McKendree University: The Fashion Forward Campaign

By Emily Stanowski, Staff Writer

Lebanon, Ill. – Fashion icon and designer Marc Jacobs once said, “To me, clothing is a form of self-expression. There are hints about who you are in what you wear.”  Personally, I have always believed this to be true.  What you choose to wear is a great way to represent what you believe in, as well as other aspects of your life, such as your favorite bands, sports teams and places.

Because of this, I have always enjoyed keeping up with trends in the fashion world.  While visiting McKendree University’s archives, I discovered several pieces of McKendree clothing that were stored in many different boxes.  Immediately, I thought about my Visual Rhetoric project, and how exciting it would be to include McK clothing of the past in my project.  After all, college years are a major part of life that most people use to express themselves.

From there, I decided to do a display in the university’s museum representing the changes in fashion and style at McKendree.  After sifting through boxes among boxes of various documents, books and letters, I found a collection of clothing items representing McKendree University.

Today, we see many items branded with the McKendree logos. However, this was not always the case.  McKendree University clothing actually became popular during the early 1900s.  Prior to this, clothing that obviously represented McKendree was uncommon.

Because of this, I needed to do research on what students at McKendree commonly wore.  The first item was a surplice from the 1700s worn by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.  A surplice is typically a white cloth worn by religious figures.  Since McKendree University had its start as a seminary for Methodist preachers, this was a commonly worn piece.  Students during McK’s early days would have worn this to represent their faith.

Next, I discovered that many students during the early 1900s wore what would now be considered as very formal clothing to class.  From images in the 1908 McKendree Yearbook (below), we can see that women wore long dresses and men wore suits.

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Being that these are yearbook photos, it is possible that they dressed for the occasion. However, other images from the yearbook suggest that is not the case.  Can you image going to your class on third floor Old Main wearing long dresses or a suit every day?

The next clothing treasures found were McKendree freshmen beanies.  The beanies varied slightly in style, but typically consisted of a purple hat with “McK” on it.  Freshman were required to wear these on campus at all times, unless the Bearcat football team won its homecoming game. If the Bearcats lost their homecoming game, freshmen continued wearing the hats until Thanksgiving.  This tradition dates back as early as 1925, but McKendree did away with the practice.

My findings continued with many pieces of McKendree sportswear.  Unfortunately for athletes of the past, many of the uniforms were not quite as lightweight or safe as our current uniforms.  For example, compared to today’s shorts, basketball shorts in the 1940s were not very long.

Seen in the image below, football uniforms were made from a thick cotton material, as opposed to the lighter, spandex-like material used today.  Also, a 1920s football helmet suggests that safety measures were not as advanced as they are today.  The helmets lacked proper padding and did not cover much of the player’s heads.

McK football team

Other findings from the collection include Greek-life memorabilia, various t-shirts and photographs representing McKendree’s past and present.

Present day McKendree fashion now consists of sweatpants or leggings, as well as t-shirts or sweatshirts.  While many students still dress nicely for class, the standards of class attire have lowered.

As for the future of McKendree fashion, the dressier trends may be making a comeback to campus.  Bookstore manager Amy Blasdel said, “[the store] is looking to be trendier but still hitting a reasonable price point.”  She continued to say leggings, dress shirts and ties will be making their way into the bookstore this fall.

During my time researching for this project, I found it interesting to see what people decided to memorialize.  While many items related to athletics, others were simply t-shirts that represented accomplishments by proud McK alumni.

When discovering pieces that clearly have one specific owner, I cannot help but think how important the event or club was to them.  Preserving the item over so many years shows its importance.  By donating pieces of clothing, students have given the university pieces of themselves.  As the great Marc Jacobs would say, donators are truly “dropping hints” about their past and the university’s history through clothing.

McKendree University: The Fashion Forward Campaign will be on display in the McKendree University Museum (Bothwell Chapel) with tours during the Academic Excellence Celebration (April 27) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For questions or concerns, comment below or contact Emily Stanowski at
All photos via Emily Stanowski. 

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