Seem and Seams: Appearance and Identity

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 10/10/18 2:25am

This summer, a soon-to-be Dartmouth freshman texted me asking whether she should buy any articles of clothing in particular in preparation for her transition from our hometown of Lexington, Kentucky to the cold north. I replied with an emphatic no, reassuring her, “Dartmouth is the best because really and truly no one cares what you wear … I think anything that you buy will totally fly.” 

I remember receiving that text and composing that response. I remember staring at my phone after it had sent, unsure as to what the best response would have been, but definitely sure that what I had said did not qualify as correct. 

I think one could make the argument that Dartmouth rewards individuality. The ubiquity of “flair” — cacophonous clothing worn to themed social events — the sheer ridiculousness of Dartmouth Outing Club First Year Trips, the rigorous pursuit of passion found in every corner of this campus: these are all aspects of Dartmouth that scream “individual.” But they do so in unison, from places predefined as acceptably different. I would like to believe that “really and truly no one cares what you wear,” but I know that that’s far from true. 

It’s difficult to not care about something that is so vital to the way in which we interact with the world. The process of putting together of an outfit is highly intentional; the clothes we wear are a physical manifestation of who we feel we are. And as we adapt to new environments, changes in our sense of self are paralleled by changes in the way we dress.  

Bradley Hubsch ’19 is acutely aware of the way in which his style has evolved since coming to Dartmouth. 

“When I was in high school in Los Angeles, I wore all black, tons of band shirts,” he said. “I was involved with the punk scene in Los Angeles. That was a big part of my life and how I dressed.” 

This manner of dressing is at odds with the Dartmouth “look,” a reality that Hubsch’s fellow freshmen readily pointed out during his first year at the College. It is also decidedly not consistent with the way Hubsch was dressed at the time of our conversation: Patagonia fleece, navy pants and Adidas sneakers. 

This transformation was primed by his classmate’s comments and catalyzed by New Hampshire’s cold climate. 

“I bought this Patagonia sweater … and Bean Boots, because I didn’t know what boots to buy, so I asked my roommate,” he explained. 

As his high school clothes wore out, he made purchases that “fit the persona,” and the shift became permanent. 

Marimac McRae ’21 also felt the pressures of conformity when she came to Dartmouth from her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. 

“Nashville’s really big on boots,” she said. “We all have that one nice pair of Frye boots.” 

She’s had her pair of boots since she was 14. Leather with stitching and a shaft that dips in the front — they’re certainly not something you see a lot at Dartmouth, a fact that McRae had anticipated but not fully processed until she arrived on campus. She brought them with her, intending to wear them when she went out to the frats, until she saw the sea of Converse, Superga and Steve Madden sneakers.  She bought new shoes “immediately.” 

But she still has the boots. They’re in her dorm room closet — she “wouldn’t live somewhere without them,” she said. But now, she only wears them if she’s attending an event with a “country” theme. In McRae’s mind, her boots’ retirement symbolizes her transition from the South to New England.  

To replace them, she purchased heeled booties, which she now wears to fraternity parties. Like Hubsch’s band shirts, this decision has proved to be controversial. 

“I’ve definitely had a lot of people making fun of me for wearing heels in frats,” she said. “But it’s not authentically me to wear Converse.” 

Her grandmother had a rule for the women in her family: “If you were to go out, you were to wear boots, lipstick or lip gloss, and pearl earrings,” she said. “It comes from a sense of feminine power and authority … and the physical presentation of being prepared. It’s a sign of respect.” 

She doesn’t fully subscribe to her grandmother’s philosophy, but she does try to wear at least one of the three — boots, lip gloss or pearl earrings — at all times. Even in the frats.

“I feel like I’m staying true to myself and my grandmother and my mom, all the women in my family,” she explained. 

Her grandmother’s commitment to projecting preparedness beautifully illustrates social signaling theory, which holds that humans actively project information about themselves that otherwise may not be immediately obvious. Others can then form preliminary judgements and respond accordingly. This extrapolation is necessary in a world saturated with data. Stereotypes and paradigms allow us to sort people, places and things into buckets defined by past experience, without further thought, so that our minds can attend to other matters. 

Charlotte Chui ’20 likes to project strength. 

“Regardless of what formality of event I’m going to, I like to use makeup to portray myself as someone who’s strong … I like strong brows, I like cat eyes, I like contouring my cheeks,” she said. 

She equates bold makeup to looking put-together, though she acknowledges that not everyone may agree, particularly in Hong Kong, where she grew up. 

“In Asia, it’s a lot more about being soft, and pretty, and pale, and traditionally feminine,” she said, adding that people at home can tell just from her makeup that she went to an international high school and has lived in America. 

“I one hundred percent don’t look like the people at home,” she said. “But also here, I don’t think my style fits.” 

She described her style as “athleisure” born of convenience. Chui is part of several dance groups on campus and prefers to wear clothing that facilitates mobility.  

This style is decidedly different from the Dartmouth look, or, as Chui words it, “the rich woodsy people look.” 

When asked whether this bothers her, she said that she likes to think she doesn’t care, though on some level, she knows she does. However, she doesn’t care enough to change the way she dresses. 

Now, Hubsch regrets choosing to “dress like Dartmouth,” but feels that a switch back to his original style would be perceived as inauthentic, despite the fact that dressing in band shirts is more consistent with his sense of identity than is the way he dresses now. In fact, the discrepancy between the way in which he views himself and the way in which other perceive him creates a “weird cognitive dissonance,” he said.

Hubsch’s words carry echoes of McRae’s shoe dilemma. Both felt the opposing pulls of conformity and individuality. Both felt uncomfortable expressing themselves in a way that was inconsistent with their sense of self, yet both also felt uncomfortable expressing themselves in a way that was inconsistent with social norms. 

According to Jamie Ma ’20, at Dartmouth it’s not unusual to be aware of one’s appearance in relation to others.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in the idea of ‘What’s everyone else wearing?’ and ‘Will I look weird wearing this?’” Ma said. 

For this reason, Ma likes to deliberately wear “unconventional” pieces, often found in thrift stores. 

“I will feel a little self-conscious until I’m out walking around, and no one cares. And if they do care, then I don’t care about their opinion,” she explained. “That’s why I wear googly eyes. It’s a test.”

Wearing admittedly weird pieces fosters confidence, Ma said. Perhaps for this reason, she doesn’t feel that Dartmouth has a specific style, an assessment that is inconsistent with the views of Hubsch, Chui and McRae. In a survey sent out by College Pulse, 84 percent of male and 87 percent of female respondants agreed that Dartmouth does have a specific style. 

But Ma believes that the pressure to conform is more internal than external. For example, when she spoke to girls during rush, she “thought [she] would notice clothes more, but [she] was meeting so many people that [she] can’t even remember what they were wearing.” 

The Greek system plays an important role in the interaction between identity and appearance. When it comes to clothing, different houses have different norms.

“I am part of clubs and organizations, namely Bones Gate [fraternity], where people don’t dress like Dartmouth, and it’s normalized,” Hubsch said. “I design gear for Bones Gate that [is] intentionally not like how Dartmouth dresses.” 

Greek letters are featured prominently the wardrobe repertoire of the average Dartmouth student, and Hubsch believes this effect is particularly pronounced during fall term, when the sophomore class undergoes the rush process. Wearing fraternity or sorority gear is a way of “subconsciously project[ing] the relevance of [the] organization,” he explained. 

Chui is acutely aware of the fact that wearing her letters visibly ties her to her sorority and to the Greek system as a whole. As an international student and a woman of color, she has faced some criticism for participating in the Greek system. She has also watched her friends grapple with feeling the need to announce their sorority membership in order to prove a point. 

“I know girls on campus who feel like they ended up in a specific Greek house that people didn’t expect them to and therefore wear their letters almost to prove that they are part of it and to project that they were worthy, in campus’s eyes, to be in that space,” she said. “Specifically, women of color struggle with that.” 

Reconciling who we are, who we think we are and how we project that self-concept to the world is a murky, trying process. But ultimately, I stand by the advice I gave the ’22 who reached out to me. She didn’t need to buy any new clothes. 

She might feel she needs to buy new clothes, as did Hubsch and McRae. 

She might become newly aware of certain aspects of her identity and newly committed to dressing in a way that’s consistent with who she is, as was Chui. 

She might make a “casual return” to her high school dressing habits her senior year, as did Hubsch.

She might, like Ma, realize that most people don’t care what you wear, because their minds are far too preoccupied mulling over what other people will think of how they themselves look. 

The Dartmouth dress code is largely uniform. People judge other people based on appearances. It’s difficult to be different. Though individuality may seep through the cracks of Dartmouth’s homogeneity through traditions like flair culture and Freshman Trips, these facts are inescapable. But whether or not they are relevant to the choices we make is up to us.