Long before casual Fridays were even a concept, the United States was ready to loosen its tie. A new book by Deirdre Clemente, associate professor of history at UNLV, argues that America’s path toward more versatile fashion and relaxed clothing styles began taking place more than a century ago — with college students leading the cultural charge.
“Casual dress is the uniform of the American middle class,” Clemente says. “On a global scale, casual dress is American dress. T-shirts, jeans, tennis shoes, sweaters — American college students popularized these styles now worn around the world.”
In Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style, Clemente recounts the sartorial history of upwardly mobile youth in institutions of higher learning — specifically that of students enrolled between the years of 1900 and 1970. Clemente’s research specialty is the 20th century, but her expertise has given her a prominent voice on all eras of fashion. In the pages of prominent publications such as The Atlantic, Newsweek, and The New York Times, she has weighed in on everything from period attire to Marco Rubio’s high-heeled boots and has served as a go-to media source for others whenever fashion trends finds their way into the news.
“I’m not a fashion historian,” she specifies. “I’m a cultural historian who studies fashion. I probably care the least about the clothing itself. I care about the people in the clothing, and it’s a different set of documents that tells that story.”
Clemente is also associate director of UNLV’s public history program, an initiative aimed at providing students with a background in the practical application of historical research. Among her responsibilities is setting up partnerships within the Las Vegas community that allow program participants to integrate coursework with real-world “applied-history” opportunities, typically with groups such as Preserve Nevada, a UNLV-affiliated nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of state historic and cultural sites.
Dress Casual highlights a convergence of fashion and consumerism at six universities that served as Clemente’s case studies: Princeton, Radcliffe, Penn State, Spelman, Morehouse, and the University of California at Berkeley. This sample, she says, provided a broad perspective for analysis of the role of race, class, and gender. Collectively, it’s a story of how changing student demographics began to alter the culture of higher education, a change that soon came to influence the taste and cultural practices of America’s burgeoning middle class. In many ways, she argues, it was a transition reflected in and driven by the advent of casual clothing.
In the early to mid-20th century, with higher education opening doors to students other than white elites, clothing manufacturers sent “trends scouts” to college campuses to figure out what the younger generation was into. This marketing research produced a trove of documents that provided the bulk of her source material — order forms, trip reports, internal memos, design sketches — as textile capitalists attempted to profit from those who would later be labeled as the Greatest Generation, and then the Baby Boomers.
Complementing these were personal letters. An early example is one from a Cal Berkeley student at the beginning of the 20th century, a young woman writing to her mom saying her “patent kid leather” shoes weren’t rugged enough to handle Berkeley’s hills and unpaved streets. Another student, this one a Princeton undergraduate on a tight budget, wrote to his mother almost daily about his fashion anxieties.
“These student letters were so valuable. They showed the real personal side of these clothes, and they help us understand the real and practical use of clothes that would spark the casual fashion trends,” Clemente says.
American casualness came from necessity, she contends, as students sought more control of their time. This led to the adoption of sportswear — sport coats, tennis shoes, cardigan sweaters, and eventually shorts — allowing students to go from one activity to the next without having to change clothes or, in the case of sweaters, identify with a particular sports club. The trends started with the moneyed elites, who were more comfortable snubbing authority (wearing golf knickers in the dining hall, for example).
By the time middle-class students at state universities began adopting a casual approach, however, a backlash from school administrators ensued. This only served, Clemente writes, to inject a spirit of rebellion in some of fashion choices.
Regional differences existed, too, Clemente says. “The sartorial proprieties of Eastern society, such as wearing an evening coat with formal wear, never traveled far.”
At the historically black colleges Clemente examined, African-American students experienced a much different dynamic. “Proper dress” was deeply ingrained in the academic culture of these institutions, with more advanced students tending to enforce a strict dress code. It took years before casualness found its way into dorm rooms.
For Clemente, it was a passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald that sparked her initial interest in early 20th century history and the related styles. Since arriving in Las Vegas, Clemente has been a sought-after consultant on historical projects, including the Oscar-winning film The Great Gatsby. She also wrote text for a Sinatra exhibit at the Las Vegas Convention Center, consulted on a display of Liberace’s most flamboyant costumes, and has helped set up exhibits and student projects with the Nevada State Museum.
Clemente’s most recent project involves an exhibition at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas. Ready to Roar: Women’s Evening Wear in the Prohibition Era, opened in November and runs through January 2017. It presents pre-flapper fashions from the 1920s that include hats, pins, scarves, skirts with (slowly) rising hemlines, and the stylistic metal accessories of Art Deco.
During the previous year, UNLV students took a key role in making the exhibit a reality. They used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media to crowdsource authentic items for display. In the spring, they worked to research the history of the period. During the summer, they served museum internships. In the fall, they teamed up with Mob Museum curators to bring the exhibition to life.
“Las Vegas is such a dynamic place, without a lot of roadblocks getting in your way when you have a good idea,” Clemente says. “I have more people who want exhibitions than I am able to fill.”