During her visit to campus over Thanksgiving break, my sister commented on a distinctive look she had noticed among students at Yale. I was surprised that she had picked up on this so quickly despite the limited number of students on campus. The particularly Yale aesthetic is something I had been thinking about for some time but had been unable to define.
Students may be pigeonholed into various “types” — hipster, jock, prep, among many other labels you might choose — but there are certain underlying trends that unite them and are unique to this community.
The simplest way to put it is that, overall, people look quite natural around campus. Students who do place an emphasis on style favor a casual elegance — a look that may be well-composed but is not calculated or overly perfected. My sister described the styles she saw as “less ornamental” than those that might be seen elsewhere: little makeup, a subdued color palette and few high heels.
Coming from Switzerland, one of the things I immediately noticed in my first days at Yale was the absence of status-symbol accessories: the big watches, designer handbags and flashy shoes that are very popular in European cities. Jewelry is uncommon here and tends to be subtle — never too big or audacious. Attire is also much more modest: rarely very short, sheer or tight.
This amounts to a lack of presumption in self-presentation. I would even say that a disapproving eye is cast on individuals who look like they are trying too hard with their appearances.
This trend is one that is true to New England’s Puritan roots and can thus be distinguished from European style. But I think it goes beyond that.
Within this culture, there is also an interesting countercurrent: Yale’s fascination with ostentation and costume. We look forward to occasions when we can don bright colors and sparkly clothing or mask ourselves in the exaggerated attire of another era. We also enjoy the few individuals around who (usually very successfully) embellish themselves in an ornate fashion.
But this aesthetic relates to our campy sensibility and should be understood for its irony. We like it precisely because it is so explicit and admittedly self-created. It is taken with a sense of humor, a dandy sense of exaggeration. Unlike other forms of grooming, it does not try to enhance the natural self but rather moves individual appearance away from the natural and toward the synthetic: the theatrical is accepted over the subtle for the forwardness of its intention.
I think that this is a campus much concerned with the excesses of consumerism. We praise the intellectual principle of mind over matter, the Platonic ideal of moderation. The result is an aesthetic that favors individual expression but dismisses vanity. The style is quirky and haphazard, sometimes strong in statement but never too concerned with appearance as a form of self-enhancement.
This trend can sometimes be limiting, though. It seems that you have to align yourself with one end of the spectrum: either the very mild or very bold fashion statement. Either case is somewhat dismissive of fashion’s creative potential. The extreme position caricatures personal aesthetic, whereas the moderate position engages minimally with it.
Overall, I think that the Yale aesthetic succeeds in creating its own self-identity. But it would be nice to see the community taking fashion a little more seriously. It can be a lot of fun without being overbearing or all-consuming. For a university otherwise so dedicated to aesthetics, why not acknowledge fashion as an artistic endeavor?