When I first arrived on campus a semester ago, I didn’t have a coat so much as a hoodie and a long-sleeved shirt to put under it and thin jacket-like thing to put over it. I was arrogant about my ability to endure the cold and too stubborn to drop cash that I thought would be better spent on tuition than on a real coat. Everyday I made the trek across campus to my 8 a.m. classes, wading through drifts of snow and gritting my teeth against the wind and freezing my ass off.
My flimsy jacket wasn’t quite cutting it. I broke down and took an Uber to Target and got a decent coat off the clearance rack. I still wear it today and it’s pretty warm for something that’s probably stuffed with polyester fluff. But for the first few months, when I didn’t have that coat, my thin jacket was an obvious, marked sign of difference between me and other students. As much as I hated the cold, I hated the way that the thin jacket made me feel even more. So, of course, when I learned that the Canada Goose Jackets that I saw swarm the hills of Foss every morning cost 500-plus dollars, I was seething. I felt as though the wearers wanted me to notice them and their bright red patches. It gave me, and my flimsy jacket, something to hate about Wesleyan.
In January of this year, Chicago saw a spike in armed robberies that targeted Canada Goose wearers. Similarly, Boston College students had their jackets swiped. At the time, Wesleyan’s regular winter discourse over the jackets was circulating. People hate the coats because of what they seem to represent: class domination, excess, status. With all of this violence and vitriol circulating around the coats, wearers face a much steeper price tag than the $500-$1,700 the tag implies. They open themselves up to ridicule and paint a target on their backs (or on their arms, depending on how you want to look at it.). The question remains, then: Why wear them?
I think the answer might lie in the history of the coats and their marketing, which has wrapped up two distinct and dissonant ideas under the same white and red badge. Canada Goose started out as, above all, a practical brand. It was worn as a uniform by police officers and Canadian mounties. A choice piece of clothing for the working class who were outside for extended periods of time in freezing cold temperatures (mind you that the state paid for the outerwear, not the workers themselves.) The coats were also, notably, worn by researchers on a 1980s expedition to Antarctica (hence the patches’ distinctive phrase “Canada Goose Arctic Program”). In these ways, Canada Goose cemented itself as a deeply practical brand. And I can’t deny that the coats are well made and warm. Not that I’ve ever worn one, but given their impressive history, it must be so.
But the criticism of Canada Goose doesn’t center around wealthy liberal arts students appropriating piece of clothing that was traditionally worn by working-class people (if that were the case there would be an uproar over the number of people wearing Carhartt and Doc Martens). Rather, the coats have become a site of class conflict and are criticized on the basis that they’re a needless status symbol, that wearers want you to know about their wealth. Look no further than the 2013 Sundance Festival where the company passed out a number of the coats to film-makers and actors. They quickly followed this up with Kate Upton’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2013. Upton appears wearing a swimsuit (supposedly, since you can’t quite see it in the photo) with a Canada Goose jacket draped over her otherwise exposed body. This is an early example of a very intentional luxury marketing on the part of the lovely people at Canada Goose. Since then, Canada Goose has made a number of strategic marketing choices in order to align itself with celebrities and musical artists, bringing the coat into the public eye and marking it as a symbol of wealth and status. Like other status brands (say Supreme or Gucci), Canada Goose has a striking and easily identifiable logo, making it easier to spot (and target) than other lesser known luxury items.
It is all of these dissonant elements combined that make Canada Goose a sight for class struggle on campus. In the vein of truly practical northeastern fashions, Canada Goose is pricy but for the sake of practicality (or this is, at least, how I think wearers feel about their coats). Its colors are muted and it looks like a regular coat, except for the striking logo. I think wearers would be lying to themselves if they didn’t say that they also liked the status that comes with the coats, the proof that you can afford such a “practical” item. But for critics, the coats are only status, as garish and in-your-face as the artificially inflated Supreme T-shirts. They are a direct slap in the face, a waving-around of one’s wealth in order to make others feel small.
The question remains, then: Who is right here? I believe the answer is both everyone and no one. The coats, the logos, symbolize what the company and we as consumers or viewers want them to symbolize. They mean both things, practicality and status, at the same time and they also, in reality, mean neither. Canada Goose is not, in actuality, the practical choice for any liberal arts college student. We are not Arctic explorers, we are not Canadian Mounties. We are only college students, walking from building to heated building, shedding the goose feathers almost as soon as they’re donned. And the price tag on these coats is certainly not what I’d call practical. Critics should also acknowledge that they only hate the coats because of their symbolic power. Students on this campus wear all kinds of expensive items of clothing—more expensive, even, then Canada Goose. The reality is that there are many well-off people on this campus who spend money on frivolous things. Canada Goose is not a unique example of this, it is only a recognizable one.
I don’t believe that wealthy students wear these jackets because they want to rub their wealth in other people’s faces. They wear them because they fell victim to clever marketing. I don’t believe that shaming wealthy students for their ridiculous purchases will help improve class relations on campus, either. But maybe my saying that when I first arrived on this campus I had nothing but a hoodie and a flimsy jacket and I was angry and isolated and freezing my ass off will help others be mindful. Be mindful about the symbolic power of your purchase, the power that you allow marketing and symbols have over your life. Be mindful of what it means to wear Canada Goose, or to view it. But above all be mindful that there are students on this campus with no coat, and no access to one, and concern yourself more so with that.
Katie Livingston is a member of the Class of 2021. Katie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.