One professor at Duke University calls the topic of fashion fascinating, but says, "we like to concern ourselves with serious things." Another hesitates, then says boldly, "talk to Dr. Susan Schiffman, she dresses nice." Students chorus their accord. "I don't pay much attention to clothes. I wear what's warm and comfortable," says a junior from Connecticut.
They protest too much. College campuses today - and Duke's a good example - care a lot about fashion. They use fashion to align themselves with sororities or fraternities, ingratiate themselves with potential employers, and express themselves as individuals (jocks, grinds, preppies, outdoorsmen, intellectuals). Overall, they mark themselves as the new conservatives of the late 1970s.
At the Duke University, a private institution with a few more students (41 percent) from the northeast than from the south (39 percent) and an annual tuition package, including room and board, of $6,300, the conservative swell reported on other campuses across the country is as clear in the classroom as in the dress.
The Ivy-League, preppie look has taken a battering since the 1950s, but it has actually survived the jeans generation well. The shetland sweater is around, but now it's trimmer and comes in bright colors as well as the old derigueur beige, gray and navy.
Camel's hair boy coats are longer, softer, often belted. Clogs and Topsiders have replaced the penny loafer. Circle pins have given way to gold chains, tiny gold pendants or stickpins. Hair is long, with occasional Farah Fawcett curls, or short a la Dorothy Hamill, but far from the rigid sets of 20 years ago. Though some seniors say they wear eye makeup less regularly than four years ago, you'll still see it at breakfast in the dining room (called the Blue and White).
The button-down shirt is still around rarely buttoned at the top. It's now often a layer that includes a sweater, even an alligator shirt. If a guy wears a tie, it's because he has a job interview, or his fraternity pledge requires a one-day-a-week tie - even with his tennis shorts, if that's on his schedule.
Jeans are no longer anti-establishment but cleaned up and integrated as part of the classic gear because they are comfortable, practical, strong, reasonably priced, a neutral color - and sexy.
The parka is universal. Its only serious competition, a latecomer, is the quilted vest, sometimes worn as a layer over or under something else. "The vest has the double advantage of being macho, and yet enhancing the figure," says Duke history professor Peter Wood. Steve Givens, a graduate student, sees the women in quilted parkas as saying, "This coat may be pretty ugly and make me look fat but I can wear it because I know I look pretty. Underneath it all, I'm really beautiful."
Parkas are the classier, more expensive update of the army surplus gear of the late 1960s. Like the plaid shirts, hunting boots, sweatshirts, backpacks and the rest of the L.L. Bean-style paraphernalia, they suggest an alliance with the outdoors, a traditional chic, an expression of awareness of the energy shortage, ecology and inflaion and a demand for long-lasting, quality clothing. How you wear these clothes is often dictated by fads. Currently, a hooded sweatshirt should be worn under a down vest or a jeans jacket, with the hood worn outside.
Such quiet clothes, like quiet classrooms, let the independents stand out. At Duke, it can be just an unusual hat like a feed cap, the traditional baseball-like cap won by farmers, usually touting the brand name of a tractor or feed instead of a team. These days some endorse beer brands or even college insignia.
"Very macho," says Prof. Wood, recalling the recent farmers' protest in Washington, where an entire parade of tractor drivers wore caps. "It's like a kid from the farm putting on his armor and saying, 'you can take the boy out of the country, but . . . '"
"I guess it shows my rural connection," laughs James McMahon, who owns several and says he sometimes wears them to hide his messy hair the first class of the day."
The interview-bound job applicant boasts another kind of uniform. Out come the three-piece corduroy suits, shirts and ties; the women turn up in class in blazers and skirts, just like books like John Molloy's "Dress for Success" tell them to wear. Vogue magazine and Gentlemen's Quarterly, normally hidden under phone books, surface and are scoured before job interviews.
Because jobs are scarce - the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that between 1975 and 1985 there will be 950,000 more college graduates than jobs requiring degrees - students sign up for far more interviews than they are genuinely interested in. They wait hours just to sign up and then cut classes for such meetings.
But Prof. Ann Scott of the history department advises otherwise. She cites one male student who has been to 12 interviews, never wearing a tie, and has been offered a job each time.