How a $750 Down Jacket is Dividing College Campuses
On the Princeton University campus in 1924, raccoon fur coats were all the rage. Wearing the baggy, knee-length “coon skins” symbolized a pretentious affluence, according to detractors. Within a few years, the raccoon coat trend had disappeared, and people could not resell them if they tried.1 While the raccoon coat craze was short-lived, even the most fleeting styles on college campuses demonstrate a shifting nexus of identity, consumption, and fashion.
In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, college students’ fashion choices have long been the object of both scholarly and popular interest. For more than two decades, community members across the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus have focused on knee-length down coats carrying The North Face logo as a particularly evocative conveyor of identity. During the height of the trend, some students derisively referred to the jackets as shorthand for “coasties,” or young Jewish women from the East Coast, supposedly identifiable by their conspicuous consumption on the campus of a Midwestern state university. In newspapers and campus forums, professors and students alike responded to these stereotypes with warnings of sexism and anti-Semitism. Many of these warnings focused on the way that stereotypes about “coasties’” clothing choices were evidence of unspoken tensions. When students in Madison suggest that all girls on campus dress alike in black jackets and black leggings, their critiques, however humorous, reveal gendered, ethnic, and regional stereotypes at play in the local meaning of international brands.
Students’ critiques, however humorous, reveal gendered, ethnic, and regional stereotypes at play in the local meaning of international brands.
Though North Face jackets are still ubiquitous on the UW–Madison campus, some students have added the even more expensive Canada Goose jackets to their wardrobes. This transition might seem like a superficial shift in fashion trends. However, this subtle change in the stream of jackets crossing Madison’s Library Mall reflects continuing social tensions on the campus. To understand the Canada Goose trend in 2017 at UW–Madison, we need to understand the serious historical baggage attached to outdoor jackets that is particular to local student culture.
“North Face Bitches Go Home”
A UW–Madison student wrote in 2008 that he could distinguish between coasties and sconnies—or, Wisconsin locals—by looking “at their distinctive clothing.” While focusing on the “female Coastie” appearance, the student argued that the “natives begin to resent these outsiders who are so different.” This student’s editorial in the Badger Herald, perhaps unknowingly, invoked a history of compounding stereotypes of “outsiders” wearing conspicuous or expensive clothing on campus that reaches back to the 1920s. His comments also highlight what is at stake in making assumptions about a Canada Goose owner in 2017.
In 2007, two Wisconsin students recorded a song called “What’s a Coastie,” describing the Wisconsin-based label/slur as an “east coast Jewish honey” identifiable by her outfit: a North Face jacket, black leggings, and big sunglasses, among other attire. The song highlighted young Jewish women’s outdoorwear as linked to their outsider status on campus. According to the student songwriters, expensive consumer products, down to the Ugg boots and complicated Starbucks drinks, highlighted the wealth of these out-of-state students. “Coasties” effectively flaunted family wealth, their North Face jackets a stand-in for the high-priced out-of-state tuition their families were paying.
Wisconsin locals have been critiquing the supposed materialism of Jewish outsiders on their American campus for nearly a century. When unspoken quotas kept Jews from attending elite schools in the East in the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish young people looked to UW-Madison as a “beacon of tolerance,” according to American Jewish historian Jonathan Pollack. However, though admitted to UW–Madison, Jewish students were not necessarily welcomed. One student in 1928 described professors who complained that Jews stood out when they made “themselves obnoxious on campus and in classes by their loud dress and manner.” In the 1940s, another student described her roommates—her first introduction to Jews—as “nouveau riche gals” who came to college simply to search for husbands.
Throughout the twentieth century, then, students from Wisconsin attending the state university have thought that they could readily identity Jewish students on campus by their brashness and dress even as individuals themselves belied the stereotypes. By the 1990s, this labeling came with both a moniker—coastie—and a specific style—expensive jackets from the outerwear company The North Face. Pollack’s research describes a 1997 letter to the editor in the student newspaper that identified the sizable Jewish student population as the “North Face Posse.”
Outsiders on college campuses have long used dress as one tool among many to fortify themselves against messages that they don’t belong. In the 1970s on the Indiana University campus, for instance, black women sported Afros and sewed maxi dresses with African-style prints both to claim a new kind of beautiful blackness and to steel themselves against charges of not trying harder to fit into the predominantly white school. As historian Tanisha Ford explains, black women “arm[ed] themselves” with style to project self-respect in a culture that questioned their worth.”2 The tactics of Jewish young women wearing North Face jackets and leggings in some ways mirrors this example. In the face of curses scratched out in the library cubicles—“North Face bitches go home”—Jewish students may dress themselves conspicuously to claim their presence and belonging on campus.
According to fashion blogs and the New York Times, the winter of the Canada Goose jacket was 2015, but Midwestern fashion trends follow a different timeline. Within the last few years, North Face jackets have been supplanted on UW–Madison’s campus by Canada Goose (and on many other campuses as well). The jackets are akin to sleeping bags with arms. Though the company produces both men’s and women’s versions, the garments appear most frequently on the UW–Madison campus as women’s outerwear. They are usually black, mid-thigh length, and down-filled, a small round patch on the upper arm the only indication of the iconic brand. At $750 or more, they are also extremely expensive.
Since the late 1960s, the uniform of choice on most college campuses has included some kind of outdoor wear. The appearance of functional hiking boots and down vests on campuses around the nation in the 1970s portended new styles on fashion runways, department stores, and ordinary Americans’ closets for decades. In fact, performance wear has become so ingrained as an everyday American style, that many consumers don’t think twice about heading to an outdoor store to equip themselves for a winter of sidewalk slush and dog walks. These days, expedition wear, like a North Face jacket designed for mountaineering or a Patagonia fleece created for climbers, seems right at home on a city sidewalk.
Wearing specialty outdoorwear in urban and suburban settings has come to signal preparedness for the weather as well as a kind of consumer expertise. For instance, Jon Caramanica argued in The New York Times that like outdoor store customers for decades before them, Canada Goose consumers “craved the luxury associated with knowing just which brand would be the right one should such a circumstance arise.” To many consumers, expedition wear is an expensive tool to avoid being caught unprepared.
Yet, the policing of women’s bodies on the UW–Madison campus means that women donning expedition wear in Madison are rarely interpreted as knowledgeable about local conditions. In the often-sarcastic “shout-out” section of a campus newspaper, for example, one student in 2013 called attention to women’s leggings on wintry days: “shout out to all the coasties who despite the weather still refuse to wear pants.” But warm weather proved no easier for these young women, who might hear their fellow students commenting that they did not need such a heavy coat on those days that are not cold by Wisconsin standards. Recently, student publications mocked female owners of Canada Goose jackets for wearing their coats at inappropriate time of the year. Rather than suggesting preparedness for five months of freezing temperatures, first North Face and now Canada Goose jackets have come to symbolize outsiders’ ineptness in dressing for the weather.
Open your Closet
Though outdoor brands supplanted more formal wool or fur coats on campuses across the country in the 1970s, the switch to casual-style outerwear did not suddenly mean socioeconomic status became invisible. There are deep histories of difference lingering not so far below the surface of these puffy coats. The two jackets I profile here offer a lesson in how to open a closet and unpack the larger meanings of the clothes hanging there. We cannot make universal declarations about how a jacket serves as a status symbol any more than we can claim a particular outfit always denotes a particular gender identity. Context gives clothing meaning.
Featured image: Students walking to class in the snow at UW-Madison, Jan. 25, 2017. Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison.
Rachel Gross is a Postdoctoral Teaching, Research, and Mentoring Fellow in the Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana. Her dissertation, “From Buckskin to Gore-Tex: Consumption as a Path to Mastery in Twentieth-Century American Wilderness Recreation,” explores the cultural, intellectual, and environmental history of the outdoor gear industry. She was co-author of: “How to Read an Outdoor Catalog” and “A Syllabus for Contextualizing Energy Policy Debates.” Website. Twitter. Contact.
Deirdre Clemente, Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. ↩
Tanisha Ford, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 117 ↩