Carleton Casual: Agentic or New Norm?

First day back Spring Term. What to wear? I would be making a first impression on my professors and my classmates. So then, why did I opt for black leggings, an oversized white t-shirt, black puffy vest, or the “carleton casual,” instead of a more “put together,” “feminine” skirt, tights, nice sweater, and heeled boots? I seemingly “chose” this outfit, but my choice was dictated by my desire to fit the Carleton norm and influenced by what other people would think about me. What did this outfit say about me?

 The leggings and t-shirt show I don’t put that much effort into my clothing choice, and value other things over my appearance. But the black quilted puffer vest and grey tote bag balance the outfit, adding a “feminine” touch. Why did so much thought go into looking like I put in such little effort?


The “Carleton casual” look inhabits a fashion purgatory of sorts. Though a counter-example to the normalized style of female dress in the wider world, it nonetheless represents a dominant norm within our particular community. As Susan Bordo states in the introduction to her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, “to struggle effectively against the coerciveness of those [dominant] forms [of racial and gendered beauty] it is first necessary to recognize that they have dominance” (Bordo 29). Can Carleton’s normalization of casual dress be considered a struggle against the dominant forms of feminine beauty in the wider world? Or have we just normalized another type of fashion image that students now feel pressured to follow?

In “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion”, Minh-Ha Pham briefly outlined the dynamics between fashion and feminism. A particular line that spoke to our experiences as a Carleton students was from English Professor, Elaine Showalter; she stated that, “my passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life” (Pham 1). Her

Image from

comment was unsurprisingly criticized by her colleagues, many of which said, “surely she must have ‘better things to do’” (Pham 1). These comments allow us to reconsider the attention fashion attracts on a college campus like Carleton. In plain sight, fashion seems to be the last thing on the average Carleton student’s mind; a quick look around the campus will demonstrate many students wearing casual appeal like jeans, sweatshirts, and socks with Birkenstocks. Dressing outside of the causal look results in many people, specially women, having to justify their reasoning for dressing up.


Indeed, “Fashion, like so many other things associated primarily with women, may be dismissed as trivial, but it shapes how we’re read by others, especially on the levels of gender, class and race” (Pham 1). At Carleton, people are respected for their ideas, not their appearance. With a political climate that constantly problematizes class, race, and gender power hierarchies, one doesn’t want to be perceived as perpetuating these power hierarchies by flaunting wealth through expensive looking clothes or buying into the normative ideals that often define what women should or shouldn’t wear. I don’t want my peers to judge me as a try-hard, or vain, or materialistic, or too privileged. I don’t want people to think that the time I put into my appearance takes away from the amount of time I spend on my studies. I want to be taken seriously in the classroom.


Image from

In an interview with Haute Couture Intellectual, Tanisha C. Ford brought up this same issue when she stated, “Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves” (Nguyen 2012) In light of this reality, students’ decisions to dress in “Carleton casual” can be interpreted as a sign of agency, a conscious choice to create a new dominant image for feminine style. This image navigates “the tension between ‘needing to act as women and needing an identity not overdetermined by our gender’” (Bordo 36). The casual look normalized by female Carleton students fulfills the need to act as women while providing an identity “not overdetermined by gender,” in its rejection of the more typical feminine dress prevalent beyond Carleton’s campus.


— jt784 (Tori), esotericks, milquetoastrebel, jorleee, amairanyfuentes


6 thoughts on “Carleton Casual: Agentic or New Norm?

Add yours

  1. I found this post really interesting, because it echoed a lot of the same thoughts that I have about fashion at Carleton. At Carleton, there’s definitely a stigma around trying too hard with your fashion, and people who wear high heels/makeup/fancy clothing in general are seen as somewhat outside of the Carleton culture, which values the careful casualness that this post discusses. However, while I think that Carleton “fashion,” if we can call it that, is very casual, I haven’t experienced quite the same level of pressure to seem as though I don’t care about my appearance than the writers of this post have written about. While at Carleton, the “fashion” is very casual, students rarely wear sweatpants, except to exercise or during finals, students never wear pajamas to class, which I have seen at other schools, and students generally wear clothing that they feel comfortable in, but is also not sloppy or looks like they just rolled out of bed. I also think that students do sometimes dress up or look nice, and that is not quite looked down upon in the same way that this post makes it seem.

    However, I also think that this post is missing a major component to their analysis, which is an analysis of how racial identity plays into this carefully cultivated “Carleton casual.” While it is trendy for white students to wear Birkenstocks with socks, flannels, and baggy mom jeans, students of color often feel as though they must dress up and put more effort into their outfit and look than white students do, because of the issue of representation of students of color on campus. Similarly, I have heard from friends who have said that wearing a full face of makeup and nice clothes is a defense mechanism that they have gained from years of needing to positively represent their racial group, and I think a major aspect of white privilege that especially plays out at Carleton is the privilege to be Carleton casual, and not fear that their race will come into play in how they dress. I am also a white woman, and not trying to speak for people of color, specifically women of color in this post– these are just observations that I have made and snippets of thinking that I have heard through my time at Carleton.


  2. I have definitely been guilty of buying into and perpetuating the ideas describe here—especially feeling the need to justify your reason for dressing up. While I agree that the intent of the Carleton casual look might be to not look like a try hard, I think it is important to recognize that students definitely put effort and intent into what they wear. There is a difference between casual and sloppy and the latter is not so fashionable, even at Carleton. The statement about privilege struck me as ironic because non-sloppy “casual” attire seen at Carleton is often very expensive (Lululemon, Patagonia, NorthFace, Birkenstock, Nike, etc). I also agree with Emily’s comment that Carleton casual is complicated by racial identities in our predominantly white college. I would be interested to explore in more depth how “wanting to be taken seriously in the classroom” is at odds with being “put together” and “feminine” because that resonates with a lot of the points Bordo made considering the duality of mind and body.


  3. Similarly I would wonder how aspects of class also play into this conception of “Carleton casual.” Coming from my own privileged position as a middle-to-upper-class white woman, I have not always been aware of the ways in which students often display their class–specifically, their wealth–in a way that is nonetheless read as “casual”–a casual designer label on an otherwise plain sweatshirt, for example.

    Recently there was an article in Carleton’s satire publication The Salt which described a woman (presumably white) removing the Canada Goose logo from their jacket to “experience middle class life.” Of course I, in my curiosity, had to research the price of the jackets. For the rest of the day and since, a logo that I had never before noticed continually catches my eye, and I have to wonder how many other “casual” symbols of class through fashion–Birkenstocks, for example, would likely be another example of this–I have been missing, that someone with a different financial background could be all too aware of, and frankly feel stifled by. As has been pointed out in other posts, the actual price of Carleton casual–whether that be the dollar amount or the subtle discomfort felt by students who may be unable to dress in a properly coded way–can definitely be concealed by our individual labels and perspectives.


  4. Honestly, I had never put much thought into Carleton’s sartorial norms until now, and as a person who has never really invested in fashion – wearing inexpensive-looking clothes that are actually inexpensive, learning about the “Carleton Casual” aroused mixed feelings. What occupied my mind for a particularly long time was that I was very much involved in constructing/perpetuating norms whether I intended to or not. Even if I wore casual clothes because I believe them to be the best type of clothing for me, I might be “read” as conforming to the Carleton norms by people who feel pressured to dress casually to avoid unwanted judgments like, “Oh, is she taking academics seriously?? She seems to be spending too much time trying to make herself look glamorous for that!” To them, I may be just another person who is trying to fit into “Carleton Casual”-culture even if I’m not really. I am not bitter about this though; taking cue from others and interpreting their actions in my own context is something I am also guilty of doing. (perhaps this is just another thing humans do all of the time)
    For example, the other day, I happened to notice that this one girl in my P.E class didn’t shave her arm hair. I had no idea whether she was rebelling against societal norms or was too lazy to keep her armpits “well-maintained”. Nonetheless, as a person who doesn’t shave arm hair, not only did I feel like my decision was validated by her, but I also felt some strange sense of solidarity between us as “subversive beings.” Even if it was one-sided.


  5. I also wonder if I can totally ignore what I just learned about the alleged existence of “Carleton Casual” and how I fit into it. It’s kind of like how knowing my prophecy might influence my life choices and subtly push me towards fulfillment of such prophesy.
    For instance, after I decided to apply to colleges in the U.S in my senior year in high school, I think I became more calculating. Even though I had always asked questions to teachers for many years, there was a new voice in my brain reminding me that asking questions might lead to favorable recommendation letters. My outward actions hadn’t changed, but I no longer felt like a pure learner and I was asking questions partly because I wanted to, but also because I felt pressured to. Oddly, the knowledge (or awareness) that asking questions could beef up my application seemed to make me less free then. I shall see how my new piece of knowledge about Carleton’s sartorial norms and the political statement I might be making through my clothings will affect me.


  6. When I was in middle school and high school, I always made an effort in my daily fashion to look good. Specifically, this meant wearing “feminine” clothing such as skirts, dresses, and nice blouses. My friends often questioned why I always “dressed up,” and at that time, I didn’t have any response other than “I wanted to look nice.” As I entered Carleton, I started to notice the way I dress and started to think of the way others viewed me. Whenever I wore a skirt or dressed nice, I would always second guess myself and ask myself, what am I doing today? Why do I need to dress this way? Beyond wanting to look nice, I always believed that if I dressed nice, then I would feel good about myself, like my clothing was a confidence booster, even if it meant faking that confidence. I feel like the “Carleton casual” has seeped into my own daily routine in choosing my clothing. I avoid wanting to “stand out” or dressing up just to go to class and do homework later on, it seemed like I was doing too much by dressing nice.
    In a way, my own experiences are similar to the blog post, especially in regards to the way I want to be “read” by others. I want to be respected and taken seriously. I feel like in regards to my petite size, I don’t want my clothing choices to perpetuate other peoples’ judgment of me as a “small, feminine, vulnerable, quiet” girl but rather someone who can speak her mind and make her own decisions. As a result, I feel like that is why I hold back in wearing “feminine” clothing like I used to do in middle school and high school. The blog post states the main reason why people dress “Carleton casual” is because they don’t want to be seen as perpetuating power hierarchies by flaunting their wealth or sticking to normative ideals. At the same time, though, I see it all the time on campus of Carleton students “flaunting” their wealth. Although they dress “Carleton casual,” their clothing pieces are not inexpensive. They wear Birkenstocks or Canada Goose jackets or whatever clothing piece that looks casual but the price tag is not. As a result, it often irks me how “Carleton casual” sends off a signal of being class neutral, when in reality, it also perpetuates power hierarchies as well.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: