Why all the sweaters and sneakers?
Students and their uniforms
‘You look so different! I like it!’
Greek girl Maria is relieved that I dressed in black for our date. So far, all her matches wore white sneakers, blue jeans, and a white t-shirt or sweater. ‘Dutch students all look the same’, she sighs.
Is it really that bad? I ask some of my international student friends, and they all agree with Maria. ‘Like they’re all part of the same pack’, says French communications student Yasmeen. ‘The guys all tuck their hair behind their ears every five seconds. Whenever I see that, I know they’re Dutch and part of a student association.’
Danielle Baird, an American student of international and European law, sees a lot of hoodies. ‘I felt a little bad paying such close attention to it’, she says. According to student of European languages and cultures Amy, female students can be recognised by their Dr. Martens boots. ‘And their hair clips, oh my god!’
Another staple of the Dutch female student’s wardrobe: brightly coloured flared trousers. ‘I bet they buy all their clothes at the same place’, student of international relations Manish Jha from India jokes. Aruban Christopher, who studies computer sciences, automatically assumes a student is Dutch if she’s wearing trousers with flared legs. ‘I’ve never seen that anywhere else.
Friso, Isabelle and Miriam opted for a sweater with brightly coloured – but comfy – trousers. ‘We do get a little embarrassed when we realise we’re all dressed the same.’
It might be a stereotype, but it’s a dress code that trio of friends Allinda, Isabelle, and Juliette all feel comfortable with. ‘We’re inspired by what other students are wearing’, says Juliette. Why do Dutch students all look approximately the same? ‘Maybe they just want to fit in with their friends and try to dress the same’, says Allinda.
Student Miriam and her friends laugh about it sometimes, she says. ‘We do get a little embarrassed when we all show up to a meeting and realise that we’re all dressed the same! But that doesn’t mean we put on something completely different the next day.’
According to associate professor of social psychology Lise Jans, it makes sense for Dutch students to dress the same as their friends. ‘People enjoy being part of a group. They pay attention to the rules: what are other people doing, how do they behave?’
Clothing is an easy and clearly visible way of communicating your identity to others, Jans explains. ‘You give off a signal without saying anything. That’s why people dress differently at a job interview than when they’re with their friends: they’re trying to give off a different vibe. Going to a festival requires different clothes than going to a ball or class.’
Clothing also creates a common bond, says social psychologists Russell Spears. ‘In the United Kingdom, where I’m from, school students often wear uniforms, which means everyone’s treated the same regardless of where they’re from. But here, people choose to wear the same clothes.’
This kind of group formation occurs at various levels, he says. ‘People do it to set themselves apart generationally, as well. They wear different clothes than their father.’
Spears says that there appears to be a stronger dress code at student associations than with other student groups. ‘They probably consider themselves members of an exclusive club. They’re communicating that difference with their clothes. It’s part of their standards.’
Jans, who used to study students making team shirts, recognises the concept. ‘Student associations have strong standards. Initiation rituals teach the students how they’re supposed to behave within the group. Wearing the same jackets with the same logo creates a bond and aids in forming that strong group identity. Clothing can be used strategically.’
But where do those typical outfits consisting of flared trousers, hoodies, and sneakers come from? ‘I’m just speculating, but I think Dutch people don’t want too much fuss’, says Jans. ‘Jeans are a really common choice of clothing in the Netherlands, when people in other countries would never wear those to work.’
Marie, Stijn and Stijn love hoodies. ‘You give off a signal without saying anything.’
That casual student look also suggests people didn’t put a lot of effort into it, Jans says. It may appear as though someone isn’t all that invested in their outfit, when in reality, they are. ‘After all, they’re all wearing the same jeans or jogging bottoms.’
But the students themselves have a different view. Philosophy student Dax thinks it’s possible that younger students look up to third- or fourth-year students. ‘I know I did a few years ago when I was still a first-year. I saw older guys wearing a particular style and thought it looked cool. Eventually, I started wearing the same kinds of clothes.’
Christopher thinks there might be differences in study programmes. Arts students are supposedly more creative in what they wear than natural science or economics students. ‘Law students tend to wear more formal outfits, while people at Zernike wear more comfortable clothes.’
Even international students eventually succumb to the Dutch student style. ‘I don’t even notice anymore’, says British maths student Ella Turtle. ‘It’s become so ingrained.’ Yasmeen and her friends have gradually adapted to the Dutch standard. ‘We’ve also started wearing Dr. Martens and these hair clips. It’s just something that happens. We adapt. There’s this kind of need to belong.’
The original (main) photo of this story has been replaced after publication. One of the students on this photo forms a circle with his thumb and index finger, stretching the other fingers and little finger. It is a well-known signal of ‘it’s okay’ or ‘it’s going well’. In addition, students use it as a ‘joke’: if you look at it, the person who makes the symbol may hit you (unless you take action yourself). But in recent years (in particular in Anglo-Saxon countries) it has also got a different meaning: right-wing extremist organizations use it to represent ‘white supremacy’. Readers of UKrant, Groningen has a large international community, said that they were disturbed by the photo for this reason. That’s why we decided to replace it. To be clear, the student who made the signal is not to blame.