Culture //

The Transformation of the Collegiate Wardrobe

This cognitive synonymity of “Ivy League” with the milieu of upper class privilege is most prominent in the way in which the man is dressed.

Art by Katie Hunter

When you think of the term “Ivy League”, you may picture a young, white man who looks like he just walked out of a Ralph Lauren ad. He’s probably leaning against an oak tree, gazing wistfully at a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. A big red building might be prominent in the background. The words Yale or Harvard are emblazoned somewhere in the image, but may as well be plastered on the man’s forehead. This cognitive synonymity of “Ivy League” with the milieu of upper class privilege is most prominent, however, in the way in which the man is dressed. You can practically smell the trust fund on his tailored blazer and boat shoes.  

“Ivy League” is not just a cliché of the 90s Hollywood movie, but an important trend where the symbolic value of clothing — indicating status and institutional affiliation — speaks louder than the garments themselves. Today, the fashion choices of USyd students converse with this visual language, making them just as identifiable on campus as the aforementioned Ivy Leaguer… if he had charitably visited a regular college. Their clothing is understandable — referring to a specific world and a set of meanings, even if we don’t consciously realise it.

The collegiate styles of the American mid-century are underpinned by “trad” or “preppy”’ clothing items: loafers with white socks, cropped wool trousers, relaxed button downs, the three button blazer, sweaters draped over the shoulders and tied at the neck. This look of luxury cements their position within renowned institutions of academic excellence and political clout, and creates a distinct “couture” uniform.

Although not replicating the aesthetic properties of the Ivy League wardrobe, USyd college students also denote their class through pieces only accessible to those who belong (or whose families belong) to a specific income bracket. They may sport fine gold chains and hoops, thick cotton tank tops, low socks and Veja sneakers — all subtle, but telling markers of their financial status. 

Yet, what distinguished the Ivy League closet from other upper-crust attire is the way in which the students played with these material markers of wealth: rolling up sleeves, layering shirts over jumpers, rolling chinos to hit just below the knee. By undermining the monetary value of their clothing by cutting, reshaping and repurposing garments, it would simultaneously reinforce their status as they appear effortless and relaxed in the comforts of their privilege. They could afford to ‘deconstruct’ these very symbols of status and wealth.

Again, this is replicated by the Sydney college inhabitants, dressing down their ‘preppy’ attitude with a laid-back spirit. Accessories consist of finer things with mundane purposes. Frank Green drink bottles personalised in a pastel colourway, an elusive demonstration of climate activism while providing a premium water-drinking experience. To adorn the ears, a pair of AirPod Pros. And for the men, an R.M Williams belt that’s suitable for the classroom or a quick trip to the family farm. The ease of slipping on Birkenstock Bostons with a SIR. The Label silk skirt or a Marc Jacobs crossbody over a Mr. Winston Sport jumper, surmises the graceful nonchalance of the USyd college wardrobe and its American forebearer. Achieving a look of “casual affluence” and sustaining the legacy of the Ivy.  

The social language articulated by the American old Ivy, now renegotiated by college students, asserts the same sophistication and informality. Their approach to dress is derivative of their shared contexts of social and financial leverage — demonstrating the unwavering influence of institutions as signposts for group identity. 

Where the Ivy League style is globally commended for its modernisation of conventional “old-money” wears, USyd college students are not offered the same appreciation. Drawing their wardrobe from the limbo between the elite and the commoner, their style is underpinned by a non-commitment to proving that they are blue blood, born and raised, and looking cool regardless.