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 Jeana Bisnar, of the Fashion and Student Trends club, on a trend-spotting field trip to Sproul Plaza. (BAP photos)

Green is the new blue, and other Elements of Cal Style 2004

Fashion show
Sample the styles of Berkeley students, from Fashion First to Whatever Works, in this Flash slide show

– To the untrained eye, UC Berkeley fashion hasn't changed much since last year, when the NewsCenter first attempted to nail down the "Elements of Cal Style." The No. 1 campus style commandment is still "Comfort first," and (unpredictable weather aside) Sproul Plaza is still a parade of mostly low-rise jeans, Cal sweatshirts and flip-flops.

But then, my fashion eye is a bit myopic. In fact, I could be classified as legally blind where style is concerned. This affliction started young, with an affection for hot-pink-and-turquoise combinations, and abated only after I discovered you can almost never go wrong with blue jeans and a black top.

Sometimes you have to know when to call in the experts. Jeana Bisnar of Berkeley's Fashion and Student Trends came to my rescue. FAST, a new-ish student club now in its second year, is organized around an annual spring fashion show of clothes designed by its members. (You can check out photos of the spring 2004 show on FAST's sophisticated, stylish website.) About 30 core members meet once a week to plan the show and debate the merits of Olivier Theyskins versus Carolina Herrera.

Bisnar, a third-year business administration major, had several pieces in last spring's show. As FAST's director of industry trends, she gets first dibs on the club's subscription to Women's Wear Daily, and makes regular presentations to the group about what's hot, as indicated by the runway shows.

Casual sects

Pajama-clad studentFor a few hours on a cold November day, Bisnar sat with me at Sproul Plaza and dissected the outfits of passersby. "One of the things that makes Berkeley so Berkeley is comfort," she said. "It's not ranked quite as highly at other schools. Here, people feel like you can get way with more. I've even seen pajamas and slippers on campus." Sure enough, as we were sipping our coffees, a bed-headed, PJ-clad student strode by (right).

After comfort, Berkeley style is mostly about mixing mainstream fashion with vintage - Gap jeans with a vintage shirt and belt, say. That goes for both men and women. "Women are not more fashionable than men on this campus," Bisnar argued. "Men care as much, but they are less likely to admit it."

For style-conscious men, she said, the look this season is about printed T-shirts under blazers or jackets, with slightly pushed-up sleeves.

"But that's so … '80s!" I gasped as Bisnar pointed to an appropriate example.

"Oh yes, the '80s are definitely starting to make a comeback," she smiled. With her guidance, I saw the disturbing evidence: the torn miniskirts with black leggings, leg warmers, and layered, big hairstyles. Clearly fashion, like history, is doomed to be repeated — especially by those who didn't have to live through a particular tragic era.

A brief history of jeans

 At least some '80s looks, like pastel-blue jeans, haven't yet made a comeback. Bisnar gave me a quick lesson in today's denim. "It's gone beyond color," she explained. The '80s were about experimenting with light jeans; the early '90s were all about acid wash, and then darker jeans came into style. Now, apparently, it's about having a unique wash, the individual look that manufacturers give each pair. "Visible vertical grains are in style, and so are the 'dirty' color stains like some Diesel jeans have. Two-tone jeans are increasingly popular, especially the Seven brand," she said. "The best jeans have texture, timbre - I have to use musical terms to convey it."

The low-rise style is still popular among women. Thankfully, at least to some over-30 observers, the practice of exposing one's midriff and nether cleavage appears on its way out, necessitating longer shirts.

Bisnar has noticed female students are wearing more skirts than usual, heralding a return to femininity on campus. As it was a nippy day, many skirts we saw were paired with the sheepskin, Sasquatch-like footwear favored by the cold and trendy. "Uggs are making a bit of a comeback," allowed Bisnar, "but the boots every girl wants this season tend to be dressier leather boots with high, thick heels. Last year's stiletto-heeled boots were just not that comfortable." And if you're wearing cowboy boots with jeans tucked into them, you're ahead of the curve - that's straight from the spring runways.

Ballerina flats were all the rage in the summer, but only a few hardy soles are wearing them now that the weather has turned colder, and they're usually paired with leg warmers. "Knee socks have never been a Berkeley thing," shrugged the expert. "Maybe because they're too associated with Catholic schoolgirls."

Judging a look by its jacket

The cold mornings have also ushered in a coat-of-the-moment for women: a shrunken, fitted blazer. "Blazers hit the Berkeley campus earlier than elsewhere," Bisnar said, as evidenced by how many of them can now be found in local trade-in stores like Buffalo Exchange. This year's desirable version has slightly puffier sleeves and is shorter in the waist. The most stylish boast variations on the traditional folded-down collar, like a mandarin collar or one that fastens; some have a sewn-in cloth belt over a flared bottom.

Jackets

Denim jackets, except very fitted ones with cloth or shearling collars and linings, are on their way out, as are corduroy jackets of any kind. And echoing the '80s resurgence, there's been a comeback of those zip-up, Member's Only-style jackets with fabric epaulets.

The hot color of the moment, Bisnar said, is green - ranging from the lime and Kelly greens of the '80s to a soft, military olive. "There are so many more green shades to choose from than there usually are," she raved. "It's like the explosion in denim colors."

Other nuggets Bisnar shared: V-necks have disappeared; this season's scarves are a little longer, with fewer tassels; purses are bigger; and Apple's iPod music players continue to rate No. 1 as must-have fashion accessories. The ads for iPods are likely behind another fashion trend: T-shirts printed with big, silhouetted photos or graphic art.

And while most students will buy a new backpack every year, aware that it's a constant part of their look, nobody seems to care about their umbrellas. "Some things just evade style," shrugs Bisnar.

Fewer than one might think, apparently.

Watch the slideshow: The Elements of Cal Style 2004