wear and tear of our staircases and Moncler beanies drape the sea of heads around us. The new norm is to embrace these brands that command exclusivity by selling $1000 coats and sneakers.
This new era of fashion elitism mimics trends in other private universities. As UChicago’s administration strives to match the Ivy League, its students are contributing to the transition by dressing to match Harvard’s Cambridge color schemes and Dartmouth’s Hanover storms.
What we wear is a reflection of ourselves. Through our wardrobes, we can create an identity for ourselves without directly engaging with others. We can convey political views, socioeconomic status, and personality without opening our mouths. Wearing extravagantly expensive garments is a clear expression of socioeconomic class. Given that money is often a taboo subject in polite company, why is it that wearing your wealth is not similarly frowned upon?
Money is not a personality trait. Wearing your wealth does not tell people anything about you other than the fact that you possess money. There’s a stereotype of college students attending lectures while dressed in monochrome gray sweats. However, at UChicago you’re more likely to find your seminars and lectures filled with the latest J.Crew or Vineyard Vines catalogs, ensembles that can cost thousands of dollars. Walking to class on a mildly cold day, you’ll probably see enough expensive coats to equal the cost of our annual tuition. While some of these pricey products help students combat the extreme weather of Chicago, others are frivolous. No one, especially a college student, can justify a beanie that costs $350.
These trends are a reflection of the demographic changes in UChicago’s student body. Efforts in the past decade to bring more “normies” to campus, notably the University’s switch to the Common App and construction of megadorms, also have the side effect of bringing mainstream culture to a once proudly unconventional campus. As our institution seeks academic clout, our student body becomes more imbued in mainstream consumer culture. Our society values exclusivity, and brands like Givenchy and Supreme command a great deal of social clout. As these brand names find their way to our campus, they showcase our student body and university’s transition in tastes from the unique to the mainstream.
Displays of wealth are not benign. They reinforce a culture of valuing what we see before what we know. The first things we learn about our classmates come from their appearances in real life and on social media. Seeing classmates wearing expensive designer products sets our expectations of the student body. Furthermore, it feeds a growing divide in our student body based on the value we place on socioeconomic status. Conversation topics stray from passions and future plans to connections and shared tastes. These forms of social engagement creep into our classrooms, RSOs, and recruiting events, establishing a new way to keep students from lower-income backgrounds out of the know. Surrounded by a sea of expensive garments, most students are more socially isolated than ever.
The rise of mainstream culture has generated a new tension on our campus. Strutting along cobblestone walkways, students wear high-end brands like uniforms. At the same time, we live in an environment that has celebrated history of rejecting fads and norms. As a student body, we must find a way to balance our desire to meet dominating trends with UChicago’s historically quirky sense of fashion.