For half a century, ‘prep’ embodied the longstanding nexus between clothing, class and education in the West, distinguishing the Etonians, Ivy Leaguers, and ‘old money’ Americana from the melange of mainstream society. Marked by tweed blazers, scuffed loafers, collegiate sportswear, and pastel colours, the aesthetic has its roots in elite English and American preparatory schools of the early 20th century that served as crucial socio-cultural establishments of the upper-class. Though brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and J. Crew appropriated ‘prep’ for mainstream consumption in the 70s, its elements are deeply embedded in private school uniforms today, reflecting the wedge between private and public school education.
Today, fast fashion and social media have radically transformed the fashion landscape of the modern university globally. A 2020 Vogue Business survey of 105 members of Generation Z found that more than half reported buying most of their clothes from fast-fashion brands. Additionally, despite the looming threat of climate change and rise in second-hand shopping, major fast fashion online retailers saw dramatic sales increases at the start of the pandemic in 2020, while internet searches for “cheap clothes” shot up 46 per cent.
American anthropologist Ted Polhemus defines fashion as “not merely a change of styles of dress and adornment, but rather a systemic, structured and deliberate pattern of style change.” Industrial capitalism has ‘fashionalised’ style; the process whereby the fashion system appropriates subcultures and ‘anti-fashions’ (styles that arise in fixed, largely unchanging social environments) to create widely-affordable cultural trends.
For some of us at USyd, clothing is a peripheral concern amid the chaos of university life. But for many like myself, it is an irreplaceable expressive medium and daily mood determinant. Notably distinct from the protean beast that is fashion, clothing comprises a frontier of the self; the single intercepting layer between our bodies and the social world. Far from neutral, it is a declaration of what we are – or more importantly, what we wish to be.
I interviewed five USyd students about fashion and style on the Camperdown campus, who all consider these things to be an important part of university life. They reveal how class, local area, subculture, and sexuality form a sartorial code of belonging and identity unique to USyd and its surrounding suburbs. Akin to the original ‘prep’ styles of the early 20th century, fashion in the university space often dictates the nature and degree of one’s sense of belonging to campus – and, by extension, one’s supposed entitlement to its elite education and inheritance of tradition.
While these divisions may seem innocuous, their invisibility lends them power to shape the interactions, impressions, and relationships we have at university.
BELONGING ON CAMPUS
All the USyd students I spoke to linked clothing to a sense of belonging (or lack thereof) on campus – be it to clubs and societies, colleges, faculties, or subcultures. They noted that their on-campus style is dictated by the activities, locations and crowds they anticipate encountering during the university day. Unsurprisingly, the centralisation of fashion in daily life is largely gendered, with woman-identifying individuals often feeling more pressure to conform to trends and construct a social image through their clothing.
Emma*, a cis female Architecture student, suggests that there is a divide between “fashionable parts” of campus where clothing’s aesthetic value is lauded — such as the runway of Eastern Avenue, or popular hangout areas like Courtyard Cafe— and less fashionable ones, where practicality and comfort is a priority. These include hands-on tutorials and workshops.
She cites events, locations, and C&S meetings where Arts students, or those involved in Arts-adjacent extracurriculars like drama and performance, typically congregate.This suggests a greater proclivity for dress-consciousness amongst these crowds and degrees (though certainly not exclusive to them).
Similarly, Bella*, a cis female Arts/Law student, suggests that clothing often reflects the degree or major one is enrolled in.
“I would say between my politics classes and the kinds of outfits and clothes of the people there versus my law classes, it’s definitely more alternative indie dressing versus that more classic private school dressing.”
But the terms ‘fashionable’ and. ‘unfashionable’, ‘indie’ versus. ‘classic private school’, are often elusive, nodding to a pre-established code legible to a localised few. To understand them, we must consider the geographical and social context of USyd’s fashion landscape itself.
MAPPING USYD’S FASHION LANDSCAPE
Valentina is a former USyd student who runs the Instagram page @usydfashion, which catalogues unique looks on campus and has over 1k followers. She describes USyd’s fashion landscape as “very eclectic… in comparison to other university campuses.” While a “basic look” of “Nike Air-force Ones” and “black skinny jeans” might be more popular at other Sydney-based universities, she says USyd students are typically “more left of centre” and “more daring” due to the Camperdown campus’ proximity to the Inner West.
She refers to Newton’s thrift-shops and Glebe markets, where items like Doc Martens, flared jeans, cords, ‘90s band tees, and baggy cargos are commonly worn and purchased. As melting pots of radical history and rich subculture despite their gentrification in the last few decades, these suburbs and their styles are synonymous with a certain socio-economic and cultural identity. Specifically, an identity that is working-class, queer, culturally-diverse, and politically left-leaning.
Luke* says vintage fashion trends and eccentric pieces can be important subcultural identifiers on campus. They are queer and gender non-conforming, describing their style as “eccentric vintage 70s-90s era androgynous semi-formal, with elements of modern queer camp style.” Unlike others, they note that “[alternative] fashion serves as a symbol of queer belonging” on USyd campus.
“Queer campus-goers often go to lengths to fit into eccentric fashion norms – you will see a lot of Doc Martens,” they say. They add that a “classic straight person look [on campus] is rather casual” comprising “brand jeans and a shirt or jumper.”
However, the proliferation of thrifted items and ‘alternative’ fashion on USyd campus is also linked to the broader Inner West gentrification oand the recent boom in thrifting.
The second hand clothing market is expected to grow 11 times faster than the broader retail clothing sector by 2025 according to a 2021 ThredUp report, nudged by increasing environmental concerns and the glamorisation of ‘vintage’ by celebrity figures. Ironically, this is driving second hand clothing prices up.
“A lot of statement pieces on campus start off as artsy things… but then they go over to the other side [mainstream]. Things like Doc Martens, RM Williams, Vivienne Westwood pearl necklaces…” says Alice*, a cis female Arts student from Northern Sydney.
Seminal anthropologist Dick Hebdige in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) suggests the “incorporation” of subcultural styles into the mainstream by industrial capitalism, such as queer and youth styles of the late 20th century (e.g. punk), often dissolves their confrontational, counter-cultural semiotic power.
Despite this, Alice suggests that different socio-economic crowds are still distinguishable through what people wear. “You can often tell from what people wear, one; how they politically-identify, and two; what part of campus they’re from.”
THE ROLE OF CLASS AND SUBURB
It’s no secret that USyd hosts some of Australia’s wealthiest high-school graduates. Of USyd’s 60,000 enrolled students in 2021, only around 2700 came from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. An Honi report from the same year revealed that “affluent LGAs on the North Shore such as Mosman, Lane Cove and Hunters Hill, as well as the Eastern Suburbs LGAs of Woollahra and Waverley, are heavily overrepresented as a proportion of their populations, indicative of significant class disparities within the student body.” This means that USyd is a decidedly wealthy campus.
Everyone agreed that wealth visibly influences USyd’s fashion landscape.
Bella says that clothing has informed her initial impressions of peers in class, where being “well dressed” or donning “activewear” often indicates one’s intelligence, confidence to speak up, and how serious one is about the class.
At USyd, the class-based associations we attach to certain items and styles do not occur in isolation. They are embedded in the context of Sydney’s wealthy suburbs, schools, and upper-classes, as well as the online cultures of celebrity, social media, and hyper-consumerism that the young and wealthy increasingly aspire to (as opposed to fixed, traditionally-wealthy styles like ‘prep’).
Alice suggests that the pressure to “look good” manifests itself in “the uni social scene”.
“Not even at uni, but at uni parties as well…. I think at uni parties, most of the girls are in an outfit that’s like $300, and that’s just kind of the norm these days.”
In her opinion, clothing often reflects the area of Sydney one is from, becoming an identifier of class and a map of the private school social networks formed prior to, and reinforced at, university.
“I think people from the Eastern suburbs and the North have a very similar dress code, including a lot more linen and neutral colours. On a night out, the guys all look the exact same, wearing Ralph Lauren button-downs with RM [William]s.”
Bella, who attends a residential college, concurred with the pressure to dress up in uni social settings, pointing to the regular formal events that college students attend.
“There’s definitely that pressure there,” she said. “You need a new formal dress and it’s always ‘what brand? What kind of dress? Have you worn it before? Has anyone else seen it before?”
“Is it a Christopher Esper dress or is it something from Myer? I think then also on top of that, it’s like, what jewellery are you wearing? What bag are you wearing?”
For Bella and various residential college environments, these questions act as a proxy to determine belonging and class.
“I do think it is mitigated though, because everyone at college is really generous with sharing clothes,” she adds.
In addition, merch plays a significant role in crafting a sense of belonging and visual identity on campus. From college sweaters to SUDS T-shirts, merch can often cost upward of $40 or $50 per-piece on average.
“It’s definitely a big sense of you being a part of the community,” says Bella. “If you walk around with your debating jumper on or with your merch from being in the play, or being in the footy team, I think that’s definitely a kind of indication of like, yeah, I belong here. Yeah, I have a place here. I’m a part of the extracurriculars… But you could only really have that merch if you can afford to pay for it.”
However, according to Luke, the choice to dress expensively and thrift less is not always indicative of class, but rather a conscious socio-cultural construction of identity, in explicitly referencing one’s class.
“I don’t think interest in fashion correlates with wealth necessarily as I exclusively thrift my clothes, even though I come from a middle-class family.I personally don’t see the value in expensive brands.”
Emma adds: “I think there’s an equal amount of value to someone wearing a normal-ass white shirt in a specific way, as opposed to the teddy-bear Ralph Lauren jumper…. You’re gonna have a wealth divide anywhere you go.”
Despite the gap between prep culture and the modern university, clothing still demarcates social, economic, and cultural groupings at USyd that affect a sense of belonging and identity on campus. Clothing and elite education remain deeply enmeshed, and will continue to subtly reinforce socio-economic stratifications at our university and in Sydney unless we actively disrupt them.
As Emma aptly states: “Clothing is made to be worn, and the only value it should have is the value [you give it].”
Though this may never be the case, it is definitely a sound aspiration.
*Interviewees’ names have been changed for privacy.