There’s no kind way to put this: college students are some of the worst dressed people in America. I say that as man who has spent the last eleven years on college campuses – four as an undergraduate, two as a researcher, and five as a graduate student. This has been at three universities, but with many visits to other schools throughout the years.
To be sure, students are in a uniquely hard bind. They’re broke, very busy, and have little time for gainful employment. Not having a lot of time or money doesn’t lend itself well to picking up nice things. Plus, as a graduate student instructor, I’d rather see students spend more time on their studies than worry about what they should wear.
Still, dressing well in college isn’t that hard. Especially when the bar is set so low. So, in an effort to help students smarten up, I’ve come up with some tips.
Focus on Smart, Mid-quality Basics
The downside to being a student is that you’re broke, but the upside is that you can have a complete wardrobe with very few pieces. No need to worry about having separate weekend and weekday wardrobes; it’s just off to class and libraries for you. So, focus on buying mid-quality, versatile basics. Don’t go for anything too nice. Whether you’re getting straight-As or barely passing class, your lifestyle in college will be mostly rough on clothes and probably not very hygienic. Get things like decent jeans that can take a beating, or thicker merino sweaters, not thin cashmere-blends. Build your wardrobe off grays, blues, and browns, so things can easily coordinate without you needing to have to put in too much thought.
The best way to not look like a college slob is to not dress like a college slob. Instead of graphic t-shirts, pick solid colors tees. Better still, try to wear shirts with collars, as they’ll help frame your face. Plaid flannels for fall, colorful madras for summer, and stripes year-round will help make those button-up shirts look less like office-attire. Long sleeve polos can also work, so long as they don’t look too fratty (I like Kent Wang’s).
Instead of ratty or pre-distressed jeans, pick up a solid pair of dark, raw denim jeans that fit well. Levis is relatively cheap and easy. Maybe add a pair of chinos and corduroys too, so you have other things to wear.
Instead of college-branded sweatshirts, get merino sweaters. Club Monaco’s are pretty good on sale (they also offer a student discount year-round, which you can stack on top of sale prices). Cardigans can also work in theory, but they’re much harder to fit well than a simple crew- or v-neck sweater.
Instead of flip-flops and running shoes, get camp mocs, boat shoes, plimsolls, or desert boots. Clarks desert boots are a particularly good option if you’re on a student budget. You don’t have to put too much care into them besides applying some Obenauf’s LP for the beeswaxed versions or waterproof spray for suede, and the crepe soles will be comfortable for long-walks. Jesse has some other suggestions here as well.
Finally, there’s no alternative to cargo shorts, sweatpants, or basketball shorts. You just have to stop wearing those (unless, you know, you’re exercising or playing basketball).
I know this site is often about sport coats and ties, but unless you’re a member of the Model United Nations or College Republicans, I encourage you to not wear ties as a college student. There are some campuses where this is normal, and you’ll know when you’re at one, but for everywhere else, you’ll just look out of place and over-dressed. For many campuses, sport coats may also make you stick out in a bad way.
If you really want to wear a sport coat, tweeds and corduroys can look a bit more natural on a college campus. For everyone else, I encourage reaching for more causal options. A vintage peacoat can be had for $50-75 through eBay, Vintage Trends, or a local thrift store. You can use this guide to help date your peacoat finds. For something new, check Fidelity.
There are also some go-to brands for decent, cheap(ish) outerwear. LL Bean Signature, Land’s End Canvas, and J Crew can be workable once they have their end-of-the-season sales (when things will be discounted 50-75%). J Crew also has a student discount, but only for in-store purchases. Additionally, Land’s End mainline is probably be less well-suited for a younger person, but this oilcloth jacket might be a good Barbour alternative. It can be had for under $100 if you wait for the right coupon codes. You can read Broke & Bespoke for a review. Lastly, Ben Sherman’s Harringtons can also be had through eBay for about $80.
And the Standard Advice
Add to this the standard advice.
- Learn how clothes should fit. We have a few guides you can read through here. You have more wiggle room as a young, college student, but avoid things that are skin-tight or overly baggy.
- Find a good alterations tailor and bring as much as you can to them. There are very few things a good alterations tailor can’t improve.
- Make a wish list and tightly edit it. Make sure you’re building a wardrobe, and not just a collection of outfits. If something doesn’t mesh well with the other things you plan on buying, strike it off your list.
- Set a budget and shop slowly. Especially at this age, your tastes can change rapidly, and if you buy everything now, you may find yourself regretting it next semester.
(Photo by John Morgan)