Every day, from the time we groggily hit the snooze buttons on our alarm clocks ’til we fall back into bed at night, the choices we make define us. It’s not just the big, life-altering decisions that have the power to change our lives forever; the small things, the little details, that make us who we are can contribute to how others perceive us and function as a sign of who we are, who we have been, and who we might grow to be. While it might seem cliché to say that first impressions are everything, appearances at first sight do play a large role in such self-determination. And it is clothes which contribute to the making of our appearances.
Attending Oxford, a university in an ancient city more than 3,500 miles away from the place I call home, has only given greater clarity to my understanding of this fact. Born in New York and raised in Connecticut, the values I was imbued with as a child and the culture I was immersed in for eighteen years made me the person I am today. They also marked me with attributes that set me apart when I was transplanted here, to a community less homogenous in addition to being foreign.
The very clothes I wear out of long-formed habit are some of the most visible markers, from head to toe. Starting with grosgrain-ribbon headbands, followed by polo shirts and oxfords covered by cable-knit sweaters and Shep shirts, which sit atop madras skirts or Nantucket reds or corduroy or khaki across which a pattern of tiny whales march, culminating in Sperry Top-Siders, scuffed and patched with duct tape, or L.L. Bean moccasins.
Even seasonal pieces serve as indicators, whether tartan wool pea coats in winter or brightly patterned Lilly Pulitzer shift dresses in summer. Classic clothes which last forever are an all-encompassing hallmark, with wardrobe choices bypassing the trendy, tacky, and synthetic in favour of the durable and timeless. Monogrammed totes, J. Press ties, colourful flip-flops, and strands of pearls all blend together in an amalgam of prepdom.
Other, less obvious signs, from where you went to school and college, to your city or town of origin, to the sports you play or the places you’ve travelled, right down to your family and friends, are even truer gauges. But the attire you are garbed in forms a first impression, and can in itself give away many of these details, if the observer has something to connect them to. At home in New England or New York, up and down the eastern seaboard, this kind of appearance is a dead giveaway of such things.
But here in Oxford, there’s a little more of a mystery surrounding it, at both ends. Fellow Connecticut native Heather Mayer, a student at St. Hilda’s, says “it was strange at first to realize last Trinity term that the people around me weren’t also wearing madras skirts or Rainbow flip-flops.” Even though the knowledge that most of the world doesn’t dress like this and doesn’t care about people who do is always present, the actualization of this thought is somewhat more hard-hitting. According to Mayer, it can also be somewhat “refreshing”; when she looks at photographs from her time at Groton, a boarding school in New England, seeing all of the “skinny girls in Lilly Pulitzer and Jack Rogers with straight hair” can seem suffocating, after being in a more diverse environment.
For those who subscribe to the lifestyle which was memorialized in the 1980 tongue-in-cheek classic, The Official Preppy Handbook, and brought into the millennial era in this year’s True Prep: It’s A Whole New Old World, published by Lisa Birnbach, one of the original book’s authors, studying and living in Oxford can feel as if this new old world is still swirling around and settling into the new millennium. The best advice that can be given is to keep one’s attitude firmly tongue-in-cheek, just as the authors did; after all, preppies commandeered the Tea Party slogan for a farcical YouTube video well before anyone else in America did the same for political purposes!
In fact, the best course of action for preppies in Oxford attempting to explain their choice of wardrobe might be to direct friends to that video, which can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYKNJehC5Sk&feature=related. While they might do well to forewarn them of the exaggerated and highly ironic nature of many of the activities and much of the behaviour, the illustrative garments would be illuminating.