February 17, 2004

Well dressed "outed" conservatives swarm campus

This quarter I have written harsh critiques of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. For my troubles, I got to watch their campaigns circle the proverbial drains as John F-word Kerry cribbed their platforms. The only way Kerry can be stopped now is if, I don't know, Democrats realize that Michael Dukakis' former running mate has about as much chance of beating the President as Janet Jackson does of speaking at the Republican National Convention.

I'd like to step away from the election, however, to comment on a subject closer to home: men's fashion here at the U of C. Those of you who were, like me, at Chicago for our last presidential election must notice that the typical undergraduate has evolved from the Streetwise-vendor couture to the collared-shirt-and-sweater mega-prep ensemble. The sweatpants-to-class, bathrobe-in-the-dining hall, slob chic I remember from my first year is as dead as Lieberman for President (sorry, I'll try to keep politics out of this, but I can't promise anything).

This change became obvious to me at a party last week, when a kid walked in wearing a tie-dyed shirt and blue jeans. He had the scraggly, dropout hair and semi-intentional goatee that used to be this campus's unofficial uniform (and not just for guys, as I recall). The room, filled with wannabe A&F models, went silent. It was as if Colonel Sanders had walked into PETA headquarters. I thought the poor kid was a townie, or some luckless drifter, until he mentioned his Hum class. He stuck out like Teresa Heinz Kerry at a Bible Study.

Some attribute the change to the school's "New Look" admissions policy in which more "well adjusted" students are being invited to this school. A well adjusted student, of course, is a student who was doing keg stands before he could read. He is also less likely, it follows, to wear clothes he found wadded behind a public toilet to stanch leaks. The flaw in this theory is that college men across the country are dressing sharper, and most schools are admitting the same people they always have, so this is bigger than the U of C.

A better explanation that covers all students is an economic one. Employers who hire on campus clearly favor respectable-looking people. Sure, in the scruffy old days students would don clumsily knotted ties and wrinkled Oxford shirts for interviews, but recruiters knew this was a ruse because any day they were here they could see all the other students in their natural element, and they could tell nobody here really dressed nicely. This was not a problem so long as high technology and financial services companies were hiring lots of students here, as opposed to at Bombay State and Dacca A & M universities. Today, prospective employees can leave little to chance, and competitive pressure has driven everyone to deep-six the hyper-casual look. After all, why would anyone hire an applicant who resembles John Walker Lindh when there's a line of 20 people out their door who look like the Christian Scientists would reject them for being excessively clean-cut?

A second explanation is cultural. Many have remarked on the proliferation of so-called "metrosexuals" on campus. For the five of you still unfamiliar with this term, a metrosexual is a straight male who cares deeply about the condition of his eyebrows. In any case, some say that a critical mass of these individuals had a snowball effect, creating a campus swarming with guys comfortable spending upwards of an hour dressing and grooming each morning.

A third plausible explanation is that there are more conservatives, or at least more "outed" conservatives, on campuses today. We of the right tend to feel that a funereal appearance comports well with the gravity of our current events. This, like the other two explanations, provides only part of the answer—if every well-dressed guy here was conservative, Bush would do better at Chicago than at Texas Christian University—but I think the theories together cover all the cases. Of course, some claim that dressing a certain way can instill certain behaviors in people. Wearing semi-formal clothes in every public setting can cause people to sit up straighter, speak more precisely, and think more logically. These are all hallmarks of a Republican voter, so I have to regard the prep-ificiation of the U of C as a positive development.