The outside world often perceives college students as a mass of sweatpants-wearing, ramen-eating teenagers. Walk into any college bookstore and you’ll see what I mean — at least about the first part. Baggy sweatpants and cozy, oversized sweatshirts are always front and center. The outfit symbolizes the “I’m too busy and tired to care” look. College catalogs are filled with smiling students sitting contentedly in their baggy alma mater apparel.
At Penn, however, I often find myself wading through a sea of designer bags, three-piece suits and grungy-hip clothes as I walk down Locust Walk. Most people look far more put-together than the average college student. During my first three or four weeks here, it really puzzled me as to why people seem to put so much effort into their outfits. Even seemingly “effortless” outfits seem to be unusually put-together.
As a transfer student, I have two campus cultures to compare. At Johns Hopkins University, the college I previously attended, people dressed pretty casually. Maybe that’s because Hopkins has a suburban campus rather than one situated adjacent to a booming metropolis. There may be something more to the laid-back culture there. It’s entirely possible that most colleges are perennially casual while Penn students just love to dress up. It’s equally plausible that there is a small subset of students here who have perfected the art of “see and be seen” or, as it’s commonly called, SABS.
What do I think about a campus culture that revolves around something as subtle as the clothes we wear? As someone whose reflections are based on just under two months of circumstantial observations, I think that there is something perverse about the tendency to dress to impress on a college campus. College students already know that they’re competing against almost all of their peers, so visual reminders like clothes just exacerbate the almost cutthroat nature of the undergraduate experience.
Most people who participate in SABS-ing do it to attract attention to themselves and their group of friends. Those who participate in it make up a small but noticeable portion of the undergraduate community. The best way for people who are bothered by it to not let SABS culture get to them, is to ignore it. By giving it the attention it does not deserve but so badly wants, students are just fueling the fire.
On a larger scale, SABS-ing makes us collectively care about the superficial. Basing somebody’s self worth almost exclusively on their looks or the groups that they are in is, in a word, immature. It keeps us stuck in an almost high school-like mentality. When we reflect upon our college experiences later in life, we will find that they were solely for the sake of keeping up appearances rather than for forming meaningful friendships and participating in worthwhile activities.
Initially, I thought that people dressed nicely here did so almost exclusively to display their wealth. Penn is objectively a place full of well-off students, so it would only make sense to think that. After a few more weeks, though, I have come to think that there is something more at play than just wearing nice outfits to uphold the stereotype of the typical Ivy League school. Status is what really wins at the end of the day. It’s not just wealth that people want to exhibit within Penn, but their status. Even the more casual outfits bleed exclusivity. M&T and Greek life sweaters are just a few. Sports team swag also has a place on the list.
Take the Hogwarts Houses shirts, for instance. These shirts reinforce the herd mentality and separateness of each school within Penn. It’s also worth mentioning that the shirts themselves are rather expensive for what might just be Fruit of the Loom, so those who wear them practically scream, “Look at me!” It may not be as in-your-face as a Louis Vuitton bag or a Burberry scarf in terms of expressing wealth or status, but the combination of school affiliation and owning the shirt itself speaks volumes.
At a school like Penn, there’s something unavoidable about the tendency to display status. We’re an Ivy, after all. The best way to deal with all of this flaunting is to both embrace it and ignore it. This probably sounds counterintuitive. What I mean by embracing it is that you should be happy that you go to a place full of opportunities and people who are ambitious enough to seize them. On the other hand, this school is just so big that you can get by without falling prey to the few you see in status-bearing apparel. This is the place for you to mold yourself, not for others to mold you.
ALEX SILBERZWEIG is a College sophomore from New York, studying mathematics and economics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Brutally Honest” usually appears every other Tuesday.