A study in style

From top hats to back tats, from corsets to navel rings, college fashion over the last 125 years has increasingly stripped down, with students shedding inhibitions along with their clothes.

During the first half of the 20th century, hemlines on campus rose and fell just as they did off campus. But with the 1940s and '50s came the birth of the teenage identity. College students stopped dressing like little adults and started creating a style all their own, which today includes T-shirts personalized with such phrases as "WWJD?" or "What Would Jane (Austen) Do?," a Pomona College favorite.

The two women in one of USC's first graduating classes -- June 1889 -- couldn't have looked much different from their teachers in ankle-sweeping skirts and high-neck blouses, their waists cinched and their hair pinned. Their male counterparts were just as serious, in three-piece suits with watch chains and top hats.

It wasn't until the 1910s and '20s that women showed a hint of stocking. Flapper styles touched down at UCLA, for example, in the form of dropped-waist dresses and cloche hats. Hemlines continued to creep up or down, by a matter of inches, into the next decade as college girls continued to emulate their mothers. It took a world war to shake things up.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without was the motto during World War II, when women at Pasadena City College and other schools supported the war effort by working in the fields or knitting socks and scarves for soldiers. Even their clothes resembled military uniforms -- severe-looking jackets with big shoulders buttoned over slim skirts that grazed the knee.

Rations gave way to fashion in peacetime, and in 1947, Christian Dior brought a bold new style to America: dresses and suits with tiny waists and full-flowing skirts. The so-called "New Look" caught on at college. Women resembled flowers when they were photographed before the big dance with their swirling dresses spread out around them.

In the 1950s, many college students finally came into their own look, and that look was easily identifiable by its footwear. Women wore saddle shoes with bobby socks, long plaid skirts and sweater sets, and men wore saddle shoes with argyle socks, pleated pants and varsity jackets.

Some men accentuated the look with a hairstyle christened the D.A., achieved by combing the hair back on the sides of the head and holding it in place with a dab of grease (inspiring the term "greaser"). Since it was popularized by rock 'n' roll idols such as Elvis Presley, parents worried about the effect the style had on their children, which only made them want the Brylcreem all the more.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy was an important style icon, and her neat-looking suits and shift dresses seemed perfectly suited for sorority life. But demure started to die as activism spread. In the mid-1960s, hemlines began to rise, hair was coaxed into braids and Afros, and the influence of youth culture continued to grow.

The pace of change varied from campus to campus. While some college women were happily donning miniskirts, in Claremont, tradition dictated that the Pomona-Pitzer football team weigh incoming freshman women and measure their busts. That custom didn't end until the 1970s.

In the 1970s, it was obvious that bluejeans were the student uniform nationwide. Ali McGraw wannabes wore them high-waisted. Since then, they have been flared and bell-bottomed, acid washed, ripped and patched, the ankles folded and cuffed. Today the straight leg rules.

T-shirts also emerged as a college constant akin to smelly dorm rooms and the freshman 15, at first as billboards for political slogans and messages of peace. Later, they became mementos of blowout parties, big sports wins and drinking games.

In the 1980s, preppy wasn't just a word, it was a way of life on some campuses, and it wasn't uncommon to see several baggy Lacoste shirts in one classroom, along with Bermuda shorts and Topsiders. J. Crew was founded in 1983, and the catalog became a stylebook for students shopping for barn jackets and roll-neck sweaters.

In the 1990s, clothes started to get small again. T-shirts became midriff-baring baby tees. Waistbands dropped enough to offer a glimpse of underwear or a back tattoo.

Perhaps those styles seemed most appropriate here in California, where today bikini tops are acceptable attire on many campuses. And where there are bikinis, flip-flops are sure to follow. The brands may change (Rainbow, Havaianas, Reef, Teva) but flip-flops remain the key to dressing for college, where no matter where you're in school, life's a beach.