College Polish

04.15.1312:00 PM ET

Confessions of a Princeton Preppy

How I embraced—then ditched—the quintessential WASP look.

As I rummaged through the dress racks at my favorite thrift store in San Francisco before leaving for college, I wondered which frock would be preppy enough for Princeton. Twice a year, the school holds an event called Lawnparties, in which students put on their best WASP wear and dance to live music all day. When I heard about the event, I immediately wondered: what on earth will I wear?

When Lawnparties rolled around that September, I saw all my new classmates break out their pastels, cable knits, and wide-brim hats. It felt like a giant costume party, and everybody was dressed perfectly to theme. I didn’t look entirely out of place—other girls wore generic floral frocks like mine—but the day was not about us. It was about the ones who grew up wearing tennis skirts and pearls, and everyone else who was pretending that they had, too. That day, I entered the fantasy world of Princeton, where country clubs and dry martinis rule.

But while Lawnparties ended that evening, the costume party did not. My peers continued to wear preppy clothing every day, and eventually I found myself buying into what I imagined to be the Princeton “look.” I bought a pair of duck boots (what a strange creature to a Californian) and spent a lot of time thinking about bracelets or ballet flats decorated in our school colors. I wore Ray-Bans and seriously considered Vineyard Vines for the first time. My male friends who arrived at college in baggy T-shirts and athletic shorts started wearing polos and boat shoes. Before long, we were all starting to look the same.

My new group of friends was diverse: some of us were on financial aid; some came from different countries; some went to public high schools, and some to private. So I was perplexed to see so many of us imitating the Princeton look. It was as if we felt the need to insert ourselves into the traditional narrative of the wealthy WASP. But the Princeton story had changed: it was OK to be “different” on campus now, to not be able to afford tuition, and to not know what cotillion is. It was OK to be black, or Jewish, or female. But we still held on to an outdated belief that we weren’t meant to be there—and when Lawnparties rolled around, we tried to dress how we thought “real” Princetonians dressed.

But after some time, something switched in my mind. I stopped caring that I didn’t have the right items, or that I didn’t wear the right brands. I remembered that I had always liked it when someone couldn’t tell what store my dress was from, and when I was the only girl in the crowd wearing that color. I was sick of dressing for Princeton; it was time to dress for me instead.

It soon became clear that others around me were also breaking away from the dominant look. I started noticing that it was the younger students on campus who wore the most extravagantly preppy attire. But after some time, students ditched the theatrics and settled on whatever styles they felt most comfortable wearing—pink pants with miniature green whales or otherwise.

In fact, when I look around campus now, as a senior, I see that the style conformity that characterized my early experience on campus has all but crumbled. I still wear my duck boots, but I also wear silver platform sneakers, combat boots, and six-inch heels. My friends and I know what work for us; one friend wears flannels every day, another rocks cool leather and red lips. My go-to look is high-waisted skirts and statement jewelry. I feel confident getting dressed in the morning and confident buying items that don’t fit into the image of the stereotypical coed.

What I’ve really learned, watching my peers undergo this evolution, is that the drive toward appearance conformity in college has been productive, if not necessary. By performing the Princeton look my first year, I learned that that look wasn’t right for me after all. The pressure to look the same as everyone else encouraged me to reflect on my personal image in a way I might not have otherwise. As a result, I came to figure out what look I wanted to project to the world. Over my years here, I’ve claimed my own personal style.

People always say that you “find yourself” in college. At the same time that I’ve developed my personal look, I’ve come to understand myself—my wants, my needs, my interests—much better. The confidence I feel when getting dressed in the morning is the same confidence I feel about who I am as a person. Though my look will change over the years to come, I won’t again dress in a way that isn’t “me.” And I have Princeton’s pearls and cardigans to thank for that.