Fashion tips for university students
I packed my clothes for university two weeks before I left. I approached the task with an odd mixture of excitement and trepidation. Until that point I'd been used to a sprawling assortment of vintage dresses, silk scarves, tailored jackets, long skirts and plenty of costume jewellery; decades, fabrics, styles and sizes all rubbing shoulders. The siren call of the charity shop combined with the inherited accumulation of three generations of hats-gloves-and-gowns hoarders had made for rich pickings as I got dressed each morning. I could change character by the day, if so wished, or even the hour.
Shifting to a capsule wardrobe (that would be functional for two months' worth of wearing) was interesting. I could take only the most versatile items. Blue leather pencil skirts were out, black velvet trousers in. I had practicalities to deal with, too - pots and pans, books and bedding - but the clothes were more engaging. They were also safe, something familiar to hold onto during the transition. I had no idea who I might meet or how I would find my course, but at least I had a killer miniskirt or two to keep me company.
There's a tendency to talk of the life of a new undergraduate as being an opportunity to construct identities anew, to get rid of past associations or characteristics. It's all in the label - "fresher". Fresh chance. But sometimes, it seemed less an opportunity to establish anything particularly new, but rather to re-establish ourselves in an updated context.
- A Tribute To Michael Howells
A Tribute To Michael Howells
University is a big switch. New place, new people, questionable clubs, plenty of essays. Increased responsibility. Keeping up with laundry. Cooking. Socialising. Exploring the city or campus now called home for much of the year. The instability and thrill, the giddy mix of liberation, spontaneity and occasional hours spent sobbing when everything seems overwhelming. In this new environment, a gorgeous Fifties coat, the colour of well-brewed coffee with a furry collar and flared hem, was a stitched layer of assurance to swing on when needed.
And I needed it lots, to begin with. Those first few weeks were hard. Being independent and sociable, I had assumed the move would be, if not easy, then at least manageable. Instead I struggled, felt alienated from myself, got tangled up in knotted questions of identity and individuality. How did I define myself? How was everyone else around me defining themselves? Why were most of us more aware than usual of the ways we were viewing and being viewed by others?
Being newly surrounded by students offered (and still offers) ample time for observation.
I've always been fascinated by the impact of an outfit. Student style has lots of strong cultural associations and I was keen to explore the stereotypes: think Brideshead-style white linen and waistcoats accessorised with wine and strawberries on a summer's day, or the bluestockings in their thick woollen midi-skirts and stout shoes, or the preppy classics students of Donna Tartt's The Secret History with their tweed jackets, tennis jumpers and sundresses. Many of these images are American - although the often-cited Ivy League/Vassar look seems to take inspiration in turn from typically British images of dapper, well-dressed Oxbridge undergrads. Turned out there wasn't so much white linen around though; Clueless seemed to be more influential at first, with students channelling the Nineties romantic comedy in crop tops and mini backpacks.
Several people told me: "You'll all try hard in the first week. Give it a month and then see." And it's true. I've always stood out. I'm 5ft 11in flats, make unconventional outfit choices and have a bit of a habit of striding around studiously. I can be shy and quiet at times, bold at others. During the first term, my clothes choices became a way of projecting confidence. Others had similar techniques. My friend Helen talked of assuming "red lipstick and a dark scowl" in moments of vulnerability. Another friend, Mina, likened her outfits to "armour". On one day, when I was feeling homesick, I put on a vintage yellow Jaeger dress covered in a pattern of crayoned flowers. Between that and the blue, brimmed hat, I projected a more assured version of myself. The hacked hem, wide sleeves and flicks of eyeliner formed a self-possessed character, grey men's loafers giving spring to each step.
But my style has changed subtly since being here. I nearly always pick comfortable options, with decisions partly dictated by needing outfits I can both cycle and study in - colourful jumpers, sturdy Chelsea boots, crisp shirts, cotton tea dresses. Having said that, I'm still the queen of occasional impracticalities - fluttering along on my bike in voluminous skirts or capes that catch the wind, braving storms in the tiniest of tiny velvet shorts, only making use of a raincoat once in a blue moon.
Perhaps the real difference is in the limited pickings, which require a more innovative approach to re-use. I've begun adopting colour palettes and themes. One term it was Katharine Hepburn with a Sixties twist, all wide-legged trousers, tailored waistcoats and curly hair, the occasional poloneck and minidress on the side. Next it was Brigitte Bardot meets Enid Blyton. Floral fitted dresses, blouses, robust shorts and leather lace-ups - all in blue, pink, turquoise and cream. Ridiculously overthought? Probably. Fun? Absolutely.
That joy in the creativity of dressing has also been amplified now I feel more at home here. I've settled in, scouted out favourite cafés, spent way too much money on cocktails, worked harder and read more than I imagined was possible in such short terms, made new friends and, of course, ransacked the local charity and vintage shops. New treasures have been found - a yellow kilt, corduroy high-waisted hot-pants, a soft grey leather skirt, long sequined dresses, a beautiful Sixties wool swing coat to replace one stolen on a night out.
Of course, clothing as a form of communication has both joys and pitfalls - sadly, boys in brogues are not automatically going to be engaging - and it's both dangerous and superficial to base perception solely on externals. Yet occasionally it pays off. Starting a conversation with admiration for an outfit can be the spark to light long-term alliance. During the first week, I turned up for my faculty induction wearing a second-hand pink paisley Paul Smith shirt and vintage St Michael plum velvet blazer, only to see a guy on my course wearing an almost identical combination. We'd have been friends regardless of this detail, but it was still beautifully serendipitous.
Recently I went for coffee with my friend Helen, both of us snatching a gasp of sunshine between hours in the library. We sat outside, warm stone at our backs and hot cups in our hands, talking over the last few months. I reminded her of the comment she'd previously made about lipstick as a confidence trick. She laughed, and replied "none of us were ourselves in the first term, really, were we?" And she was right.
Rosalind Jana won the Vogue Talent Contest in 2011 - read her blog here