Is there an AU identity?
For students at American universities, university logo clothing is virtually a uniform – and even local residents of many university towns wear university gear with pride. But at AU, you rarely see students in AU logo clothes at lectures or hanging out in the park. If you do spot a dolphin logo on a shirt, it probably belongs to a university employee. But why is that? We asked three students, a cultural researcher and AU’s communications department to share their insights.
“It’s comfortable and nice to wear. But I wouldn’t classify it as cool.”
This fashion verdict was pronounced by Barbara Rousset after she tried on the official AU T-shirt and hoodie. She’s studying dramaturgy and anthropology, and recently returned from field work in the States, where she explored the links between identity and university apparel.
Together with Ellen Emilie Madsen, who’s studying religion and social science, and Jakob Wadsager, who’s studying physics and computer science, she agreed to try on the AU clothing and shed some light on why it’s not more popular among students. After the three students laughed their way through an hour-long photoshoot dressed in AU clothing, they agree that they wouldn’t dream of strutting around in the university’s colors. Not on campus and not downtown.
“There’s a little too much ‘official AU letterhead’ about it, and you feel like it’s something from the Rector’s Office. It’s totally official and boring, and it doesn’t represent the students. If you want to use these clothes to create a sense of AU identity, it has to come from below and be about who the students are,” says Ellen Emilie Madsen.
Events and Communication Support, headed by Anders Frølund, is the unit responsible for for AU’s logo apparel. He explains that while they have gotten inquiries from students who are interested in having an influence on the AU clothing, this hasn’t made it any more popular.
“Even when we ask Danish students in advance what they’re interested in wearing, we’ve found that when we get those clothes in stock, there’s little interest in buying them.”
However, he is receptive to the criticism of the official look: “I won’t deny that I’m open to looking at a freer approach next time we make something, so it’s less official.”
The students’ suggestions for improving AU apparel
- Samarbejd med de lokale foreninger om at lave AU-tøj, som er tilpasset den enkelte forening, faget eller instituttet.
- Work with local associations to produce AU clothing which is tailored to the individual association, degree programme or department.
- Work with popular brands, and put AU logos on the clothes that students already think is cool.
- Make higher-quality, more breathable clothes.
- Offer a larger selection so that students can express their individual style.
- Reduce the prices. The hoodie costs 349 kroner, the T-shirt 130 kroner and the long-sleeved shirt costs 150 kroner.
- Make greater use of the dolphin seal and interpret it creatively.
- Offer wacky things, for example dolphin seal removable tattoos. A little ironic distance helps if you want students to think something’s cool.
Individuality is expensive
The students have plenty of ideas about how to improve AU clothing. They agree that AU should take more inspiration from the States, where many universities offer large apparel collections which combine a sense of communal identity with individual style.
“The AU clothing isn’t personal. When you get dressed, you want to express yourself as well, and you can’t with the AU clothing we have now. The clothes from UC Berkeley are cool because they’re more personal, and there are more styles to choose from. There needs to be more variation in the clothes, for example with different fonts and patterns. It could also be cool to play with the themes of the seal, for example anchors, dolphins or sailor suits,” Ellen Emilie Madsen comments.
“There are a lot of different people at AU, and so the clothes need to appeal to a lot of different tastes. It has to be able to represent ‘me’, at the same time as it represents where I come from.”
Events and Communication Support is aware of the diversity of the student body’s style. And this makes buying in AU clothing challenging.
“We can’t have a huge collection, because we have to have a healthy bottom line. That’s why we’re a little conservative about how often we buy in new things, because fashions change all the time. We can’t have a new collection once a year, because we don’t have the budget for that,” explains Anders Frølund.
Among other things, students would like more colours to choose from – but even that simple wish can be hard to grant.
“If we’re going to have five colours, we also have to have 5-6 sizes in each colour. That’s 25-30 different products which we have to purchase wholesale in large quantities in order to get the price low enough. We’ve found that we end up with a large stock we can’t sell. Fashion changes before we can sell it,” explains Frølund.
However, he is willing to entertain the possibility that two different colours to choose between might be possible, and he doesn’t want to reject the students’ other suggestions, which he thinks are good.
“I will be honest and say that it’s a challenge for us. But of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t work on getting other colours or a less official look.”
However, he adds that it probably won’t be relevant to start work on a new collection until some time in 2018.
According to the students, the diversity of the Berkeley apparel range is probably not the only explanation for why more of the American university’s students wear it. The students also point out that the lack of a sense of AU community – or at least the visible aspect of it – may also be due to a cultural difference between Denmark and the US.
“There’s a different mentality in the US,” Barbara Rousset explains. This is also something she noticed during her fieldwork in the States.
“I think they have a greater need to say ‘This is where I’m from’ than we have in Denmark. Maybe because our country is so small, and you’re not so far from home.”
“People do care about where they come from in this country, but it’s not like I need to constantly walk around and brag about being from Aarhus,” Jakob Wadsager adds with a smile.
The same explanation has also occurred to the team at Events and Communication Support:
“After all, you need to think that the US is just as big as Europe. If you travel from the eastern United States to study at UCLA in California, you’re as far away as if you travel from Italy to Denmark. The American students make a long journey, while the Danish students don’t travel nearly as far away from home, and that gives us a different tradition,” says Anders Frølund.
He adds that the demand for AU clothing is much greater among international students on exchange at Aarhus University.
The financial entanglement factor
Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen is an AU researcher whose field is culture and media, and who has also worked on fashion. She agrees that there are deep cultural differences between the US and Denmark which may influence the popularity of university apparel. But according to her, geography is not the decisive factor:
“The American students are financially entangled in their university in a completely different way than Danish students. Imagine that your family has saved up throughout your entire childhood to pay for your education, and that you’ve spent time and energy on sending applications to several different universities. So where you get in means more: you build an identity up around your choice of university and degree programme. This is why American students are more loyal to their university. The situation in Denmark is completely different, where education is free, and you can take your SU with you if you decide to switch to a different university,” says Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen.
She adds that another explanation for this loyalty could be that American students apply for financial aid to study abroad through their universities, and that the names of grant recipients are announced at formal award ceremonies.
And while she agrees that the larger geographical distances between home and university are a factor, she doesn’t view this as the primary explanation.
“American students move maybe a two hour flight away from home and get a new identity, so that may play a role. But first and foremost, I think that there’s a sense of identity around the large universities in the US. If you get into one of the best universities, a successful career is almost guaranteed. So this is something people want to show off.”
“Last but not least, there’s more emphasis on the residence hall community on campus, where the people you live with become like a little family.”
We have a community too – it’s just local
According to the Danish students, there’s no lack of a sense of community at AU, or an unwillingness to express it. They point to the associations at AU which have created their own gear.
“For example, in the Kaserne Revue club, which I’m part of, we have our own shirts, and Humbug (the social committee at Arts, ed) has them too. So you identify yourself with that. The social committees are more bearers of identity than AU as a whole,” says Barbara Rousset. Ellen Emilie Madsen agrees:
“I know a lot of people who identify themselves with the social committees. We put on our uniforms and show that we come from PF, ‘Umbi’, Humbug and so on.”
In other words, the sense of community is centred on the local associations and committees at the departments and schools, not on AU as an institution.
“It’s the equivalent of having several football teams at AU,” explains Barbara Rousset, and according to Ellen Emilie Madsen, this is expressed at the annual Regatta, where the social committees compete against each other.
“At the Regatta, we’re also divided up more internally. So they shout: ‘Where are the med students?’”
Facts about AU apparel
- You can buy AU clothing at the Stakbogladen, bookshop and online in the AU webshop.
- The clothes we used in the photo shoot were kindly lent to us by Stakbogladen.
Create a conflict with Copenhagen
The students are neither strongly for nor against creating a stronger AU identity. But if you do consider the lack of identification with the university problematic, they don’t think it would be difficult to create a stronger sense of school spirit.
“In the US, all the university have a sports team. I think it’s easier to create a community if there’s a sports team to identify with,” says Jakob Wadsager. Ellen Emilie Madsen chimes in immediately:
“If we and the University of Copenhagen had teams that competed against each other, I would absolutely 100% dress in clothes that scream ‘Aarhus’ from top to toe.”
“Yes, you have to create some kind of conflict, then you get a sense of community,” laughs Jakob Wadsager.
The three students are quick to propose more competition among the universities in Denmark, for example an annual Regatta involving all the universities.
“Then there’d be a greater need to stand together as a university,” Barbara Rousset concludes.