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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Cal men in plug hats
Cal men in their crushed "plug" hats, which were all the rage around 1900. (Photographs courtesy of the University Archives and the Blue & Gold yearbook)

Exhibit to track a century of Cal student fashion, from plugs to bling

– Battered hats and dirt-encrusted brown corduroy pants might scream 1990s grunge. But these shabby fashion statements were all the rage at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. "The more disgusting they were, the higher status they held," said William Benemann, curator of a new UC Berkeley exhibit that chronicles more than 100 years of clothing trends on campus.

From Plugs to Bling Slide show
Women in plug hats
A Century of Cal Student Fashion
View the slide show
The elements of Cal Style 2008 (view slide show)
"From Plugs to Bling: A Century of Cal Student Fashion" draws from the University Archives, as well as from lesser known campus collections, and includes turn-of-the-century gymnasium attire from the Women's Athletic Association, uniforms from the Cal Marching Band, and t-shirts from the campus radio station, KALX. Many of the approximately 100 objects have never before been placed on display.

"Clothing connects people to the past on a very emotional level," said Benemann, an archivist at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a Cal alumnus. "If I had a copy of the Declaration of Independence in one hand and a shirt worn by Thomas Jefferson in the other, it's the shirt that would draw your attention, even though everyone would agree that the document is more important."

Telling UC Berkeley's history through student fashion trends, "From Plugs to Bling" officially opens in the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery at Doe Memorial Library on Saturday, March 8, and runs through Aug. 29.

Highlights of the 140-year-old campus's clothing fads will be housed in 12 exhibit cases, and the gallery also will display four banners of life-sized photos of contemporary students, including one hipster in skinny jeans, a t-shirt and a fauxhawk hairstyle.

Since "the Apostles," the name given to the first graduating class of 1873, UC Berkeley student fashions have reflected political and social attitudes on the campus. One of the original campus trends was for upperclassmen, and some women, to wear top hats known as "plugs," which they kicked around and adorned with class numbers, letters, drawings of campus buildings and an occasional skull and crossbones.

Curator William Benemann describes items in the Plugs to Bling exhibit
Curator William Benemann talks about the evolution of Cal fashion during a tour of the "From Plugs to Bling" exhibit. In the case behind him are articles of fashion from Benemann's own days as a Cal student. (Steve McConnell/UC Berkeley photo)
The library exhibition will display six plugs, including one worn by the young Robert Gordon Sproul, who later served as president of the University of California from 1930 to 1958. His gray junior plug sports a beer stein and green satin ribbons. Members of the class of 1913 were the first to wear the "senior sombrero." Other items in the exhibit: the bright yellow drum major's uniform, affectionately known as "the banana jacket," from the 1959 Rose Bowl, a 1930s women's swimsuit, and a 1898 athletic sweater with the letter "C" that belonged to football player and bohemian writer James Hopper.

One exhibit case will include an enlarged copy of a 1913 disciplinary report that a female student received for wearing too much make-up and suggestive clothing. She was asked to remove her make-up and lower her hemline because she was distracting law students as she walked past Boalt Hall.

One mannequin in the exhibit will wear Benemann's muffler, denim jacket and class shirt to chronicle the archivist's personal sartorial metamorphosis while a UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate student. When Benemann first entered UC Berkeley as a transfer student in 1969, male students had largely abandoned the formal sport coats and ties of the earlier 1960s for the clothing of the radicalized student movement. But yearning for a bygone collegiate atmosphere that he had experienced only through books and movies, Benemann bought a blue and gold muffler, which he said he wore on campus with a "hint of embarrassment."

Later, during the People's Park demonstrations, Benemann adopted the blue-jeans look of most of the Cal student body. But by the time he finished graduate school in 1975, the protest era had calmed considerably, and he felt comfortable sporting a shirt emblazoned with his class year.