Many Grinnellians pride themselves on adopting countercultural attitudes, breaking social constructs, and going against mainstream fads. More important, we also pride ourselves on being liberal and open-minded. These characteristics have served as the basis for many innovative activities and unique endeavors — from realizing the hypothetical (as in the founding of a fake campus newspaper) to the outlandish (as in participating shamelessly in cross-dressing parties).
So I was surprised when there was such a significant opposition to the creation of Grinnell College’s very first fashion magazine, Sensuelle. Apparently, some people think an interest in fashion equals social deviance. Truthfully, the fashion magazine grew out of my personal worry that in our efforts to set ourselves apart from the mainstream and traditional ideas of what is appropriate, we had become what we had worked so hard to counter: narrow-minded.
Some people make the mistake of thinking that the term “fashion” means haute couture or Paris runway. They complained that combining the words “Grinnell” and “fashion” is incongruous and paradoxical — in other words, extremely un-Grinnellian. For example, a fellow student told me, “There are much more important priorities than worrying about how we look.” However, whether students wear the same T-shirt five days in a row, sport pajamas and hoodies, don sports jerseys and jackets, walk around barefoot, flash name brands, or wear vintage and grunge garb, they all do so with intent — either to reveal or to hide a part of their identity, and to disclose other aspects of themselves. I believe people wear what they do for a blatant or latent reason, despite clothing’s apparent functional purposes.
My interest in the semiotics of fashion began after several experiences on campus made me realize that appearances do matter, especially in terms of how people treat and view each other and themselves. I wanted Sensuelle to celebrate the diverse and unique fashion and stylistic attitudes of Grinnellians, as well as to provide a safe space for all to share personal advice and stories and exchange ideas about what they think of Grinnell fashion. Furthermore, I wanted to analyze shifts in attitudes about dress, its correlation or lack thereof to social status, and the relationship between preconceived notions about people based on their superficial appearance, and their true selves.
Now, it would be unfair to say that Grinnell College’s coursework had no influence on the start-up of Sensuelle. Sociology, for example, taught me to understand that subcultures exist at Grinnell, many of which are differentiated by certain stylistic differences. Anthropology taught me there is danger in thinking our lifestyles and choices are superior to those we do not understand (which made me more sensitive to style-centrism). My political science courses taught me there are various faces or influences affecting us daily — every choice, even those regarding clothing, is a result of past and present societal dictates.
Creating Sensuelle has deeply enriched my college experience and made me realize not only how much Grinnell College has changed my perspective, but also the power of the human will. If you really want to do something, you can, no matter how silly it may appear to others. I achieved what I set out to accomplish: Grinnellians’ stories are out there! Furthermore, working on the fashion magazine has been extremely fun and has allowed me to talk to interesting people I never knew before. This experience has shown me that if we just take some time to get to know people outside our usual social circles — sporting clothing that may be quirky or unconventional — we may find out how much we actually have in common.
Tiffany Au '09 is a Political Science major from Honolulu, Hawaii.