Stashing away Personal Style: College Puffers, ‘Barry Beanies’ and the Semiotics of Identity

Esme Bishop 23 March 2022
Image Credit: Helena Loan

If I had a penny for every college puffer I’ve spotted when wandering through the streets of Cambridge on any given day – well I would simply drop out. The incentive to complete a degree would, after all, totally dissipate. I’d be a wealthy woman for the rest of my days.

In all seriousness though, it feels as if every fifth person I pass in this city is wearing one of these coats. Often you see entire groups together, all bedecked in the black puffer with their college crest proudly embroidered on one side, and perhaps, if they’re really committed, some golden letters spelling out their initials on the other.

How and why has this (frankly, quite un-extraordinary) coat been able to infiltrate the fashion of Cambridge students to the insurmountable degree that it has? And what is this doing to our collective potential for personal expression?

The puffer, as with all ‘official’ university stash, is a creation of none other than Ryder and Amies. The located pride of place on King’s Parade, R&A’s is, in its own words: ‘The Original University Store since 1864.’ Initially, the store manufactured and sold academic dress (that is, gowns and hoods) as well as scarves, which originally distinguished colleges subtly by colour alone. The embroidered badges that we so frequently see today were not added until the 1980s: a decision that was ‘controversial’ at the time.

It’s a widely acknowledged (yet unspoken) rule that the ‘real’ Cambridge student would seldom, if ever, be seen in ‘University of Cambridge’ clothing. The authentic student chooses to dress themselves only in college specific stash: we do not particularly identify with the university at large, and instead tend to bind our sense of identity to the college we attend.

Fashion is the most elemental form of self-expression that we as humans have at our disposal – how you choose to present yourself to the world, whether fashion is something you care about or not, says a great deal about who you are as a person. Through fashion we communicate religion, sexuality, gender, music taste, cultural background and so much more. If fashion is in some way a manifestation of selfhood, then this surely goes to show the extent to which we think of our college as a very fundamental facet of our own identities.

There’s something quite whimsically functional about stash. Imagine this: you overhear someone in the Pret queue saying something horrendously pretentious. You take a sneaky glance at the college crest emblazoned on their coat, and decipher that these were, in fact, the words of a St John’s student, thus solidifying your ideas about John’s a little further. The college badge that was once so controversial has now become a prevalent intercollegiate language and a signifier of identity in Cambridge which genuinely shapes our perceptions of our peers.

Is this, for want of a better word, ‘bad’? Is it a bad thing that so many of us attach our sense of identity to the college we attend? Ultimately, no. Of course not. There’s nothing inherently negative about wanting to wear college stash – but there are, nonetheless, some interesting levels to this. The college puffers are arguably just a modern iteration of academic dress: we buy them from the same store as our gowns and, as with the gown, they are an identifier of college, but also of academic status, meaning they can carry some less agreeable baggage, such as elitism, snobbery and exclusivity.

To me, the worry is that status, as a signifier of selfhood, is in danger of displacing creativity and individuality in fashion. One of the reasons why the college puffer is so coveted is because of aesthetic neutrality: people will often say it’s ‘convenient’ to throw on without thinking about an outfit. In being so easy to wear, it becomes easy to revert to your college as a way to express who you are. But I think that’s sad! We joke about it frequently, but once it seeps its way into your personal style, it is a real symptom of the institution you attend becoming, not merely just that – a place you attend – but a fundamental part of who you are: a ‘personality trait’ so to speak.

At the same time, it is genuinely delightful how uniformity can cultivate a very particular sense of belonging. Something else you often hear people say is that they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing their puffer coat outside of Cambridge. It’s quite nice that, for the most part, it’s a contained form of expression: a way for us to communicate mutually to each other, rather than conceitedly to anyone who isn’t ‘us’. After all, when you matriculate, you become a lifetime member of your college, and it is something that will always be a part of you. Perhaps the permanence and tangibility of an item of clothing is an apt way of representing that.

There are also signals that the college puffer may be going into decline: Ryder and Amies have a wholesome competitor on the horizon for the most coveted item of apparel in the University of Cambridge in the form of a wonderful porter from Clare College named Barry. On his night shifts, Barry spends his time crocheting ‘Barry Beanies’ for the students of Clare – the sheer length of his list of names for prospective Barry Beanie owners shows just how popular he is. He makes hats not just in the Clare colours but also in the colours of the pride flag, the bi flag, and I’ve even heard that some lucky Caius students are on his list. These hats, to me, represent all that’s positive about stash with none of the elitism and none of the snobbery: they champion inclusivity, not exclusivity and above all are an expression of belonging.