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We Are What we Wear: Oberlin Changing Being & Becoming Through Dress

by Ben Burton



One hundred and twenty-three of my Instagram mutuals follow an account called @oberlin_in_the_00s. Obies of the moment love the account—a collage of twenty-year-old vintage snapshots, posters, and art oddities. The page is a strikingly personal archive; every photo looks like it was taken by and for a friend. To the modern viewer, the page encapsulates hidden traditions and old ways, carefree wannabe hippies from a time when Harkness was freaky and Built to Spill played the ‘Sco.

“They” say Y2K is back and on trend, but this does not totally encapsulate the page’s appeal. To look at this page is to see yourself in a different generation—to see doppelgangers, lookalikes, and relatability in an era before. To the modern Obie, this page is also a testament to all that has been lost culturally and practically, and in tracking its posts one can begin striving for something they never knew. Violent Hark bowl Bike Derby, public nudity, camping out for art rental, and hookah smoking in Tappan. This is not 2023’s Oberlin. We embody this past in more ways than staring at this page. We use it to play dress up.

Illustration by Maia Hadler, Art Director

In my first year at Oberlin, I found myself learning to read an unspoken dress code. In many ways, it was a landscape truer to that of @oberlin_in_the_00s than now. The breed of city kids seemed aspirational for the wild and natural, and they dressed for mud and dirt and basement moshing and arb escapades. This translated into a stereotype now as insidious as the 2010’s IPA Red Wings Brooklyn hipster. The people wore Blundstones and Dr. Martens, used workwear, the occasional band tee (strictly obscure or ironic), New York-related tote, and thrifted or handmade statement. If that all reads as stereotype it’s because it is, but it was born of reality and necessity. The tattered Unsound Rags Carhartts were only just becoming chic, and most of the time the dirt on your pants was yours.

A fundamental aspect of this style of dress seemed to be a very Oberlin style political clothing consciousness that implied that clothing was not, or should not be, more about status than pragmatism. A pair of Nike dunks or precious jeans may appear on an @oberlin_in_the_00s figure, but they are worn in the same light and context as a pair of anonymous boots. The materialism of heavy branding from whatever brand is popular seemed uncool, adverse, and antithetical to Oberlin’s leftist overtones. To care or think about your clothes this way, as opposed to as a uniform of creativity, utility, and “Oberlin-ity” would be met with raised eyebrows and quiet shaming.

I came into Oberlin an obsessive of a few indiscreet brands, my laptop covered in Golf Wang stickers, and my tee shirts often graphically inclined. I kept my logos covered, left my sneakers at home over break, and began learning how to comfortably perform my Oberlin identity. That’s what moving to a new place is about, that’s going to college; allowing yourself to be transformed and mutated by your new environment, and learning new contexts in which you can see and know yourself. I was comfortable with this compromise, with how I felt I was seen, and how I fit into Oberlin’s puzzle.

Then, as students returned to campus post-Covid something fascinating happened: the brands. It started with coastal elite mainstays like the occasional Supreme or Brain Dead piece, the newest New Balance silhouette, or a niche collab. Dirty Air Force Ones became Off White Dunks which became Off White until the fateful day I saw Louis Vuitton sneakers at Stevie. It’s not simply that brands suddenly arrived at Oberlin—it was the taste and display of brand that was so fascinatingly mainstream. Stussy pieces emerged almost in conjunction with their Tik Tok boom, Brain Dead at the same time as the opening of two new stores, and New Balance with their two year streak of hyper-saturation. It was almost consciously mainstream - as bizarre a sight here as if Remi Wolf was headlining Solarity. Oberlin has only grown more and more branded. Walk around campus today and count the brands you see, the sneakers that pop, and the expensiveness being flaunted.

When we analyze what the pandemic disrupted about “old” Oberlin many tend to use phrases like “institutional memory” to chart the shift. This isn’t wholly misguided—time away from campus, the graduation and separation of Obies learned in the old ways, and the ending of countless clubs and traditions is a viable culprit for changing definitions of institutions. But then, is the nature of true subcultural dressing completely annihilated in the globalized information internet age? Is any philosophized uniform or dress protected, or are we destined for frustrating homogeneity? These answers elude a very intentional shift in Oberlin’s very intentional efforts at maintaining a very… certain homogeneity. Institutionally, the college struggles to pay professors well while pouring money into athletics or new residence halls, and finds new ways of threatening the place and influence of OSCA. In other words, many of the centers of Oberlin alternative selfhood are far less stable post-pandemic than before.

Diagnosis can only do so much; Oberlin has already changed. It would be hypocritical and unhelpful for me to claim this can only be negative. Institutional change is inevitable, but I do question the Oberlin to come. Will you joust in a bike derby in designer? Will you be so worried about your $400 Aime Leon Dore 550s that you refuse to bike to the cemetery for witchcraft at sunset? Are you prepared for the incredible irony of reading Marx in a Supreme hoodie, complaining about Ohio behind a Brain Dead fleece?

When we look at @oberlin_in_the_00s we see a way of dressing that is both natural and relatively unified in its philosophy of wearing. There was continuity and precedent for this philosophy, with students in the ‘80s and ‘90s emulating and reproducing subcultural codes and alternative thought which may have itself been a reproduction of Oberlin’s ‘60s reputation as a countercultural center. While I can’t define the exact nature of why that boom happened in Oberlin, it could certainly be related to a vision of the town and school as a center of more progressive action and thought. But was that ever completely a reality? How long did Oberlin truly embody a center of counterculture in the ‘60s, and how much were these fantasies of philosophical purity ever true? If unified dressing existed at Oberlin, it may have simply been the case of the same histories being yearned for. In this case, perhaps this change is thanks to new ideas of what Oberlin is and can be, and these codes enforce nostalgia, not history.

I realize now that the subtle dress coding I experienced during freshman year was simply an appeal to the nostalgic. In the absence of subversive subcultures with intrinsic dress codes to influence Oberlin’s brand of rebellious thought, Oberlin’s uniform became more and more ephemerally bound. Without the firm intersection that subculture allows in crossing politics, art, and philosophy, Oberlin was left only with the idea that clothes should mean… well, something. Clothing was newly charged with reflecting the values and worlds that Oberlin could hold, and to rebuke the unthinking or imperceptibly malicious. For a time, a visible logo of a certain genre meant corporate/capitalist subservience which certainly would translate to an unintended or unthought hypocrisy. Today, it’s unclear if this understanding of brand meaning is too one sided (particularly with regards to certain subculturally minded “streetwear” brands), but clearly the logo and the indiscreetly branded is no longer seen as malicious.

The clothes we wear make up more than our identities; they define the places we are. What do these changes suggest about what Oberlin is, was, and was lost? What is the real power and implication of this new aesthetic? I’m still considering whether I’m a senior waving their fist at the clouds, bemoaning all that was lost and the superiority of arcane ways. I’m willing to accept this if there are actual, positive results of this shift, and that it isn’t a sign that Oberlin’s rebellious edge is dulling. Regardless of the answers to these questions, I hope clothes can be a conduit for Obies for a love and enthusiasm to be where they have chosen to be and live. I hope clothes are part of a conversation with Obies who seek to question, critique, and better their world. I hope my idealism is not unfounded.

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