High school is a time when many young people discover their individuality. They pursue sports, arts and academics and figure out who they are, who their friends are and where they fit in. In past years, fashion has played a role in the differentiation of school cliques, setting people apart. 

But now, walking into Millburn High School, a public school with no uniform, many young girls dress the same as their peers. Sweatpants, hoodies and comfortable clothing are the norm. 

“I feel like when I came to Millburn, my style changed a bit because the way people dressed here rubbed off on me,” said Catherine Bazizi, a freshman at Millburn.

According to Bazizi, certain articles of clothing are so popular that nearly everyone owns them: Nike tech socks, leggings and Uggs.

The lack of unique style at Millburn is perhaps weighed down by the climate of conformity. But, conformity has social benefits. In her article titled, “Why Your Teen Insists on Dressing Exactly Like Her Friends,” psychologist Stephanie Newman explains it as an example of mirroring, a way to bolster one’s self-esteem: “If someone feels unsure but sees him or herself reflected back in another’s appearance, words or actions—say in identical clothing—that person feels pumped up, less insecure,” she explains.

Millburn must have a very secure student body because everyone dresses the same. However, it wasn’t always this way. Millburn was very different in terms of fashion in the 1980s. Cliques were a huge part of differentiation in fashion, and Millburn was no stranger to cliques around that time. 

“It was a time of expression, everything was big,” said Millburn alumna Jackie Exelbert of her time in high school during the 1980s. “People were more free, and felt they could walk around being able to dress the way they wanted without fear of judgment. We didn’t have social media, so people couldn’t compare themselves.” 

A look at the 1985 yearbook shows how people dressed in bright colors; patterns; accessories like hair bows, armfuls of bracelets and turned-up collars; and tailored pieces of clothing. No sweatpants were in sight. 

Today, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would ever dress so flamboyantly. Indeed, there are always some outside factors that impact school fashion. Politics, dress codes, uniforms and a global pandemic have had their role to play.

Uniforms in particular have helped high school girls express themselves, even in a climate where everybody is dressing the same.

“I was in high school in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and I was going to school with a uniform, but we were adding our own style to it,” said Defne Zaim, who attended a school that mandated a uniform. “We modified our skirts and socks and personalized our uniforms.”

Even girls who wear uniforms want to add personalization and make it their own, yet most people dress so similarly at Millburn that they might as well mandate a uniform.

Furthermore, COVID-19 may have had the biggest impact on how people at schools dress today. Because students were home all day, often in their beds, people wore much more comfortable clothing because of the remote learning. 

But the transition back to in-person school has not adjusted their need for comfort, since people still wear the same clothing they wore in the era of virtual learning. It will take some more years until people are wearing more distinguished clothing.

To some people, expressing themselves within a field of fashion is how they do it. That is why it is so important that high school girls dress the way that they want. 

Sweatpants were first created in the 1920s by Émile Camuset, founder of the French sports store Le Coq Sportif.