So it appears that PINK asses will become even more ubiquitous on college campuses, with Victoria’s Secret partnering with The Collegiate Licensing Company to launch “exclusive” co-branded merchandise. Victoria’s Secret’s PINK’s brand iconography and the names and logos of any one of thirty-three universities –most of them public or land-grant universities— will be paired on their apparel. Already, my campus is awash with Victoria’s Secret sweatpants (either paired with Uggs –really? still?– or flip-flops), which I didn’t even recognize as such until just a few months ago. (I thought the PINK thing was a breast cancer awareness gimmick.) Sartorially, I’m not looking forward to the proliferation of these decorated with the university logo. But sweatpants are a part of the first set of lessons I teach in my fashion course.
Back in my youth, I’m pretty certain that athletes would wear sweatpants to class but no one else did, really (sweatshirts, yes). Meanwhile, I wore dirty black jeans (we called them “vegan leather” because, after a while, all that dirt and grease would turn the denim shiny) and black t-shirts everyday because I was anti-fashion, but that’s another story (up the punx!). And the spread of sweatpants as casual undergraduate apparel escaped my notice as a graduate student at Berkeley (although I have a great story about the time I was in the library cafe and I saw two undergraduates engaged in oral sex –IN THE CROWDED CAFE– in matching sweats). In the courses I worked for (gender and women’s studies), I didn’t much see a representative cross-section of the campus population. It’s only since I moved to the Midwest that I’ve had daily exposure to the phenomenon of sweats in the classroom, and I’ve been trying to puzzle it out ever since.
My colleagues express a lot of disgust for the sweatpants brigade, and on a purely aesthetic level, I would rather stab myself in the eye than wear PINK, or anything else in sweatpants form, on my ass. They correlate what appears to be a lazy, unserious approach to classroom appearance with a lazy, unserious approach to classroom performance. Or, more generously, they see the spread of sweats as casual collegiate wear as one manifestation of the pressure to appear “not too smart,” to dumb it down in order to fit the campus climate. Without necessarily deciding that any of these explanations is the “right” one, it does interest me that the language in which we praise or denounce clothing is also the language with which we make moral judgments: right, correct, good, unacceptable, faultless, shabby, threadbare, botched, sloppy, careless. (And I’m sure that the students do the same thing to us – if we also showed up in sweats, they’d surely decide that we were lazy and unserious. I’m amazed that it rarely occurs to them that it’s a two-way street.)
I try to set aside my sartorial dislike when I discuss sweatpants with my students, though. And because so many of them wear sweatpants, I ask them why. (I try to keep the “eww” out of my voice when I do.) Some claim that “comfort” is their number one priority, but I push them to consider whether comfort is really such an obvious utilitarian value, or is there more to this idea than meets the eye? What is the content of comfort as a measure? Is it physical, emotional, or social, or some combination of these? What kinds of sweatpants count as comfortable ones? No one is wearing, say, their grandma’s tapered and relaxed-seat sweatpants, which I imagine are physically comfortable but might be socially uncomfortable. No one (so far) has copped to being an adherent to the Grey Sweatsuit Revolution, a semi-ironic art practice that parodies the fashion system as well as the anti-fashion response in its push to create a new fashion/anti-fashion uniform. (From their mission statement: “The grey sweatsuit is our Trojan horse. We create a street trend, a visible statement, the system co-opts it without understanding it’s significance and then… BAM! Grey sweatsuits all up in the area! Our symbolism spreads like anthrax across the anorexic bodies of fashionistas everywhere! They look frantically for the next trend but there is nothing. Only grey sweatsuits.”) So some decisions are being made to convey a certain sense of self, via the sweatpants. At that point, someone might speculate that some girls wear sweatpants and painstakingly messy ponytails as a calculated flirtation: “This is what I look like when I’ve just gotten out of bed,” or that some others (boys and girls) are presenting an image of careless youth: “Whatever, it’s all good. Let’s do a bar crawl!” We talk then about “spheres” of fashionableness, how the college campus produces its own set of sartorial standards and what might be behind those standards – university personalities (e.g., Ivy League versus Big Ten), ideas about what it means to be a certain type of student, practices of differentiation as well as assimilation, and so on.
A part of what I’m trying to do is get them to acknowledge that broader implications are attached through social and cultural discourses to the clothes we wear, or the clothes others wear; that often the “messages” we think we are presenting about ourselves, about our concerns, are ambiguous, and ideologically loaded whether we are conscious of this or not; and that these messages are being conveyed along axes of often uneven power. For instance, when professors read their appearance as indicative of intellectual laziness, or when university staff recognize students by their sweats, and fellow workers by their absence. I’m also hoping to have them think consciously about the reasons they wear the clothes they do – that “comfort” and the desire to seem effortless, or alternately studious (part of a “I’ve been at the library all day” look), are not necessarily obvious values or qualities but are actively constructed and circulated by their everyday dress practices.
I still hate their sweatpants, though.