Bascom Hall, at the top of (you guessed it) Bascom Hill, on the campus of my alma mater the mighty University of Wisconsin-Madison. I get nostalgic for my own five years there every August. It was exactly 20 years ago that I moved to Madison, as a transfer student, to continue my undergraduate education and complete one of my graduate programs.
Today's Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style post is a bit uncomfortable, but it is something that needs saying as we gear up for yet another academic year on college and university campuses here in the United States and elsewhere. I'm talking about the way far too many average young guys present themselves for public consumption on campus. Yep. I'm gonna bell that particular cat.
Now, I am hardly suggesting that college men in 2014 should aim to resemble the movie version of those always evil, sadistic, and moneyed prep school kids in various teen films from the 1980s. Think of young Jimmy Spader's "Blaine" in Pretty in Pink. And neither am I suggesting that you present yourself dressed like an ivy leaguer circa 1962. While nothing is actually wrong with either look, they might risk coming across as a bit too costumey in today's world depending on where you are.
No. Let's be a bit more realistic and practical, though, about the "cultural capital" (a nice way of saying background and upbringing) of young people on college and university campuses today. Many of them, clearly if we go by their appearance, speech, and behavior, have not had much of an example set by parents, or parental figures, when it comes to presenting themselves for public consumption where either clothes or conduct are concerned. Let's be blatantly honest about that. So, say it with me, guys. How we look and come across to others is important and has a direct bearing on the impression we leave with people and how they, in turn, react to and treat us.
In a nutshell, how a young man looks and acts is important, whether that is at home in the TV room, the back yard, or in the public sphere. Especially if a degree and career in the white collar sector is the goal. Looking and acting decently is part of that. It's also part of the Social Contract and, by the same token, part of one's own social literacy. Sadly, that is an area where many people are lacking given our collective devotion to the gods of comfort and doing whatever, whenever, and wherever. You know what I mean. But that's no way to go through life to coin the infamous Dean Wormer in the 1978 movie National Lampoon's Animal House. Before anyone protests to the contrary, however, it is entirely possible to look pulled together and behave politely for one's classes and social activities on campus while remaining comfortable and relaxed. Yep, it's true. There is a happy medium, and coming from money and privilege is not necessary. Here's how to do it:
1) What's on you feet?
Lose the flip-flops and opt instead for some genuine shoes -- penny loafers, dock-siders, white canvas deck shoes, or less obtrusive sneakers are ideal -- whether socks are part of the equation, or not. The male foot is not an attractive part of the body, and no one should have to see it. Especially since so many guys can't seem to keep their toenails clipped. Your feet also get dirty really fast in flip-flops and sandals, which are beachwear, guys. So, save 'em for the beach! During the winter, if you are in a place where rain and snow are issues, heavier shoes, or something like LL Bean duck shoes or Bean Boots are fine. In any case, your feet do not belong on the chair or desk in front of you in the classroom or lecture hall. Tuition paid by your parents, government loans, and/or scholarships do not entitle you to treat the world around you like your own personal basement rec room, got it?
2) Is it raining?
Snowing? 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade? Your overtaxed brain isn't about to explode out the top of your head? No? Good. Then, take off that eff-ing backwards baseball cap when you enter the classroom. You look like a fool, and it's polite to remove your hat in most instances when you are indoors anyway. Same thing with the sunglasses. Forgetting the current public discourse about why sagging pants and hooded sweatshirts are somehow permissible and not a sign of someone looking for trouble, college or university campus ain't the 'hood, and your professors and lecturers ain't your homies, guys. A classroom is a more formal environment than the street or your parents' TV room. It's time to learn that different environments require different levels of formality and, yes, attire. Pull-on athletic shorts and a dirty t-shirt , while they might seem appropriate for that late-night munchies run to Wal-Mart, really have no place outside the gym or your backyard at home.
3) Get in the habit of using a belt.
Put on some actual pants -- jeans, khakis, whatever. . . anything with actual beltloops -- and hold 'em up at your waist with a belt. It's called underwear for a very good reason, and no one wants to see your actual bare rear-end either. Even if you think it is a work of art. Unless you're hitting the gym, lose the sweatpants and those ultra thin to-the-knee basketball shorts too. They leave nothing to the imagination -- the rest of the world doesn't need to see the equipment you think you're packing -- and those flimsy nylon shorts were never intended as anything other than athletic wear. See my remarks in Item #2 above.
4) Tuck in your shirt.
It's always a nice idea to tuck in your shirt when you go out in public, especially if it is a dress shirt or slightly more casual sports shirt with buttons down the front. You know? It's not like anyone is asking you to eat broken glass or walk through red hot coals either. T-shirts and two-three button, short-sleeved golf shirts are a different story. Hopefully, you will not rely too much on the former, though, at least not when you attend classes and socialize during the days or evenings. It's always a good idea to put your best foot forward regardless of the place, time, or occasion.
5) Do not offend!
Where personal hygiene is concerned, shower in the morning, comb or brush your damn hair, and brush your teeth. Mouthwash might also be a good idea. You have an adult male body now, and you presumably do not want to go through your days stinking like a wet badger's armpit. Don't overdo it with the aftershave though, especially the cheap stuff like Axe, and make ding-dang sure to put on a clean pair of underwear daily. If general appearance and aroma are anything to go by, many young men on college and university campuses, for whatever reason, are not taking care of these related things consistently in the mornings, or following their athletic activities in the early mornings or afternoons. When you get up in the morning, at the very least, wash your face, comb your hair, and brush your teeth. You'll be much more pleasant for your classmates to sit near as you sleep through that 10am Western Civilization course.
6) It's a good idea to have some real dress clothes handy.
Make sure you've got a suit, or navy blazer and creased charcoal or mid-gray wool dress pants, plus a couple of long-sleeved dress shirts (one in white and one in light blue. . . skip the black, maroon, or navy) and an unobtrusive necktie or two hanging in your closet. Diagonal repp stripes are fine. A pair of leather dress shoes with leather soles and a matching belt is a sound idea too. Believe it, or not, there are still occasions when you'll need to appear in something besides the ubiquitous jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. Occasional award ceremonies, music or choral concert performances, and (in the United States) fraternity activities come readily to mind. If personal finances are an issue, you can find all of this stuff in thrift/charity shops for very little money, but make sure to have the pants and jacket sleeves altered so they are not too long. Keep a few pairs of dark to-the-knee dress socks handy too. Solid navy blue goes with anything. In any case, you are an adult now and moving toward the professional world. Besides thinking of yourself as a grown-up, it makes good sense to begin developing a professional's wardrobe at this point.
7) Make sure your dress clothes look sharp always.
Learn to use an iron for those times when you need a pressed dress shirt. It's a good life skill to have in your bag of tricks, boys. Otherwise, keep the suit or blazer and creased dress pants hanging up, with enough space around them to breathe and avoid wrinkles from overcrowding, until you need them.
8) Keep your everyday clothes clean and neat too.
Do your laundry BEFORE you absolutely need to and fold or hang it as soon as the cycle finishes in the dryer, so your clothing looks good when you put it on. Don't make a habit of turning up for your classes looking like you've slept at the bottom of your laundry bag. It will definitely not make a a good impression with your professors, lecturers, or graduate teaching assistants. Neither will it make that attractive, young gal working behind the counter at that off-campus cafe sit up and take notice of you. You'll simply look like one more aimless schlubb to her if you make a habit of walking around in badly wrinkled clothes. It should also go without saying that if you've worn an item of clothing already and have been unfortunate enough to get food or beverage stains down the front of it, it might be time to either wash or retire said garment from your weekly rotation of public clothing. Call it a hunch.
9) While at the table. . .
In the dining room, take off your baseball cap, get your napkin in your lap, elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed, don't talk with your mouth full, and keep your voice down. Oh, and it's time to stop holding your cutlery like a shovel and stabbing at the food on your plate. It might also be a good idea to refrain from belching contests with your buddies to see how loud and/or stinky you can manage. You are not four years old anymore, so do not continue to make a gross spectacle of yourself by behaving like a baboon (or just a clueless peasant) with your team or suite-mates at mealtimes. It's both foul and definitely not the way to impress that really cute pre-med major from your Organic Chemistry class, who is trying to enjoy a pleasant meal at the next table with her friends. Basic table manners are yet another life skill to cultivate. Forever.
10) And where young women are concerned. . .
For those young men with an interest in the female sex, "No!" means "No!" Don't be the kind of slimy creep who takes advantage of an inebriated or high young woman. Even if she is already your girlfriend. And if you ever find yourself in a group of guys where this kind of thing is starting to occur, whether the girl seems willing or not, get out of there immediately and call both campus security and the police ASAP. Do not, repeat, do not wait to make those calls. Date rapes happen to far too many young women on or around college and university campuses each year because too many "boys" get carried away in the moment and fall prey to the pack mentality. . . To say nothing of the neanderthal sexist attitudes that so many boys and men apparently still have when it comes to their female counterparts. It's no laughing matter.
You don't approach college or university professors and staff in the same way that you might interact with your new-found friends and floor mates in your dormitory. Starting an e-mail with the very informal "Hey _____," isn't the professional way to open your communication about grades, a missed class, an upcoming paper, or financial aid disbursements. Opening salutations like "Good Morning/Afternoon _____," or "Dear" Professor So-and-so, are preferable. A tiny bit of respect for your instructors, or college or university staff, whoever they might be, and demonstration of correct e-mail etiquette is an excellent idea here. It's also good practice for functioning well in the professional world once your idyllic undergraduate days are behind you in just a few short years. Unless you plan on spending your twenties working as a hipster barrista with a five-day beard, or waiting out the weak economy by hiding out in a lengthy graduate program somewhere until things improve. Maybe.
There we are. Ten + 1 very useful pointers for dressing and behaving better on college and university campuses. Contrary to what many think and say, people in college and university are no longer "kids." It is time to grow up, take responsibility for oneself, and act like an adult in all of your interactions.
Without a doubt, there are numerous other ideas and concepts for young men to keep in mind too, but those outlined above seem to be a huge problem and/or lack for many who enter my classes each fall. It really makes me pause and wonder what in the hell some parents have been doing for the previous 18 years before I finally meet their delightful and charming offspring.
In the name of fairness, not every young man lacks these skills and habits as they step onto campus for the first time each August and September, but far too many seem to. We as a society have some very serious work to do to reverse some of the sad trends of the last 30-40+ years. I fear, however, the genie is out of the bottle for many with regard to decent, very basic attire and conduct.
Raw intelligence and gaining admission to a college or university program is one thing, but, even when one is academically and professionally credentialed, there is a great deal more personal growth and development that needs to occur before a person is culturally and socially literate. That literacy needs to happen for a young man to be truly educated and, dare I say, socially acceptable. A strong understanding of, and grasp on, how to present one's best side to the world -- as well as those closest to you -- is a vital part of that. Like it or not, being an informed, thinking, and pleasant individual involves much more than just the coveted college or university degree. It's high time we remind ourselves of that.