Written by Shini Meyer Wang.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
“Looking is not seeing” describes precisely how we are before having the “aha” moments. It’s how we naturally observe the people in our lives, not thinking twice. But suppose one day you were to flip open the pages of a psychology textbook. Then, these familiar moments might unlock to tell hidden stories and new narratives. This is what happened to me when I began observing clothing. After taking a course on the psychology and philosophy of clothing and costume as a cultural definition, I was astonished by the lack of academic research on this intersection. What is a better indicator of our individual psychology than our second skin? Clothing represents the tether between us and society.
Susan Mickey, esteemed costume designer and UT-Austin professor, voiced this hill of potential discovery. “You can look at something and not really see what it is. And seeing is not always understanding and understanding is not always wisdom but it is something we can strive for.” I interview her in her office, drafting table in the background, a well-preserved vogue poster to her right. It reflects her craft in every way. “I always spend my time looking around going what is this saying? You know, what is this saying?” Mickey even applies this to her students’ clothing. “Just observe what you see. Everybody is in fairly body conscious but shapeless [clothing]. For the most part, darker, dull colors. A pop of color is very rare. Everyone is in khaki, navy, grey, or black. And that’s what the stores are also selling. Almost completely. And it’s very uniform-ish.” I was slightly taken aback by a description that seemed almost dystopian to me, so I went out in the field to see for myself.
Although it doesn’t look like these students stumbled out of Orwell’s 1984, Mickey has a point. The color palette is muted with hints of vibrance. The trend of khaki, navy, grey, and black tie together like some accidental lookbook. Mickey lectures on trends as something elastic, snapping back between extremes. It’s how the 80’s explosions of neon from MTV music videos subdued into the jewel tones and neutral palette of the grungy nineties. This time the pendulum has swung further, from the 2000’s candy color pop of Paris Hilton and Mean Girls to today’s sleek minimalism. The black, grey, and millennial pink of our iPhones seep into our fabric as well.
The forces moving the fashion pendulum are conformity and rebellion. For example, a garment worn to stand out (to rebel) eventually catches on and becomes oversaturated (the conforming style) thus feeding into the swinging nature of fashion. College students might be one of the most in-sync, conforming communities of people. “You’re also dealing with people who are all of the same finite age group for the most part,” says Mickey. “So that is going to make a huge difference because you’re all going through sort of a similar identify crisis/curve/arc at that same time. And that’s a forced cultural phenomenon. When else in your life are you going to have many people of relatively the same age living in very close proximity to each other? All studying and choosing your next steps and starting to get yourselves ready for your professional life or your adult life in some way. That plays into the emotional and the psychological choices you all make with your clothing.”
Among the stress of rushing to classes and cramming assignments, one of the ways students’ choices overlap is prioritizing comfort. Comfort clothing emulates a value for functionality and a need for support. As Hubert Ning, history and electrical engineering student, discloses, “I have a friend who only wears pajamas which is totally fine. But he only wears pajamas to class. And I’m not sure if it’s a fashion statement. The same grey sweatpants. It’s the same grey sweatshirt every time. And then most of my engineering friends wear comfort items like big hoodies.” He hurriedly adds, “There are also some really well-dressed people in engineering.” This isn’t just specific to college students. The apparel industry has been taken over by comfort clothing, as our fast-paced, technology-driven world demands harder work to get ahead.
However, UT-Austin’s student population isn’t just camouflaged by extra-large grey sweatshirts and leggings. These young adults, newly independent from their families and prior communities, enter Austin’s open-minded and vibrant community and have the opportunity to experiment with their identity. Dress can be a form of experimenting with expression. As Veda Yagnik, business and plan II student, explains, “People say the uniform of the college student is leggings and a shirt. That’s true to an extent but there’s also a lot of people who I feel like use college as a platform to step out and just dress in a way that maybe they couldn’t dress in high school and just be a little bit more bold with how they dress. I feel like I see that a lot on campus, especially here in Austin. It’s just a good place with a good energy to dress individualistically.”
This research suggests that the majority of students put most of their attention into their work, while a significant few put energy into curating themselves. They pick and choose which values and attitudes they want to reveal through their style. It creates a social conversation through visual presentation. Art student Caroline Perkison discusses this. “I think a lot of my art and the way I dress is an encouragement for me to act however I want and be more confident. But it’s also kind of an encouragement to other people. If I’m doing a weird thing then I hope that they would feel more comfortable to do whatever they want to do. Because UT doesn’t facilitate a super good environment for people expressing themselves and I feel like clothing is just one simple way to help people feel happy expressing themselves.”
Clothing is a brilliant resource to analyze. It can divulge something about an individual and a collective. Once we pay attention, it has a latent power that can be harnessed. Mickey puts it perfectly. “Think about how you feel about what you want to put out into the world. What you’re dressing is what you’re putting out into the world subconsciously. You can do that without any study or thought to it and have it completely out of your control or think about it a little a bit and have some power over it. It’s just like you have power over what you say out of your mouth. You also have power over what you say with your clothes.”