High School Musical: Breaking Down Fashion’s Obsession With Collegiate Style
Wales Bonner AW19, photograph by Jason Lloyd-Evans
There was always a nascent sense of dread when the back to school ads began creeping up on our TV screens. As soon as they started slotting themselves between the reruns of your favourite cartoons, you knew the long, hot July days spent doing as little as possible would soon turn into hectic stationery shopping trips and morning catch-up sessions doing the maths homework you’ve been avoiding all summer. The snazzy shorts and signature shades were now firmly tucked away for another year, and on goes on the swimmingly big blazer in a moody hue you’ll wear every weekday for the foreseeable future.
Even with my schooling days well and truly left behind me, such ads popping up between my lazy weekend binges of Come Dine with Me still trigger a slight shudder at the thought of entering those hallowed halls once again. But give me a show set in an American high school and I’m hooked. To this day, there’s a certain romantic obsession with the classroom culture that is part of a global conversation.
Calvin Klein 205W39NYC SS19, photography by Jason Lloyd-Evans
From jocks and cheerleaders to cafeteria flashmobs and even the dreaded toilet swirls, classic high school Americana has colonised the wider world’s perception of what life at school is like – no matter how dramatised these depictions actually are. It’s not just silver screen gold like High School Musical, or Disney Channel mainstays which have fantasised these formative years. Designers, both fresh-faced and veterans in their fields have built entire collections around iconography we can link straight back to the classroom. The short-lived but forever missed Calvin Klein 205W39NYC was built on Raf Simons own re-contexualisation of US archetypes. The Belgian designer’s designer dedicated his penultimate collection for the brand to a chaotic collision between shark attack classic Jaws and graduation day uniforms. 1960s prom dresses doused in leopard print and chintzy florals peeled away into drenched wet-suits, with the cap-and-gown tradition being swapped out for washed-out grey blazers with prominent shoulders that looked like they’d been pulled straight from Duckie Dale’s Pretty in Pink wardrobe.
This wasn’t the first instance Simons looked to on-screen high school attire. The camp elements of Glee and That’s So Raven were skipped for something a little more on the eerie side. His AW16 collection looked to David Lynch’s seminal TV drama Twin Peaks for its visual literacy. Lynch’s work has been a major engine in Simons’ creative process behind his namesake label, with this collection, in particular, being one of his most triumphant and still widely referenced. Tatty varsity jumpers were both swollen to monstrous proportions, with sleeves almost meeting the floor, and shrunken – worn over pinstripe shirting that effortlessly channeled the tormented students who dominated the first season of the show.
Raf Simons AW16, photography by Jason Lloyd-Evans
Varsity stripes and lettering insignia was something Grace Wales Bonner explored for her debut co-ed show at London Fashion Week this past February. Her intensely researched, immaculately perfected clothes have a tendency to list books as apposed to 1990s high school rom-coms in their press-releases. But for AW19, Bonner looked to American unofmrs, as told through an Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Studying the yearbooks from Howard University, the first-ever black university, she lifted the signatures she spotted on the pages onto the catwalk, held within her A Time For Dreams Exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Mushroom Cordery trousers that pooled over the shoe walked alongside striped rugby polos and classic ivory shirting tucked into tapered tracksuits. Football shirts were morphed into tunics and mystical symbolism were sewn onto classic varsity jackets – showcasing Bonner’s ability to advance Americana traditions into new, spiritual renditions.
With such mass exposure to these high school paradigms, it’s fair to wonder why such designers have an affinity with these Americana staples? These rigid uniforms which have withstood the test of time, and remain the idealistic embodiment of the white-picket-fence lifestyle. Yes, the ‘jock’ image has loosely been adopted within the gay community, but these cemented archetypes (and their fashion staples) still to this day represent that platonic ideal of suburban life. The perfect family and the typical golden child who would go on and get a sports scholarship to the best college in the mid-west. Contemporary designers have been able to skew these outmoded ideals and bend such garments to align with their own brand ethos. Whether it be skipping the foreplay and going balls to the wall like Vaquera who took the cap and gown to new, ridiculous extremes, or going down a more tactile route by adopting collegiate jerseys and their classic typography, then synergizing it with your own brand identity like Telfar Clemens mastered for SS19 – such brands are forming fresh iterations of high school attire that are no longer met with The Breakfast Club level of predictability and cringe that comes with it. Maybe going back to school isn’t so bad after all?