Dress Casual

Forthcoming from UNC Press, Spring 2014

My book, Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style, traces the rise of casual clothing trends—trends that today obscure class and gender distinctions and whose pervasiveness has redefined the significance of personal appearance in American culture. Using archival research from 15 campuses chosen for regional, economic, racial, and gender diversity, I analyze when, where, and how “dressing down” became the norm between 1900 and 1970. The book begins with a chapter on the development of collegians as consumers, a market that confused and defied the fashion industry. I then place collegians’ clothing in its campus context with chapters on what was worn to class, in the dorm, on a date, and in the gym. The casual clothing of college kids has infiltrated nearly every space from the office to the chapel to the classroom in almost every corner of the globe. My book is the first to give the topic scholarly attention and complements recent studies of domestic space, food, and manners.

This book, as well as my previous, current and future projects, aims to complicate readings that reduce fashion change to a mere byproduct of a hegemonic culture system. Mass advertising and mainstream magazines are conspicuously missing from my source base. Instead, I use collegians’ diaries and letters to attest to not only what students wore, but also how they felt when they wore it. Chalmers Alexander (Princeton, Class of 1932) wrote daily to his mother in Mississippi on life with his wealthy colleagues who swigged Apple Jack, dated Swedish chorus girls, and were “just the type who will never see Heaven unless a miracle happens.” Photographs, scrapbooks, and actual garments track the infiltration of trends. Student-penned fiction, humor magazines, and newspapers loom large. Institutional records and student handbooks show how regulations were revised to accommodate changing social mores. Primary data quantifies how the college-going demographic has changed, and provides an empirical foundation for my findings.