In many ways, attending the University of St Andrews makes me feel like I’m living a double life. Being from the United States and having gone to a high school where almost no one applies abroad, my university friends exist in a very separate sphere of my life from those I have at home. The specific people I know aren’t the only difference, though; in the academic-year-and-change since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a very marked difference in the social and aesthetic sensibilities of St Andrews’s ethos compared to that of my high school and home of New York City, and I know from conversations and observations that I’m far from the only one to feel this shift. This difference in sensibility and mindset permeates every facet of daily life here, but I find it manifests itself very sharply in one area in particular: the fashion of the student body.
In freshers week of my first year, I wore a white t-shirt reading “Matriarchy Now!” and some vintage Adidas tear-away track pants to my hall’s opening barbecue. That night I wore white knee-high lace-up boots and a men’s parachute-material jacket reading “Space Systems” to the hall social. I write now wearing a slightly oversized, dark blue knit turtleneck and frayed-edge Madewell jeans. I’ve never been one to bind myself too strictly to any one strongly defined style, but the first two outfits above are of a pretty distinctly different vein than my current one, and are also not ensembles I would now consider wearing on my average day out on the three streets. I noticed pretty quickly the pieces and overall aesthetics that were being displayed on the bodies around me were set in stark contrast to my own: Gucci loafers, Hermes Clic H bracelets, Goyard shoulder bags–all are items I see multiple times on my average trip to the library.
I’ll make a disclaimer that I’m not condemning designers on the whole; I respect the sphere of fashion that they occupy and recognize the huge scope of their influence on trends of the masses. What I am trying to get at here is that, in attempting to “blend in” and make friends in my first couple of months in a new country and school, I felt like there was a mold I just wasn’t fitting into–and my clothes revealed this simple truth. I wondered if I should start toning down my looks, but I didn’t even have a grasp on how to project the vibe I was seeing around me, and something sat uneasily with me about compromising my sense of self so that people would…what, consider me more worthy of getting to know?
“People thought ‘designer’ was like, Superdry and Hollister. That was what the ‘cool kids’ wore. Here,
it’s like, Gucci.”
This isn’t to say that other places don’t have their own codes of cachet. They do. New York definitely does, but I was familiar with that, and perceived it as more attainable. St Andrews feels different to me, mostly because I have never before been part of a circle where it is considered unironically cool to wear items that made you look like a young business professional and are also, well, blatantly and excessively expensive. Zofia Soch, a second year from a suburb of Philadelphia speaks similarly of her home environment: “My town is relatively upper-middle class and people have expendable income, kind of like they do here; but it’s interesting because, at home, people don’t spend money on designer clothing. Everyone owns Birkenstocks, which are expensive, but not ‘fashionable.’ I think, honestly, if you spent money [in my hometown] on a blatantly designer piece of clothing like how people do here with Gucci sneakers and stuff, people would laugh, like ‘that’s ridiculous.’” Soch also spoke to my feeling of being out of place in my first year freshers’ week outfits that would have been cool in New York: “People here care so much about designer clothing that you can get away with fashion risks and just wearing weird clothing if they’re designer, but if they’re not it just doesn’t seem right. So [everyone] kind of conforms to that.” Another second year, Lotte Latimer, who hails from Edinburgh, also highlighted the different sartorial ethos of her hometown: “The people I know at home mainly wear running clothes, because they’re comfortable. Like, leggings. People thought ‘designer’ was like, Superdry and Hollister. That was what the ‘cool kids’ wore. Here, it’s like, Gucci. It’s a very different level of designer.” Soch, like me, then acknowledged her hometown’s own versions of “clouty” clothing, but, also like me, maintained that there is a fundamental difference when compared to those of St Andrews: “In my high school, it was cool to brag about how little you spent on clothing. Someone would be like, ‘nice jeans,’ and you’d be like, ‘Goodwill. Two dollars.’ And then here if you say that, people are like, ‘…oh.’ Name brands are always cool, but, it’s different.”
But is it just a matter of class? There’s definitely purely aesthetic commonalities on display in St Andrews that are peddled from a number of midmarket brands; flare pants from Asos, puffer jackets from Urban Outfitters, big chunky sneakers from FILA, et cetera. But are these brands and people who patronize them just trying to emulate “bougie” or “posh” styles? These questions about St Andrews’ collective style can never be answered with certainty, in part because they apply to the development, formulation, and proliferation of, well, every fashion trend ever. Fashion is fun to casually follow and/or express yourself with, but, like any other social construction, there’s a science to it–and all the ongoing discourse that comes with that. I suspect that super-popular pieces and small trends in St Andrews are largely influenced by the previously referenced upper-crust sensibility, but this is not specific to our town and university; it is just amplified here for a variety of complex factors.
This all begs the question of how to maintain a degree of individuality on a daily basis with regards to your clothes–after all, it would be strange to feel like you’re putting on and taking off different costumes in your home and school environments. As for my own style transition, I would say that it happened gradually and mostly unconsciously, with implicit social pressure definitely playing some kind of part. This isn’t to say I dislike how I dress now–it’s just different. I definitely feel a little more free to experiment in New York, but I didn’t form my style there without influence from those around me, either. I don’t know which setting is more true to me, because I’m eighteen and I’m only starting to get a sense of what that means. I think the bottom line here is not to be overly intimidated by St Andrews’s glossy veneer, and to observe the fashions of those around you without immediate judgment to foster a supportive and multicultural environment true to the melting-pot composition of the student body.