With locals defined by their trademark insouciance and a student population primarily invested in their studies, fashion has never been on the average Ann Arborite’s radar.
By simply surveying the streets of Ann Arbor, the correct decade is indeterminate, with street style ranging from those who just can’t get rid of their perms to those imitating ’50s sensibility. Though a sizeable coterie of sartorial savants have sauntered through the Diag for nearly two centuries, truly fashionable ensembles remain a strikingly rare sight. Ultimately, University students past and present gravitate toward quintessential college garb that transcends the ages — some variation of pants, tees, sweats, sneakers and an endless cocoon of layers during the somewhat miserable days of winter, rendered tolerable by the rare and precious snow days.
Though college permits those enrolled to experiment academically and socially, it also lends students an opportunity to define their own style. From the most transient of trends to classic wardrobe mainstays, it’s all been seen on campus. However, the student population of each decade seems to retain an overarching commonality in dressing. Without peeking at the date, photos of University women from the ’40s are evidenced by their penny loafers and angora sweaters, while those of the ’90s are easily spotted by their sheer stylish irreverence. Though University of Michigan style has never quite been that of the runway scene, it now seems a close reality while perusing the clothing racks of Bivouac’s women’s fashion section or poring over the pages of the student-run SHEI Magazine.
With the obvious constraints of time limiting this chronicle of University fashion — namely late alumni unable to share their commentary — in collaboration with a crop of fashionably inclined alumni, this piece serves as a comprehensive examination of student fashions as far back as the late ’30s and as current as the now.
Late 1930s to Early 1940s
Student Lynne Ford’s “On the Clothesline” column for The Michigan Daily chronicled the trends of the ’40s — with her content ranging from her partiality for cinched waists to critical apropros of swimsuit trends. Ads from the late, beloved Metro-Detroit retailer Jacobson’s for women’s sportswear were the Daily’s primary advertisements.
From 1939 to 1941, Jean Grillins might as well have attended the University — she dated and eventually married student Harvey Grillins, with whom she spent nearly every weekend on campus, always making a stop at The Marilyn Shop during its heyday. She attended her then-boyfriend’s formal date parties, mesmerized by women’s elegant long gowns, full skirts and bobby socks along with men’s formal tuxedos.
“They didn’t wear flats, I can tell you that,” Grillins recalled. “But, they did dress up.”
Penny loafers, blazers, angora sweaters and long skirts were fashion markers of the era, as was the social calendar centered around J-hop dances complete with “dance cards” denoting who one was fated to dance with next.
Though a member of the graduating class of ’63, Carren Sandall had a keen eye for style long before and after her collegiate years. Immediately following her academic career, Sandall modeled in New York City and emerged as a syndicated style columnist for The Ann Arbor News when she returned home to Ann Arbor. She continued to bridge the gap between the local community and the fashion world when she created her own course at Washtenaw Community College called “The Art of Fashion,” which accelerated her personal studies of fashion’s historical context.
“Prior to the ’50s, Paris and London dictated fashion,” she said. “Then during the late ’50s, the youth started making a difference.”
When cities like New York emerged as fashion capitals, the styles that trickled down into most closets were heavily influenced by the glamorous cinematic styles of Audrey Hepburn films.
“You might take an element of film and put it in your wardrobe,” she said. “Hepburn heavily influenced the rise of capri pants.”
“We dressed,” said Joan Abraham, University graduate of 1966 and current adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design in NYC.
Translation: there was a certain formality to the arrangement of ’60s garments. An unofficial uniform of immaculate polish was often seen on campus — skirts, knee socks, penny loafers and crewneck sweaters.
“Everything was very preppy,” Abraham said. “Everybody was very serious and we all looked alike.”
Abraham recalled that informal ensembles were seen only once weekly — casual Fridays were celebrated as a day permitting blue jeans, yet Abraham doesn’t recall a University-wide dress code in place.
Prior to the counterculture movements of the decade, Abraham spoke on behalf of her era’s University women, noting the stark contrast to today’s feminist ideals — she believed being a wife and a mother was her imminent future. Yet as the ’60s unfolded, Abraham and her counterparts realized their power as educated women and sought brighter futures than their suburban housewife predecessors. Carefree, bohemian-influenced styles reflected the sociopolitical turn and continued through the rise of the ’70s.
The ’70s dressing on campus was partly disco and quasi-rogue, as guys and girls alike were often sporting fringe on nearly every garment and accessory, along with bellbottoms and distressed denim.
Carren Landau, University graduate of ’77, recalls rocking a primarily peasant-inspired wardrobe.
“I wore a lot of Frye Boots, long jean skirts and pea coats that were almost floor length,” she said.
Length and volume, of flared pants, hairstyle or women’s skirts, were markers of the era.
Students of the era even incorporated anti-war buttons into their ensembles, as they protested the prolonged Vietnam War. Photos found in the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus showcase a University woman and her picket sign, sporting a sort of activist-chic hippie garb — a denim shirt accessorized with peace sign buttons, as she stands tall and proud in her extremely flared jeans.
Late 1980s to Early 1990s
“The least fashionable I ever was was in Ann Arbor, no question,” said Marly Graubard, current executive director of fashion and beauty at W Magazine and 1990 alum.
Graubard stressed the era’s general disregard for fashion, maintaining the typical styles were those heavily influenced by the years’ music, art and film.
“Our hair was big, we had tons of makeup on and I think we dressed kind of like preppy meets grungy meets college campus … it was all about the Michigan clothes,” she said.
Scant shopping options on Main Street left students like Graubard either the option of Bivouac — where she recalled her first exposure to Lululemon athletic gear — or weekend retreats to the retail havens like Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich. or downtown Birmingham, Mich.
The period was marked by the common garb of Levi’s, namely those of the loose and ripped varieties, plaid shirts and rugged boots.
“It was sort of like anti-fashion, there was that sort of hippy contingence, sweaters and jeans,” Graubard said. “It was pretty Midwestern.”
With the advent of the Internet, immediacy and clothing slowly became synonymous. The outside realm of retail was becoming extremely brand-oriented, which trickled down into the campus scene.
Ashley-Brooke Sandall, 2003 graduate and current senior manager of strategic partnerships for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, recalled the preponderance of premium denim on campus, along with the overall utilitarian ways of dressing — jeans, sweaters and T-shirts.
“My friends’ style influenced me the most,” she said. “Then, it was the trends that were so exciting. We would read Vogue magazine.”
Along with the importance of brands, trends such as chunky, chain-link Tiffany & Co. necklaces and charm bracelets were the must-have accessories. Though a rather trend-centric time, structuring one’s individual style was gradually becoming the norm.
It’s nearly impossible to define an overarching “fashion” on campus. With the prevalence of blogs, sites solely focused on documenting celebrity style, runway shows easily live-streamed and posh Ann Arbor boutiques popping up each year, there’s something for everyone and every concept of fashion. The rise of the individual and street style is ever-present when one strolls from South University to Main Street. The University also currently boasts more fashion-focused organizations than ever — The Michigan Daily’s style beat, SHEI Magazine, NOiR, Ross School of Business’ retail club and even an online University chapter of CollegeFashionista — yet still no fashion-centric curriculum. Peak style seasons are annually cut short due to prolonged winters, maintaining the population’s favoring of functionality over fashion.
Clothing existed as a primordial need of the masses long before the University’s founding, and continues to maintain its essentialism. Fashion at its best serves as a solace from a world of woes, a bubble outside of day-to-day routines, somewhat similar to the four-year journey of an undergraduate education — a window of time partially closed off from the frivolity of youth, just opening to the horrifying realities of adulthood (looking at you, taxes). And though Ann Arbor has never been regarded as a fashion capital, at the very least, one is sure to source inspiration from the eccentricity so essential to this beloved college town.