Campus Culture/Couture

Students display a variety of colors and footwear at Washington and Lee University's Convocation.
Students display a variety of colors and footwear at Washington and Lee University's Convocation. (Kevin Remington/W&L University Photographer)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007

By the second week of the school year, Siobhan Lomax knows to expect Washington and Lee University freshmen in her boutique, all looking for the same thing. "They walk in and say, 'I had no idea this campus wears so many dresses!'

"When they come here, they don't all look alike," Lomax said. But by now, she said, they're wearing the same Lacoste polo shirts, the same skinny jeans, the same cashmere sweaters. And they wear lots of dresses -- strapless dresses for school events, cocktail dresses for fraternity socials, jersey dresses for class.

Most colleges have a look that reflects the campus culture. Some have a genteel Southern vibe, like W&L in Lexington, Va.; some are overtaken by micro-minis and glam sunglasses; some are all hiking boots and fleece. At some places, the style is so ingrained that the students are easily identifiable: Howard University students often get recognized in Washington shops. They have that glam Howard look.

The look matters, because it helps schools shape their identities: Visitors are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the way students look. Colleges spend millions on marketing, hoping to create an image and a sense of place that attracts students, many of whom travel to campuses this time of year. But often, something they can't control will make the most enduring impression.

"Fashion's a clue to political leaning and culture," said Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. "It clues kids into what they can't figure out from all the publications and Web sites: These kids are like me, or not."

Sure, there are a staggering number of variations (popped collars, Muslim abayas, purple hair, the cape that one guy always wears) and near-universal standards (flip-flops, jeans) on every campus. But most residential schools are little worlds unto themselves, and as in all such places, people start to grow alike.

It's not surprising: Campuses are full of people wanting to make friends and fit in. They're changing from teenagers to adults, figuring out who they want to be. And they can wear whatever they want to wear, without parents' rules or bosses' expectations.

A zillion things shape the look: Students at business schools add starch; those at art schools deconstruct. Students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire bundle up; those at the University of Miami strip down.

The riding clothes at Virginia's Sweet Briar College, with its popular equestrian program, would look strange amid the concrete buildings at the University of the District of Columbia. And women's tops that seem chic at George Washington University's urban D.C. campus could shock at Patrick Henry College, with its emphasis on Christian values, in rural Purcellville.

"Colleges all have personalities," said Ken Huus, Sweet Briar dean of admissions "and students are drawn to that. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." When students visit, they're trying to figure out what life would be like there. Most students know in a matter of minutes."

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When Shandrilya Lewis, who had thought of herself as a stylish person in high school in Richmond, first got to Howard, she thought: I need to step up my game.

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