Harriet Walker: Leave dressing up for real life

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Going to university is like a brand repositioning exercise. You consider your hair, your music collection, even your toothpaste, in a whole new light. "How would someone much cooler than me react to all these things?" you wonder. And, more crucially: "How can I get this much cooler person to like me?"

But after the New York Times last week focussed on one fraternity's "back to school" party invite ("dress code: slutty nurse, slutty doctor, slutty schoolgirl or just a total slut") perhaps we rather more grounded and banal Brits can stop worrying and breathe a sigh of relief, for our universities are much more accepting places, for geeks, nerds and yes, even for women.

While I was at school I spent hours – no, days – planning outfits, smearing on fake tan and teasing my hair into lacquered abstractions. When I got to university, I realised all that meant I was missing out on fun, so I threw on some jeans and a T-shirt, and got over myself. I found that university is a much less objectifying atmosphere than the world beyond its dreaming spires.

I'd be lying if I said that my student friends and I had prioritised the expansion of our intellects over that of our social circle and wardrobes, but certainly it was a time in which we came under less pressure to look or behave a certain way than I have experienced either before or since. Whether this was because we were in a self-imposed media blackout, thanks to being drunk, broke and hideous narcissists, I can't say. But it was very liberating.

British universities are constantly parodied for their jumble-sale mix of stereotypes and tribes, of chinos and camo pants, blazers and tie-dye. Just think of Bridehead's Sebastian, The Young Ones, even Emma and Dexter of David Nicholls' One Day. American universities, however, seem to exist on a perennial tide of the same social flotsam – the ones that rise to the top and stay there in perpetuity. And it's this environment that makes their campuses so much more concerned with hierarchy and, by extension, with appearance. "When the guys go out," explained one Princeton junior to the New York Times , "they are laid-back, casual, like they are going to class. But the women come in short cocktail dresses, make-up, high heels."

The American Ivy League is dominated by a caste system rather different to that of our own universities; with the kick-off in tuition fees, perhaps UK students will have to become more austere in their lifestyles anyway. Certainly, there won't be space in their budgets to buy more than one "slutty" outfit – unless the sums of money involved in getting a degree these days discourage precisely the rich mix for which our higher education institutions are known.

But the main thing is that this peacocking and preening is what makes the world outside university go round. It's what fills the gutters of provincial high streets up and down the country every Friday night. It's the orange skin and false hair of popstars and footballers' wives. It's the décolletage and the diet fads and the exercise DVDs of later life. And it's ubiquitous.

If you're going to university this autumn, by all means plan which posters will go where on your walls, or what the first tune you blast down the corridor might be. But don't demean yourself by dressing up – the most interesting people don't. University and old age are the only times you'll get away with wearing a cardigan covered in egg while talking over other people. So make the most of it while you're sprightly.





The gypsy action the cameras won't catch



The MTV generation only has space in its head for one plight at a time, and those in charge of brainless broadcasting have decided that this season the lens should be on gypsy culture and the travelling community. You can tell it's their turn to shine because three instances make a trend, and so far we've had My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Paddy Doherty (the bare-knuckle fighter who is currently in Celebrity Big Brother) and, this week, the evictions at Dale Farm, the biggest traveller site in Europe.

But while Doherty thinks he has been included to try and inform the general public about his background, many more people tune in for CBB's eviction night than care about those actually losing their makeshift homes in Essex at the moment. Doherty has ended up in that wretched house because of his ethnicity, unlike all the other contestants who are simply a bit weird. Clearly programme-makers and viewers think the two are interchangeable.

The likes of addled Tara Reid and the imbecilic Kerry Katona have made a career of embarrassing themselves to hog the limelight; Doherty's career has been beating people up, yes, but not in order to assume the spotlight.

There's something very sinister about presenting for entertainment a culture and way of life that, in general, elicits very little sympathy. That's why the Gypsy Wedding series made such uncomfortable viewing; it didn't teach us anything beyond the parodic or cartoonish. Indulging our peccadilloes to watch "these funny little people" doesn't do anything to help them – especially not when the world's cameras seem to switch off just at the point they're needed most.



Eggs in a pink box? The Stepford dream



I've mentioned before all the new products which reduce women to frothy pink fools: sanitary towels printed with pretty pictures, flower garlands to wear in your hair, but the latest quite literally takes the cake. Someone in a confluence of misogyny and cynicism has come up with the idea of "baking eggs" which come in a pink box and are just the right size for making cupcakes with.

Yes, you heard correctly: time to throw out all those sub-par normal-sized eggs and finally perfect your fairy cakes. The attendant advert features a surprised-looking, smouldering blonde whose face is splotched with so much white icing sugar that it is more redolent of an unpleasant sexual act than baking.

There's something insidious about the cupcake culture, a souped-up Fifties-housewife-on acid trend which started off as rather cutesy and retro and has become yet another club to bludgeon us over the head with. Because guess what: no one outside of Stepford has time to make cupcakes, let alone worry about what size eggs they're using.

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