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Berkeley style on display at Sproul The steps of Sproul Hall are the place to see and be seen while grabbing a bite. (BAP photos)

Berkeley students have style - you just have to look closely

Cal Style The Elements of Cal Style, an interactive Flash fashion show

- To the rest of the world, "UC Berkeley student" might still conjure up images of bell-bottoms and peace signs. But the times, they have a'changed. These days you're much more likely to see camouflage tank tops than tie-dyed around Sproul Plaza, and while flared jeans are back in fashion, flip-flops outnumber Birkenstocks by five to one.

If fashion is what everybody else is wearing, then style describes the ways we make fashion our own. So do Cal students have style? Women's Wear Daily, the fashion retailers' newspaper, thinks so: in May it named Berkeley to its list of the top ten universities with fashionable students. (Cal came in at No. 10, just behind Yale; NYU was in first place, and Stanford didn't even make the catwalk.) Berkeley students, however, say there isn't so much a "Cal style" as an unstated style philosophy - and the main rule is "Comfort first."

Bridging the Gap

"If you see someone dressed up, they're usually faculty or staff. Even graduate students are pretty casual," says theater professor Clare Henkel, who teaches a popular two-semester costume design class. "Berkeley is so diverse ethnically - it's just fantastic - but people dress fairly similarly. There's lots of denim, lots of Gap, a fair amount of Cal merchandise."

Bryan Hicks
'Everyone is a lot more conservative than people think when they think of Berkeley.'
-Bryan Hicks, freshman

Bryan Hicks, a first-year student who intends to major in film studies, admits he has been a little disappointed by the Gap parade. "Some people here have style, but for the most part it's mainstream conservative all the way," he says. Hicks is wearing a headband made from a T-shirt he received during summer orientation, and a military-style short-sleeved shirt and pants from a thrift store. "Before I came here I thought lots of people would dress different, but everyone is a lot more conservative than people think when they think of Berkeley."

For women, the omnipresent look is the boyish white tank popularized by Tony Soprano and affectionately known as a "wifebeater," paired with low-rise jeans and flip-flops — or topping a denim mini and thong sandals with platform heels. However, "girls don't dress up here as much as guys tend to do. Some girls even come to class in their pajamas," alleges Lance Polverini, a senior majoring in political science.

Flip-flopping around

Although to the untrained eye Polverini's plaid shirt, shorts, and flip-flops look like standard-issue preppie, he describes his style as "a happy blend of Eurochic and contemporary West Coast fashion." (Watch the "Elements of Cal Style" an interactive Flash fashion show to see this and other looks.) Asked to identify the Eurochic part, he explains that he bought his leather flip-flops in Barcelona, and that the metal studded wristband he's sporting is key: "Accessories are the most important part of fashion; they exhibit your culture and how relaxed you can be. People say, 'How can he get away with that - a Ralph Lauren plaid shirt and a studded bracelet?' But I do."

The second rule of Cal style, then, is "Mix and match." Chris Ahlman, for example, a senior majoring in history who was born and raised in Berkeley, is wearing a new (but faded) pair of Gap jeans with a T-shirt from one of his favorite bands, Pearl Jam. But to this generic outfit he's added a floppy straw hat, a belt he made himself, and a bracelet his girlfriend gave him signifying their relationship. "I just try and stay comfortable and not worry what other people think," says Ahlman, who volunteers that his hat is actually one designed for women. "To me, style is not about making a statement, but about giving off confidence and my sense of what looks good."

Clare Henkel
'Even if you say you're wearing something just because it was clean and didn't need ironing, you've made a choice of what to wear.'
-Clare Henkel, UC Berkeley theater professor

But for some Berkeley students - and they are the exception - style is about making a statement. "Some people just throw on sweaters and jeans, but if you look closely, a lot of people are trying hard without wanting to seem like they are," says Jennifer Chon, a freshman who intends to major in business. Chon has slightly toned down her look, which she describes as vintage yet classic, to fit in at Berkeley. She points to a woman studying on a bench outside Dwinelle Hall in T-shirt and jeans. "See her cardigan? That's definitely from a thrift store, and that concert T-shirt she has on is totally vintage. She's also got one of those metal lunchboxes that a lot of girls are carrying these days for a purse."

Thrift stores - or their high-priced, more selective "vintage" counterparts - are a favorite destination for cash-strapped Cal students who don't want to look like everybody else. Such as art and theater majors. "They do tend to dress more unusually; it goes with the major," says Henkel, who adds that she gets all kinds of majors in her class, including business, public affairs, even math majors. "All of us are influenced by fashion, even if we don't want to admit how vain we are. Even if you say you're wearing something just because it was clean and didn't need ironing, you've made a choice of what to wear. "

Janelle Falcone, a junior majoring in art, takes the typical art-student vintage look one step further: she customizes practically everything she buys from thrift stores. For example, while chatting outside the Free Speech Movement Café, she's wearing a ruffled polyester women's blouse from the Salvation Army - only she cut the sleeves off and took the sides in, the better to show off her curves. And, unimpressed with the laces that came with her shoes, also from a thrift store, she sewed ribbons on in their place. "People spend too much money on clothes," she says firmly. "You can find way more interesting things at thrift stores, and for so much cheaper. I mean, I could afford to spend more money, but why should I?"

Different in the same way

Mikah Fisher and Janelle Falcone (right)
'It's conformity within a smaller group - it seems normal to us.'
-Mikah Fisher, junior, and Janelle Falcone (right)

With her Cleopatra eyeliner and funky mid-'80s-Madonna look (at least that day), Falcone definitely stands out from the crowd. "Yeah, people stare a lot. At first I liked it - that's what I was going for - but now it's kind of creepy," she admits. However, her group of friends all dress in a similarly non-mainstream fashion, which keeps her from feeling too weird. Her friend Mikah Fisher, for example, has a matching lip piercing. "We both got them on Valentine's Day this year; this store was having a sale," says Fisher, a junior majoring in sociology. "The lip thing is kind of a trend among people we know. You know, it's conformity within a smaller group - it seems normal to us."

There are a few bona fide fashionistas on campus who transcend that conformity. After several trips to Sproul Plaza, I was excited to encounter a very stylish "club kid" eating his lunch on the steps of the MLK Student Union. Built like a well-muscled gymnast, he was wearing a skintight taupe shirt with a zipper at the neck, and tailored black trousers that could have belonged to the cast of Bravo's new makeover show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Wraparound silver sunglasses, which he wore throughout our conversation, and impeccably mussed hair completed the look. Unfortunately, although Mr. Fashion revealed his major - engineering - he did not want his name or photograph used in this article. "I don't need the notoriety. I get enough attention as it is," he says.

Apparently as a VIP [Very Important Person] at several clubs in San Francisco, he gets to bypass the velvet rope and dance for free. "For that, you need to dress well, and I do. To me, it's normal to dress up. I don't dress like people here. Most students dress the way they do because they're influenced by the media, or they're succumbing to peer pressure. People think college is different, and it can be, but in some ways it's still like high school — people want to fit in," he says, putting his headphones back on. "It's human to need that security and acceptance, but me, I'd rather build my own identity."

As long as that doesn't invite too much attention ...