Ravers, Skaters, Pirates and Satanists
Reflections on high school fashion
BY ANNA GRACE
Last Thursday my fourth period class was home to the following fashion statements; a large, soccer-ball-shaped hat and grungy sweatshirt, an impossibly short denim skirt worn with enormous, knee high, fuzzy boots, a girl in a tuxedo, and a T-shirt summarizing all major world philosophies by their take on "Shit happens." That was the front row.
As I scanned to the back, taking in every imaginable ensemble, I wondered what has happened to high school fashion, the days of the late 1980s that I remember so well from my own student days at South. Gone are the simple days of preps in trendy Gap attire and a few different cliques each in their own uniform of rebellion. Most students at South claim to "wear whatever they want." With a minimum of dress code rules (shirt and shoes are required, but the handbook makes no statement at all regarding pants) and parents eager to foster creativity and independent thinking, most students are wearing outfits of their choice. That doesn't mean the outfits are not chosen to convey a message. But what does an oversized, soccer-ball-shaped hat mean? I've assembled a few observations and reflections on various South Eugene trends to help the older folk — that is, those beyond 18 — decode high school fashion.
|WILL GENT NEEDS THAT BELT! PHOTO BY MORA REINKA|
|AYAKO SMITH AND JACKIE HALL LAYER IT PHOTO BY ZOEY BURGER|
|WALTER BENDER KEEPS WARM AND COOL PHOTO BY ANNA GRACE|
|JORDAN WILL RELAXES ON THE PIRATE DECK PHOTO BY MORA REINKA|
Colored Tag Holders
I was having a serious conversation with a particularly hip young man in an Abercrombie shirt and gazillion-dollar jeans. As we spoke, I noticed a little piece of green plastic sticking out from the shoulder of his shirt. It was a colored tag holder, the kind that Goodwill uses to differentiate prices. I figured he must have forgotten to cut it off, so when we'd finished with the business at hand I said, very politely, "I think you have a tag holder still attached to your shirt." He turned his head and tugged at it affectionately, "Yeah, the shirt's from Goodwill." Then after a pause he said proudly, "I hope you don't think I'd shop at Abercrombie & Fitch." No, of course not; this kid was too cool for the mall. Actual cool is buying expensive, trendy clothes at Goodwill, and leaving the tag in. Your shirt can say ABERCROMBIE six ways to Sunday so long as you didn't actually buy it there.
It will not surprise anyone to learn that there are a number of pirates attending class at South, wearing tri-cornered hats and medallions of Aztec gold around their necks. Aside from a general desire to be more like Johnny Depp (which is wholeheartedly supported by this author), what is the allure of emulating some historically filthy, rat-eating miscreant? These latter-day pirates seem to be tapping into a sense of adventure and purpose. A pirate is rebellious but not a slacker. A pirate might learn the material he's being taught, but he's not to be bothered with homework. And South's pirates are, of course, a highlight of any journey through the halls.
Hippie couture, as one eloquent student termed it, is expensive clothing worn to project an independent, free-spirit look. Everybody can see the irony in it, and no one would claim it as his or her style, yet it is pervasive. This is not to say that all hippie teens wear expensive clothing, not by a long shot (see the previous information on Goodwill tag holders). According to one student, youth often begin their high school careers at South with preppy clothing and ease into a more colorful, more casual hippie look as they get older. I think there is something in the very walls of South that inspires them to let their hair grow shaggy and wear a beaded necklace, and it is only the very strongest of souls who can reject it. I've noticed administrators wearing faded jeans with Birks — and not on a Friday. Yet there are plenty of students at South who reject their parents' Saturday Market style and dress unashamedly in name brands. There is something kind of cute about a little critter embroidered proudly on the breast of a shirt. Hollister, Abercrombie, Gap, Torrid, American Eagle and Old Navy remain the favorites.
Lack of Clothing
But what about the bare midriffs, six-inch miniskirts and completely visible undergarments? The last few years have been pretty bad, to the point that cleavage was redefined to include anything shown at the top or bottom of the shirt. I taught with a woman who believed that the future of teen fashion would eventually be to wear no clothes at all, just impractical shoes. I am glad to notice current trends proving her wrong. Although the bare midriff was declared dead by Vogue magazine in August 2000, Eugene girls are only now seriously giving it up, favoring long, tight shirts that come down to mid-hip, covering the tops of their low-rise jeans. Very short miniskirts are popular, but they are often worn with leggings, big, fuzzy Ugg boots or brightly colored, striped, polka-dotted Wellingtons. I do have a student who regularly wears an electric blue Victoria's Secret nightie to class, but she pairs it with jeans and the occasional dinosaur-print long johns top. Interestingly, girls who wear revealing outfits often have enormous personal power. They are the basketball and volleyball powerhouses, the student government leaders and star actresses. They're not afraid of anything, certainly not their own bodies. This is not universally true, but it is a fundamental change from 15 years ago.
The New Black
Long gone is the media myth of eight Goth teens in black skulking in the smoking area. (Can you believe South had a smoking area for students? It did. Not that I ever skulked there.) Black is everywhere and represents a lot more than an affection for Anne Rice and eyeliner. One of my most brilliant students has longish, scruffy hair and is most often wearing black. He always turns in his homework, has many friends and aces his tests in AP classes. Black clothing allows him to be a scholar without the taint of taped-up glasses and plaid pants. He's cool, without rich parents or basketball cred. Another student who dresses entirely in black is a self-proclaimed Satanist. He is well-spoken, cheerful and greets me with an "Arrr" and a wave and a bow between classes. A young woman in black (with matching hair, make-up and a bass guitar) also redefines the lack of color with a goofy sense of humor and a wide circle of friends wearing vastly different types of clothing. What these students have in common is that, despite their uniform clothing color, they are true individuals. The black serves as an easy canvas for their big personalities. They don't need anything more than a black T and jeans because their expression of themselves comes through in everything they do and say. Hint: One of the best places to observe "teens in black" is a band concert, where you have 50 highly creative youth who all must wear black. At South, this can mean harem pants, North Face fleece, bolero ties and even tutus.
Layered T-shirts, pleated miniskirts, even leg warmers and ponytails on the side: It's all coming back. Mostly taken up by girls, the '80s fashions are worn with a wink. The girls know the leg warmers are silly, and they aren't trying to convince anyone they just walked out of a 6 am Jazzercise class. They wear dangly earrings and colorful make-up but avoid Big Hair. There is a lot of whimsy in '80s fashion that I never noticed when I was earnestly trying to follow it through my teen years. These girls just … well … they just wanna have fun.
Boys' Pants: Skinny or Huge?
"What really grinds my gears are the guys who wear their pants halfway down their asses; it's so dumb!" said one of my students. Girls have been saying this for years (go rent Clueless from way back in 1995 if you need confirmation), yet guys are still wearing them, and they're as big as ever. I have seen boys with the crotch of their pants swimming around their ankles, I have seen a boy hike his pants up 27 times in a five-minute speech, and I have seen pants fall completely off a young man who was walking down the street, yet they wear them. Even as hip hop/rap culture begins to reject the oversized trend for a more refined, 1930s style à la Sean Combs and André 3000, boys only grip more tightly to the front of their falling-down pants. Yet in the last few years, some have exchanged their mondo trousers for skintight "girls' jeans" with boxer shorts sticking out above the low waist. It's skater chic and probably more practical for the active life of a skateboarder.
Can this author make any judgments about the connections between pants styles and scholastic achievement? No. I have had male students who were brilliant in every way, save their judgment in pant sizing, and surly, squirrelly boys whose pants fit just fine.
There are a number of teens, primarily girls, who truly do wear whatever they want. They are living the Molly Ringwald dream of Pretty in Pink. In spectator pumps and a 1950s shirtwaist dress one day and slippers and a poncho the next, they look great. They cull the thrift stores, vintage shops and even their own mothers' closets. Many of them sew as well. Hair color, to these girls, is not something that should be confined to genetic probability. In general, because they can tailor their look to their mood and current interests and are not subjugated by the fashion world's rules about a human body, these girls look great. One of these creative girls once wore a gorilla suit to class.
Do Clothes Define the Kid?
These are just a few, and not necessarily the most significant, of the hundreds of trends students at South follow. What can we learn from them? Do clothes define the kid? According to one student, absolutely: "As cynical as it sounds, people our age definitely judge someone on first look by their clothes. And the people who try to deny that fact are pretty much lying."
Is that a bad thing? People generally don't want to be judged on anything but their souls (and personally, I'm not so sure even that's going to reflect the image I want) but wouldn't it be great to get a message across, clear and simple, by an outfit? In a sea of 36 students per class, it's great to look out and think, "That girl is telling me she's creative, that boy enjoys basketball and that girl wants to intimidate others." It is not the final judgment I make of a student, but rather an opening idea. Me, I'd like to put an outfit together that says, "No, I just want my oil changed, and I don't care what you say you found in the air filter." Or perhaps, "I'm on this airplane to get to Chicago, not to make a new buddy."
On the other hand, clothing can be a shallow, expensive and impermanent mode of expression. Think Madonna. What is she now? English gentlewoman feeding her chickens? She's used a new look to communicate a message so often that there is no longer any sincerity to her expression of "self." High school students know they are complex beings and that a print skirt from American Eagle is never going to do justice to an entire personality. That's probably why most of my students wear jeans and T-shirts — because if clothing actually could express our very souls, would they really want their souls to look like a big soccer ball?
Anna Grace, who attended South in the era of Duran Duran and TigerBeat, now teaches history to variously attired students at her alma mater.