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Shopping for College: A No-Nonsense Approach to Fashion

This is the first post in a mini-series about back-to-school shopping. While aimed at incoming freshmen, these tips can apply to any college student.

I think I’ve wasted a solid amount of my free time over the past few years scanning through countless fashion blogs. And as much as they all try to bold, italicize, and highlight words like “unique”, “affordable”, or “easy”, I’ve found that that’s rarely true. You’d think one should come away from reading such blogs feeling inspired, but I usually feel boring, poor, and too busy to look like all the people in those pictures and ads.

Over the past few weeks since “back-to-school” season has begun, there’s been a spike in fashion articles concerning what clothes to buy for college. These lists usually are too long and expensive, and cater to a certain style instead of being universally appealing. Trust me: you don’t need all that stuff.You do need to wear clothes, however (although if you feel like streaking around campus, I guess that’s your choice). So here’s a breakdown of what you–guys and girls–really need:

The Basics

I consider basics as what I wear every day to classes, club meetings, and casual get-togethers. They’re things I can mix and match, throw on, and not really have to worry about. Most basics are things everyone likely already has in their closets; but if not, they won’t cost you a fortune to shop for either:

  • 2 or 3 pairs of jeans that fit well. Jeans don’t need to be washed very often (no one will notice if you wore the same jeans twice last week) and make you look decently put together for most situations. It’s important that these jeans fit properly, and it’s best not to stock up on styles that might go out of fashion soon (i.e. jeggings, acid-washed-ripped-up-super-destructed jeans, jeans in non-traditional colors)
  • Solid color or otherwise simple shirts in different styles: t-shirts, long-sleeve, tighter fit, looser fit, etc. I like having at least one plain shirt in every color, although that is completely not necessary. Since people are more likely to notice you wearing the same shirt twice in a week, I’d recommend having at least 10 or so of these.
  • 14 pairs of undergarments. This is about as basic as it gets, but I’ve seen so many people scrambling to do laundry in the middle of the night even though they have an exam or paper due the next day, just because they’re out of undergarments for the next day. 14 pairs means you only need to do laundry once every other week, and you can even schedule it in ahead of time.
  • 2 or 3 comfortable sweaters, cardigans, or sweatshirts. Since building temperatures can be unpredictable, it’s always a great idea to dress in layers. Make sure these sweaters are warm, but also easily removable. (Bonus points if your sweatshirts show school spirit–see below.)
  • Comfortable pajamas/loungewear. In college, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people all the time–literally 24/7. So you’ll definitely want ample amounts of comfortable clothing that you can study, sleep, or hang around your dorm in. It’s best to have at least a couple of sets that you wouldn’t mind being seen in public (in case of a midnight food run, tornado drill, or toaster oven-induced fire).
  • 2-3 pairs of shoes: casual sandals, warmer shoes, and boots or winter shoes. I’m a bit of a shoe fanatic myself, owning up to 50 pairs of shoes at any given time, but everyone needs at least 2 or 3 pairs of good shoes that serve several different purposes. Make sure you consider the climate that your college is in–you’ll be walking outside a lot. (Shower shoes are not included in this count, but make sure you have some sturdy flip-flops for that purpose, too.) Shoes also are often a valuable investment: for the most part, the more you spend, the longer they’ll last–do your research.

And remember–whatever any fashion blog or magazine tries to tell you–little black dresses and expensive watches are not basics. These kinds of items are nowhere near necessities for college.

The Embellishments

Having the basics is really all you need to get through the daily grind of college. But most people aren’t content with a completely boring closet, and it never hurts to have a few pieces saved for special occasions. While these are probably the minimum amounts you’ll need, you can always have more of this kind of clothing. You may have to spend a little more money on this stuff, but it’ll be worth it:

  • 2 dress shirts and 2 dress pants. While you won’t need formal clothing very often in college, it’s good to have a few pairs ready for presentations, conferences, or career fairs that come up. Keep these simple (you can never go wrong with a plain white button-down) so the focus at these occasions is on you, and not your clothes.
  • 2 pairs “special” shoes. This is pretty open-ended, and can be whatever you’d like to wear when trying to look extra nice. One of these pairs should probably be simple formal shoes for circumstances like interviews (black oxfords or pumps), but the other can be anything from an extra pair of boots, to trendy seasonal sandals, to “party shoes” that you won’t cry over when they have alcohol spilled on them.
  • 2-3 nicer semi-formal tops. This is a little tough to define, but includes non-dressy button-downs, frilly or flowy tops, and anything that’s too nice for everyday but too casual for formal events. These are good to have around for social events, and they’ll keep you from looking too sloppy on one of your “ugly days”.
  • Weather-dependent pieces: shorts, skirts, etc. Depending on where your college is located, you might have warmer weather for at least part of the school year–so don’t sweat through it. Keep this type of clothing to a reasonable amount though, so you aren’t out of warm clothes when you need them in the winter.

These are the types of pieces you can show off your “personal style” with, if that’s important to you. And even if not, it’s always better to look nice for an occasion when in doubt, so you’ll thank yourself for those button-down shirts when a chance meeting turns into an interview for your dream job.

The Spirit Apparel

You can never have too much school pride, and if you stock up on school-related apparel now, you’ll be able to wear it for the rest of your life as a proud alumnus (unless, of course, you went to Ohio State). While the classic faux pas of wearing more than one school-branded article at a time should be reserved only for game days, wearing one article a few days a week shouldn’t be an issue. And speaking of game days, some schools have official student tshirts for games each season–be sure to spend the 10 bucks and get one of these, so you aren’t the only person out of place.

The downside to school-branded apparel is that it tends to cost more. The key is to shop at less busy times (not right before football games) and avoid the big name college-apparel stores that always mark everything up. One of my favorite things is multi-purpose clothing: look for school-branded apparel that can be worn as everyday shirts, sweatshirts, or pajamas. I’ve also been slowly accumulating my Michigan gear over the years, so even if I don’t have a lot right now, I’ll have plenty by the time I graduate.

At the end of the day, fashion is about feeling comfortable in what you’re wearing. You don’t need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars just to fill your wardrobe, and you certainly don’t need to listen to fashion articles that tell you to “find your colors”, “accessorize”, or “get the latest trends”. Simple pieces that last and never go out of style are all you need. No fuss, no worries, no nonsense.