Fashion tips for history majors

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You can never blame a history major for being poorly dressed. It’s not their fault they’re behind the times. 

That’s just a little joke I tell myself when midterms hit and I start wearing soccer shorts in public again. Not that it takes much to get me to abandon all hope of dressing like a functional human being. As a history major, I am also a lifelong resident of Nerd City, and that means two things: cargo shorts in the summer, and more cargo shorts in the winter. We aren’t exactly known for stirring the pot around here. 

Here in Nerd City, of course, we try to avoid generalizations as much as we avoid brightly colored patterns. Jokes aside, I know there are plenty of people out there who can craft an aesthetic with the same ease that they can craft a thesis on pre-industrial Russia — and for that, I am both awed and terrified of them. Then there are the rest of us, who walk around with blue jeans and messy hair, calculating whether or not the Tuesday-Thursday class will notice if a shirt has been recycled from earlier in the week. 

If you haven’t already seen me around campus in a “Star Trek” T-shirt and figured it out, I belong to the second category. There are times when I wish I could be as stylish as others, but unfortunately, fashion is an art form in which I am untrained and severely unprepared for. I appreciate it like one would a flash mob or the karaoke bar at an office party: from a distance, avoiding participation and marveling at someone else’s boldness.  

That last part is actually serious. Despite my own failings, I love to appreciate other people’s artfully designed outfits, and I’ve always had an interest in tracing popular fashion trends throughout the years. But for all my academic study, I still can’t figure out the craft in practice. Princess Alexandra of 19th-century England adorned her wedding gown with flowers. I put hair ties on my wrist and call it jewelry. Elizabethan aristocrats padded their clothing with wool, cotton or even horsehair to give themselves a shapely, bloated look. I own an oversized striped turtleneck, and if I wear it for more than three hours in public, I need to decompress afterward. In ancient times, Celtic warriors reportedly bleached their hair to enhance their appearance. In 2019, I dyed my hair red, ignored it for three months, and now have random yellow streaks around the roots. 

I don’t know what’s more ridiculous, me with my two-toned hair or a bunch of aristocrats walking around like the Michelin Man. I think it might be the Michelin Man. It’s easy to laugh at these frivolous trends when they’re coming from wealthy Europeans who wore scented wigs because of their poor hygiene and massive heels to avoid stepping in gunk. But that too is a generalization, a willfully limited view of history. And lest I get convicted by the Nerd County Superior Court, I should probably correct that. Fashion, both then and now, is more than just the triflings of rich folks or the product of necessity. Like all art, it is a form of expression. 

It is self-expression, the innermost thoughts projected onto the outermost appearance; the joy of trying on a new accessory or a new style; the body and mind moving toward harmony. It is communal expression, a way of signaling or coding oneself; a feeling of pride for one’s identity or culture; a constant dialogue between the individual and the world. And at its height, it is political expression: a mark of allegiance or a declaration of beliefs. 

Proponents of the French Revolution wore tri-colored ribbons to mark themselves as revolutionaries and enemies of the monarchy. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo wore white scarves around their head to center their roles as mothers, honoring their connection to their children and grandchildren. And in colonial Virginia, an intersex servant known as Thomas or Thomasine Hall was known to switch between traditionally female and traditionally male attire, in part to pursue different job opportunities and in part because they simply wanted to. As for me, I wear single-color cardigans to remind people that I went to calligraphy camp and enjoy musical theater. 

I know — I have inserted myself into a poor comparison here. My fashion choices are neither bold political statements nor radical affirmations of identity, and I doubt I’ve started any trends that will go down in history. But to be frank, I’ve always been content with that. I am content to be the person who admires fashion only from a distance, watching each new trend go by like a series of vintage parade floats. Maybe in that sense, my poor style is a statement of identity — a quiet sort of statement, fit for a quiet sort of person. 

So to all my fellow poorly dressed academics out there, I say this: Wear those bootcut jeans, and wear them with pride. Although maybe try cuffing them? Just a thought.     

Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].