Belfast Telegraph

Dress up for university? No, let's leave that for real life

By Harriet Walker

Going to university is like a brand repositioning exercise. You consider your hair, your music collection, even your toothpaste, in a whole new light.

"How would someone much cooler than me react to all these things?" you wonder. And, more crucially: "How can I get this much cooler person to like me?"

The New York Times last week focused on one fraternity's 'back to school' party invite ('dress code: slutty nurse, slutty doctor, slutty schoolgirl or just a total slut').

But we can stop worrying and breathe a sigh of relief. Our universities are much more accepting places - for geeks, nerds and, yes, even for women.

While I was at school I spent hours - no, days - planning outfits, smearing on fake tan and teasing my hair into lacquered abstractions. When I got to university, I realised all that meant I was missing out on fun, so I threw on some jeans and a T-shirt and got over myself.

I found that university is a much less objectifying atmosphere than the world beyond its dreaming spires.

I'd be lying if I said that my student friends and I had prioritised the expansion of our intellects over that of our social circle and wardrobes.

But it was certainly a time in which we came under less pressure to look, or behave, a certain way than I have experienced either before or since.

Our universities are constantly parodied for their jumble-sale mix of stereotypes and tribes; of chinos and camo pants, blazers and tie-dye.

Just think of Brideshead's Sebastian, The Young Ones - even Emma and Dexter of David Nicholls' One Day.

American universities, however, seem to exist on a perennial tide of the same social flotsam - the ones that rise to the top and stay there in perpetuity.

And it's this environment that makes their campuses so much more concerned with hierarchy and, by extension, with appearance.

The American Ivy League is dominated by a caste system rather different to that of our own universities; in the current economic climate, perhaps students here will have to become more austere in their lifestyles, anyway.

Certainly, there won't be space in their budgets to buy more than one 'slutty' outfit.

But the main thing is that this peacocking and preening is what makes the world outside university go round. It's what fills the gutters of High Streets up and down the country every Friday night.

If you're going to university for the first time this autumn, don't demean yourself by dressing up - the most interesting people don't.

University and old age are the only times you'll get away with wearing a cardigan covered in egg while talking over other people. So make the most of it while you're still sprightly.

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