Since starting my MA at Central Saint Martins, I’ve felt the pressure to dress up as never before. At the university where I studied for my BA, everyone would turn up in joggers and hoodies and not bat an eyelid. Still, I attached the concept of wearing and owning ‘cool’ clothes to my self-worth. The less cool and more basic I look, the more my self-confidence takes a hit. But then, paradoxically, if I’m dressed too far out of my comfort zone, I feel exposed, awkward, and silly. There’s a relentless tension between the two.
“There’s a certain level of status attached to what you wear at fashion school. If you look cooler you’re more likely to get photographed, get picked for interviews and opportunities.”
To some extent, there’s a certain level of status attached to what you wear at fashion school. If you look cooler you’re more likely to get photographed, get picked for interviews and opportunities; even tutors might comment and shame students for their style choices. There’s more than we realise going on based on how we look and the way we dress. I’ve felt the pressure to invest in designer clothing, such as Chopova Lowena and Molly Goddard, if only to demonstrate that I’m aware of these types of brands. When I put these clothes on and attend classes in them, I feel a dopamine hit, knowing I look good and ‘stylish’. But then, the next day comes along, and I feel the pressure to source and put together an outfit just as good as the day before. Is that a pressure that’s a figment of my imagination or is it created by the hothouse atmosphere of my fashion school? I’m still working out the answer.
Dissecting their own individual experiences, we spoke with four students from across the globe who shared their thoughts, challenges, and anxieties around dressing up for fashion school and how they’re navigating the trope of “art school uniform” through their personal wardrobes.
Rose, MA Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins
It’s actually no worse for me at fashion school than it was when I was studying Neuroscience. I’ve always felt this pressure, particularly because I’m very insecure as a person anyway. A way for me to feel better about myself is through the way I dress. At CSM it’s kind of a given that everyone’s going to dress up. Yeah, there’s pressure, but then again where isn’t there pressure to look your best? On another level, it is quite crippling when you can’t find something that you look good in. It is frustrating when you put on an outfit and it doesn’t work, but we have to remember that people don’t really care. People don’t actually judge that much. It’s more about you judging yourself.
I do think the addiction to brands is a bit crazy. An example is that I actually have a very good friend who has a tattoo of the Tabi boot on them. Vintage clothing is okay, but god forbid you bought something from Topshop or Pretty Little Thing because you couldn’t afford to get a white vest top from some super-cool, super sustainable brand. Supporting unethical brands is undeniably an issue that should be addressed, but every person goes through their journey personally. Judging someone by their clothes in an environment that is supposed to be all about self-discovery can be very toxic and make someone feel inadequate and embarrassed when they shouldn’t be.
I’ve spent so much time curating my wardrobe that’s made up of pieces from charity shops and Depop and my boyfriend’s resale brand, so generally, every piece in my wardrobe now is treasured and has a story behind it – which I think is more important than which retailer it’s from. It’s a very difficult subject. At the end of the day, we’re just talking about a piece of fucking branded material.
“When you’re new to somewhere like university and still trying to figure out yourself and what you’re doing, it’s easy to feel judged by almost everything and everyone.”
Abby, BA Fashion Design at Parsons School of Design
During my first year, I felt the most amount of pressure. Then every year it became less and less. That might have something to do with students feeling like they somehow have to ‘prove themselves’ as fashion people through how they dress. To show they have taste or know how to style themselves and are familiar with niche brands. When you’re new to somewhere like university and still trying to figure out yourself and what you’re doing, it’s easy to feel judged by almost everything and everyone until you work out where and what you feel comfortable in.
As I got older and more confident in my work, it seemed to not matter so much about what I wore. I’ve never felt heavily pressured. I don’t think at my school there was this expectation to show up looking your best, but maybe others did feel like that. I felt the incredible freedom to wear whatever I wanted on campus. I always felt like I could wear whatever I wanted.
“Some people judged others about owning clothes from fast-fashion brands. I only learnt about the effects of these places while studying and I already owned so many pieces from these labels, so I felt ashamed to wear them.”
Monika, MA Textiles and Soft Systems Specialism at Royal College of Art London
I don’t really think there’s such a term as ‘stylish’. I never felt this pressure. But there was a sort of expectation to be unique and have an original style that expressed your personality. Because of the growing awareness around concerns such as sustainability and ethics in fashion, some people judged others about owning clothes from fast-fashion brands. I only learnt about the effects of these places while studying and I already owned so many pieces from these labels, so I felt a little bit ashamed to wear them.
That being said, I don’t think looking ‘cool’ or ‘stylish’ has anything to do with demonstrating your fashion knowledge. Sometimes, students who were dressed in ‘basic’ and ‘normal’ outfits were the ones producing the best designs, while those showing up head-to-toe in something crazy actually knew little about the design process.
I’m currently designing clothes for people on the autistic spectrum, so my perspective on the priorities of clothing has definitely shifted. Autistic fashion students and customers need to focus on the functionality and sensory aspects of their clothing, rather than whether they’re considered ‘stylish’ or not. Even though they’d like to look ‘cool’ and ‘fashionable’ in this industry, they need to focus on how they feel in their garments first; wearing something super voluminous or colourful or with raw surfaces can be irritating for them. This itself sort of limits their style and originality and, because of that, they can’t demonstrate this sort of expected aesthetic because they don’t look ‘extravagant’ enough. I just think that these hidden disabilities are something that most people don’t take into consideration when judging someone else’s fashion sense.
“It’s a huge stereotype to assume that everyone who has fashion knowledge and attends fashion school dresses incredibly.”
Linda, MA Contemporary Fashion Design at IFM Paris
During my Bachelor’s degree, I did feel the pressure to always dress my best and look ‘stylish’ because I felt like that was the given thing to do while attending a fashion class. Naturally, when discussing fashion, you expect everyone to turn up looking great and in their best clothes and that was the way you fitted in.
After a while, I started to feel more comfortable and just stopped caring. It’s a huge stereotype to assume that everyone who has fashion knowledge and attends fashion school dresses incredibly. Realistically, I’m a student; I can’t afford to invest in these big brands and, if I’m honest, I don’t actually like wearing all these branded clothes with their huge labels or obvious elements. I prefer subtle designs, which is probably why I don’t really worry about spending my money on the more expensive, obvious labels. I also definitely don’t think that your fashion knowledge has to be reinforced by what you’re wearing; you can be great at your degree while wearing whatever you want, not what people expect you to be wearing.
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