By Deirdre Clemente, M.A., Museum Studies ’04
Historian, FIT alumna, and author of Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style, Deirdre Clemente, talks about her own journey to casual style and the role FIT plays in shaping modern American fashion.
I came to casual by defeat. I simply could not pry and zip myself into uncomfortable clothes and stay in them for hours. In my twenties, my best friend chased down taxi cabs and potential husbands in three-inch heels. She slept in a thong. I tried to play the game for a while, but my six-foot-tall frame and profound appreciation for sweat pants won out. Instead, I chose cowboy boots and a pair of overalls that same friend said make me look like an oversized baby. For me, casual is not the opposite of formal. It is the opposite of confined.
Casual is about cobbling. Mix-and-match is a twentieth century thing. A hundred years ago, the closest thing to casual was sportswear—knitted golf dresses, tweed blazers, and oxford shoes. But as the century progressed, casual came to encompass everything from worker’s garb (jeans and lumberman jackets) to army uniforms (khakis, anyone?). Americans’ quest for casual has stomped on entire industries: millinery, hosiery, eveningwear, fur, and the list goes on. It has infiltrated every hour of the day and every space from the boardroom to the classroom to the courtroom. Americans dress casual.
From a historian’s standpoint, casual has shattered cultural standards that have existed for millennia. Personal appearance is no longer a steadfast delinieatro of class. Today, billionaires wear wrinkled button-downs, and the first lady dons Jamacian shorts. Casual has whitewashed gender norms that had required fashionable female silhouettes be held in place by stays and straps. Unisex is a pretty profound concept when you think about it.
FIT has been pivotal to my development as a historian of American fashion and as a purveyor of casual style. The sheer diversity of personal style on campus inspired me to dress down or dress up as inclination (and evening plans) allowed.
A proud graduate of FIT, I now watch from the sidelines, and sometimes wish I could give your many talented fashion bloggers and commentators just a little bit of a history lesson. FIT student Avanti Dalal’s commentary on the site www.collegefashionista.com is top-notch. Avanti’s photos capture all that is funny and fabulous about FIT’s fashion. Here’s a sampling of offerings, and a dash of history on the coming of casual and the role that college campuses played in that evolution.
The Letterman’s Sweater: Like boy bands and soccer shenanigans, sportswear came from England. The letterman’s sweater is the grandson of the yachting club blazer—a Cambridge/Oxford thing from the last decades of the nineteenth century. American Ivy Leaguers picked it up and stuck with the blazer for a while, but the more practical, more casual lettermen’s sweater replaced the blazer in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Originally, each team had their own version of the sweater from v-neck to crewneck to cardigan, but as the century progressed, the styles became standardized, and teams individualized the letter instead. The sweater lost its place of prominence on many college campuses in the mid-1920s when women and then high schoolers took to the garment.
Corduroy Pants: As this FIT student well knows, corduroy is both practical and comfortable, making it the perfect fit for casual style. Early in the twentieth century, corduroy was used for football uniforms at Princeton University, but University of California men took to the fabric and made it their own. Tales of their “dirty cords” were heard across the country and the unwashed pants marked out upperclassmen from the newbies.
Women in Menswear: Shorts, tennis shoes, cardigans and oxford shirts—first worn by men but then stolen by women. In the mid-1930s, women at elite colleges in the Northeast (think Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley) started borrowing their boyfriends’ button-down collared shirts and Brooks Brothers crewneck sweaters. Next came jeans and pants, then sweatshirts and t-shirts. Today, unisex fashions have redefined American femininity and provided the foundation of the American wardrobe.
Dr. Deirdre Clemente is a historian and curator of 20th century American culture, specializing in fashion and clothing. She is an assistant professor of history at University of Nevada Las Vegas. Dr. Clemente earned her MA in Museum Studies from FIT in 2004 and remains an active and proud alumna. Read more about Dr. Clemente at www.deirdreclemente.com. Learn more about Clemente’s book, Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style.