Here’s a sweeping statement that will insult my friends that I’ve forced to read this article: Cambridge students do not dress very well. That’s not to say that there’s a proliferation of well-dressed bright young things amongst our number, but if we’re talking statistics, the vast majority have a rather alarming penchant for badly fitting jeans and drab hangover hoodies.
I don’t want to get my soapbox out here: judging by some of the double takes I’ve attracted in my personal favourite, some simultaneously stripy AND flowery bright blue silk trousers, my own personal style is a bit of a Marmite issue. But I don’t really dress for anyone except myself: a massive cliché, yes, but I truly believe that we all benefit from not only the artistic endeavor of getting dressed (a beautiful art, in its necessity and its applicability), but from the self-satisfaction of actually liking what you see when you look in the mirror, and the collaborative joy of complimenting someone else’s outfit.
Unfortunately, however, fashion remains an industry unfairly weighted towards women. Not to ignore the multitude of noxious body image issues this creates for young girls, not to mention the lack of representation for those who don’t identify as male or female, but what rarely gets discussed in debates about gender politics in the world of fashion is that, despite 85 percent of entry level jobs in fashion being taken by women, the top jobs are overwhelmingly dominated by men. This goes beyond simply the corporate side of the business: in an industry that predominantly focuses on female image, most top couturiers, even if they are no longer a sole designing atelier, were originally founded by men—take Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Guccio Gucci. Fashion shouldn’t be an art form that is inherently gendered, yet the way they treat their bodies is still being directly influenced by the male fantasy.
Nevertheless, what I want to highlight more than the well-versed issues in the gender politics of fashion is the implications that this has on the development of a male-centric sartorial identity. Sadly, the diktat of haute couture continues to constrain us to a restrictively heteronormative view of how people of each gender should dress. High street brands such as Gap have recently launched gender-neutral ranges of kids’ clothing, but where’s the equivalent for the average teenage boy? I’ve seen a saddening number of boys with better legs to pull off a miniskirt than I could ever dream of.
One of my top Cambridge style crushes is Ryan, a second year HML student (above). Aside from dressing better than I can ever hope to on the daily, he’s praised Cam for the freedom its given him in fashion: “It’s only since coming to university that I’ve really been able to work out how my own sense of identity maps onto what I wear and how I choose to present myself. Cambridge provided me for the first time with both a relatively safe environment and a lot of fearless people to be inspired by, allowing me to experiment and start properly expressing myself. Finally wearing makeup on a day-to-day basis has been the result of a long struggle to overcome both my own internalised homophobia and the prejudices I face as a queer person. But the effect is so liberating: I feel much more confident just looking in the mirror and seeing exactly how I feel at any given moment looking back at me. On top of this, being self-assured enough to go and buy clothes that I want to wear – not what I am expected to wear – means that I can really feel like I’m at my most authentic, even if that paradoxically involves a face full of cosmetics.” The way we dress is a powerful release from social prejudice, in a way that is so easy to translate into your daily life.
The ‘Cambridge Look’ is something of an epithet amongst my friends. Look around Sidge and boys will be divided into two factions—those who Wear Vintage, and Did You Know I Play Rugby stash wearers. And if you truly love Patagonia, go wild! The problem arises when people start to feel obliged to dress a certain way in order to appeal to social hierarchies that rely upon the superficialities of how you look, and having talked to my male friends, it seems that this truly is the case at Cambridge. Get yourself a cartilage piercing, boys, and you’re in.
So, my plea to Cambridge boys isn’t to stop wearing baggy jeans, Napapijiri, nail varnish, eyeshadow or Barbour jackets. It’s to challenge gender and social stereotypes by buying into a culture of self-expression through fashion that seems so much more open to those who identify as female. It couldn’t be easier for me, as an outgoing, straight, middle-class white girl to blithely say that you just need to be confident when you get dressed, but the effects on your mental state when you are wearing something that truly reflects who you are are immeasurable. The boys I condemned earlier for their ‘poor’ dress sense—why should they care what I think? If I say they are dressing badly, I mean this only if they are dressing like this as social standards have shamed them away from wearing a leather jumpsuit and red lipstick. I am positively encouraging you to ignore my own attitudes towards ill-fitting Superdry hoodies, and fill your wardrobe with the like, if that is how you are truly comfortable. Fashion is art if you want it to be, or it can be a utilitarian manner of covering what God gave you— what it absolutely has to be, regardless of gender, is irrevocably personal.