Wearing Our Politics on our Sleeves
I was amused in July to crack open a special section of the New York Times called “Education Life” and discover, amongst the earnest articles, a collection of off-beat snapshots showcasing collegiate couture. There, near the back, was Reed’s unique sartorial statement: students without shoes and socks, their feet as naked as on the day they were born.
The trend that the Times fashion mavens had discovered, apparently, was that Reed students like to go around barefoot all year long, a habit they share, for some unfathomable reason, with their cohorts at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
In response to a call from a diligent fact-checker, I confirmed, in my capacity as official college spokesperson, that students do indeed walk around campus barefoot, even in the endless drizzle. Yes, it does get pretty cold here in winter and no, this is not a general thing that people do out in Oregon, at least, not the people I run into at chamber music concerts and business breakfasts.
One Reed student who was interviewed about her pedestrian predilection explained that it wasn’t a political statement about clothes (or shoes) per se, nor was it a flip-off of “the Man.” It was just nice to pad about with nothing on her feet sometimes.
Also included in the magazine was a collection of fashion statements in which Reed was not included, but surely should have been: “T-shirt worthy” slogans that capture the ironic, rebellious spirit of a college and its students. So, for instance, Smith women are emblazoned with the motto “A Century of Women on Top”; at Swarthmore they boast that “Anywhere else it would have been an A . . . really”; Biola students proudly proclaim their football team “undefeated since 1908” (Biola doesn’t play football).
Of course, just as excellent in every way is the T-shirt that parades proudly wherever Reedies gather (and which animates the compelling article by John Sheehy ’82 about William Trufant Foster’s radical legacy). This unofficial seal of pseudo-subversion is composed of a collegiate coat of arms enclosing a griffin, with “Communism, Atheism, Free Love” running around its perimeter. Intemperate, decidedly tongue-in-cheek, it is a self-proclaiming anti-brand, inviting the raised eyebrow and the cold stare. It has been a flip-off to the Man for at least seven decades. And though its wearers have rarely ever been Marxists, atheists, or libertines, it proclaims their right—in the face of Red scares and McCarthyism and truthiness—to be all those things, should they so choose. It begs questions such as: Who should own the means of production? Can there be a rational basis for belief in God? Are monogamy and marriage the means by which the state regulates sexuality and power?
Challenging received wisdom and questioning sacred orthodoxies . . . it’s what Paul D’Amato ’80 did as he trained his camera on a Mexican barrio in Chicago, pushing beyond the boundaries of traditional documentary photography. And it’s what Reed professors and students of American Studies have been doing for 40 years, as they peel back layers of American ideology to reveal the sometimes seamy substrata below.
Weighty themes to wear on a college T-shirt, perhaps, with or without our shoes on.