I was walking to campus the other day with my roommate, Anna, when a woman passed us on her bicycle. “I saw her the other day!” Anna exclaimed. “She’s got the greatest style!”
I had not noticed what the woman was wearing, but I took Anna’s word for it. Anna has great style herself, as do many of my new classmates. In fact, so do a majority of people that I observe in Toronto—at least, when compared to me. Since arriving in the city, I’ve found myself feeling somewhat underdressed on several occasions.
I understand the need to dress professionally and to look respectable in the workplace. During the last two years, while I was working for a community foundation, I tried my best to look presentable—it was my first “grown-up job” and I took it seriously, but dressing up was also a way to encourage others to take me seriously, too. When I walked into a meeting, I was often the youngest person in the room, with the least career experience. At least I could look the part of somebody who knew her stuff, even if I didn’t always feel like it.
But when I left my job in June, I was pleased by the prospect of not having to put on dress pants, blouses, skirts or dresses every day. I could go back to my default uniform of t-shirts and jeans! Because while I can dress up when needed, fashion has never been something terribly important to me. And I don’t mean my style is the “I don’t care” counter-culture kind where you spend hours perfecting your just-rolled-out-of-bed hair or searching for jeans ripped just the right way. As long as an item of clothing serves its functional purpose and covers the bits of me that it’s supposed to, it’s fine in my eyes. (This has led to instances such as my mother expressing horror that I would wear a particular sweater outside of my home, or my then-boyfriend Aldous gently suggesting that perhaps the lint-covered fleece jacket with holes in it that I was wearing was not the most suitable.)
In my experience so far at U of T, however, I’ve noticed that many of my peers dress for success in the classroom, too. We’re in graduate school, after all, which means “Dressing Like an Adult” rules apply (according to Jezebel, anyway). I imagine part of it, too, stems from the nature of my degree, a professional program that is fairly career-oriented. It makes sense to keep one foot in the professional world as we attend class; my classmates and I are already starting to think of where we might want to do our internships next summer.
I think it also comes from the particular culture of U of T, where people tend to take themselves more seriously than I’m used to on a university campus. (At least compared to UVic. There’s no 4:20 circle in the middle of King’s College Circle, no students in bare feet and rolled-up jeans balancing on slacklines that I pass on my way to class, nobody digging up the lawn to plant a garden as a protest for food security.)
And maybe this heightened sense of style I’m noticing here comes from the culture of the city, too. Toronto is a cosmopolitan place, a global city—and while it may not have the reputation of Paris or London when it comes to fashion, it’s still the site of TIFF and the Mink Mile. Perhaps stylish people are a byproduct of any big city (though I think there is some truth to the stereotype that Vancouverites walk around mostly in rain jackets and yoga pants).
I guess what I’m really wondering is, how much do I have to play this game? Do I need to up my style to get along in Toronto? When I’m meeting potential employers or giving a presentation, I get it – I can suck it up and wear a skirt. (Though I draw the line at heels, always.) But a Saturday wander around the city? A regular Wednesday morning in microeconomics? Casual Friday drinks with friends? Maybe I should leave the hoodie at home.