The psychology behind the fashion choices of Pepperdine students

Catherine Munzar, senior computer science and math major, jokes around with her friends while wearing her beloved llama sweater (Photo by Ella Schoneman).

The field of fashion is vast and diverse, as are the reasons why students at Pepperdine chose their personal styles. 

Regardless of intention, an individuals’ fashion choices tells a story about who they are. 

“Humans are visual creatures and so we can’t help but to classify people according to what we see about them,”  senior history major Philip Young said. 

Whether it be peer influence, social media, expectations, self-expression or cost, there are prevalent psychological factors that influence how college students dress. 

Individual style, individual choice

Fashion websites like Seventeen Magazine share articles like “27 Cute College Outfit Ideas That Don’t Scream ‘Freshman’” and “16 Things Every College Girl Needs in Her Closet.” The industry is constantly telling college students how they should and should not dress. 

“I am very into fashion, but I’m not super stereotypically fashionable,” said Catherine Munzar, a senior computer science and math major. 

Not everyone has the same religious, cultural, economic or geographical background. Oftentimes students may differ on what is “fashion forward” or popular because of their beliefs, situation and identity. 

Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture defines fashion as “the cultural construction of the embodied identity.” 

“I feel like some people only see trendy things as fashion,” Munzar said. 

Psychologists give their perspectives

Jaclyn Wolf, 32, from Camarillo, California, is a psychologist working at Casa Pacifica as a postdoctoral fellow. Prior to working at Casa, Wolf worked as a teaching assistant in fashion courses at Cal State Northridge. 

“There’s a socialization process we go to from birth,” Wolf said. “By our family, by our teachers, by our friends. Through that we come to form our identity.” 

As identities are forming and shifting, fashion choices are often changing to reflect various stages in an individual’s life. 

“In general, middle school is when you more start to see kids caring more about what their peers think of them, their appearance and their hygiene,” Wolf said. 

Catherine Race, 29, is also a psychologist at Casa Pacifica. 

“The biggest influence that people have is what’s familiar and what’s known and common around them,” Race said. 

Although this starts at an early age, the college years are often an important milestone for young adults who are experiencing living on their own and away from home for the first time. No longer surrounded by their hometowns and family, what remains, in terms of immediate influence, are fellow Pepperdine students, friends and social media. 

Social media and the influencer 

The Pew Research Center conducted surveys of U.S. adults between 2005 and 2021, tracking social media usage via group characteristics such as age, gender, education, etc. Survey results showed that in 2021, 84% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 use, at a minimum, one social media site. 

“We have this unrealistic beauty standard that we see online,” Wolf said. “I think that impacts so much from fashion but also just in general self-image.”

When there are groups of people constantly being praised for the way they look and the luxury items they wear, it creates the concept of the Instagram influencer, an Instagram user with established credibility and the ability to reach a large audience, according to Digital Marketing

For many social media users, the influencer is an idealistic image of who people should try to emulate. 

“What do we do as humans,” Race said. “Constantly compare ourselves to others.” 

German philosopher Immanuel Kant regarded fashion as a law of imitation, where those of lower standing compared themselves to someone of greater importance, Roman Meinhold wrote in his book, “Fashion Myths: A Cultural Critique” in 2013. 

In the case of the influencer, they have more followers, therefore, what they wear can determine what is fashionable. Many social media users may feel they need to meet the influencer standards. 

Fashion as nonverbal communication

Munzar said she forms perceptions of people through their style choices. 

“People say ‘The first thing I see about someone is their eyes.’ That is such a lie,” Munzar said. “The first thing I notice about you is your shirt.” 

Young relies on this observation to share his political beliefs with his classmates through his clothing, like wearing a shirt with the Gadsden flag. Many remember the Gadsden flag as the symbol for the American Revolution. Over the years, the rattlesnake depicted on the flag has come to represent an anti-government logo, according to High Country News.

“I certainly try to wear clothes that reflect an anti-statist Libertarian aesthetic,” Young said.

Senior history major Philip Young wears one of his many Libertarian shirts (Photo by Ella Schoneman).

Young’s unique style choices have garnered many comments from his peers, both positive and negative. 

Fashion activism, or protest fashion, is the general term for using clothing as an outlet for communicating an individual’s beliefs and showing support for a political movement, according to Teen Vogue

Young said he uses these responses to start conversations about political issues with people of various backgrounds. 

“Even the negative comments promote interesting dialogue,” Young said.

Trying to meet expectations

Despite the nearly endless possibilities of style options, there are still societal expectations that college students both face and set amongst their peers. 

“I don’t think there’s a way to dress, but I think there’s a way not to dress, especially in college,” said Jennifer Gash, a senior psychology and religion major. 

She said a pet peeve of hers is when people show up to their classes wearing pajamas, as it comes across very unprofessional and will make it difficult for students to know how to dress properly when they enter the workforce. 

Being too casual may come across as inappropriate, but Munzar said dressing too over the top becomes an exhausting expectation. 

“If you wear crazy things everyday people expect it from you and they take it for granted,” Munzar said. 

There is also sometimes a societal expectation that individuals dress in a way that reflects the traditional norms of their expressed gender. 

“I do feel that there is somewhat of subconscious social expectation that I dress in a way that is perceived as masculine,” Young said. 

Living in the celebrity-filled, sunny and expensive city of Malibu comes with additional expectations. 

“You tend to see a lot of clothes that reflect a coastal upper-middle class suburbanite culture,” Young said. 

The cost of clothing 

When it comes to purchasing clothes, money is also an important factor in the decision of college students. 

From thrifting to hand-me-downs, some college students forgo designer and luxury items in order to spend their money on tuition, housing and food. 

“Usually when I buy things I only look at the sales section,” Munzar said. 

She is not the only one.

Gash said cost has a huge impact on the clothes she wears. 

Jennifer Gash, senior psychology and religion major, shows her school pride in some of her Pepperdine merch (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Gash).

“I’m trying to think if there is anything I am wearing right now that I actually bought,” Gash said. “My jeans were my roommates’, this is not my sweatshirt, I got my belt with Christmas money, [and] my shirt was free from my sorority.”

Ella Schoneman completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.