Wednesday, 21 December 2011 14:08

From purple ties to Liz Claiborne handbags, purple apparel all the rage at WCU

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Just one day after being named Western Carolina University’s athletics director, Randy Eaton was shopping for purple-colored clothing at the school’s gift shop.

He had figured out, in a mere matter of hours, that at WCU employees are expected to dress in purple — and lots of it. The Catamount colors are purple and gold.

Though not wearing purple probably isn’t a firing offense, and technically at least your choice of dress colors isn’t tied to receiving tenure, if you don’t follow the “Power of Purple” unofficial dress code you’re going to feel mighty lonely in crowds of your coworkers here. Not to mention those “Purple Fridays” when employees are encouraged to participate by dressing — you got it — in purple.

Peer pressure operates at any age level.

Eaton, like other coaches and sports types here, has it relatively easy. He can simply walk into the on-campus gift shop and buy athletic apparel sporting the school’s logo and consider himself a fashionably dressed chap about campus. Other men at WCU, even administrators and professors or staff, don’t have it all that difficult, either. Sure, it’s a bit of a chore to find purple ties, but they are out there for the purchasing, including right here in Sylva.

“You can get this stuff at Walmart,” said Bill Studenc, the head of WCU’s public relations department as he fingered his purple tie.

Pity the poor women at WCU, however. You just aren’t going to find haute couture at a box store. They are instead left to scour the earth for purple.

“Anywhere I can get my hands on it, I buy it,” said Jennifer Brown, WCU’s associate athletics director. “Belks, T.J. Maxx, wherever.”

“Yes, it is power shopping with a goal in mind,” agreed Sue Arakas, an Asheville native who serves as associate commissioner for the Southern Conference. She was here to welcome Eaton to his new post at a press conference and reception last week.

Arakas, who must make visits to all 12 universities in SoCon, buys a variety of clothing to meet each school expectation. On this day, she was sporting a purple top, hurriedly purchased for this visit to WCU — one must be careful not to show up in, say, the blue and white colors of The Citadel when visiting this rival campus. If all else fails, Arakas reaches for pink.

“That’s nobody’s colors,” she said in explanation. And, unlikely ever to be — what self-respecting football team is going to dress out in pink?

WCU Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach Jonelle Streed has learned during her three seasons here that there’s a simple, and inexpensive, way to meet WCU’s purple-fashion madness.

“Just go black, and buy and wear purple undershirts with it,” Streed said.

But one must be careful with black, said Jill Ingram, who works in public relations for the university. Pair black with the WCU school-color gold, and you might find yourself burned at the stake or something along those lines. Black and yellow is arch rival Appalachian State’s school colors.

Ingram was suffering deeply at this event from an unmistakable, never-to-be-forgotten fashion faux pas: she’d forgotten about the Eaton event, and arrived not in the obligatory purple, but in a raspberry-sorbet colored sweater.

Never fear, Ingram said, she does have purple-colored clothing in her closet.

“Every time I go to consignment or thrift, I look for purple,” she said nervously as she defended herself from possible censure.

Purple items, in these days of massive university layoffs, are probably more easily available in Jackson County’s used clothing shops than ever before.

Ingram, like other women at the event, expressed awe and a certain measure of envy over Susan Belcher’s ability to not just stylishly wear purple, which she certainly does, but to actually accessorize each outfit. On this day, Belcher was dressed in black with a purple top and purple earrings, a purple necklace and a Liz Claiborne purple handbag.

Belcher’s husband, David, became chancellor this summer. Belcher immediately understood that unlike at their last school posting, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where the school colors of maroon and silver were rarely worn outside of sports events, purple dominates at WCU — from the classroom to the ballroom.

“I look everywhere for it now,” Belcher said. “When I see purple, and if it’s affordable, I buy it. You can’t go overboard, you can’t wear too much purple at WCU.”

Fortunately, Belcher said, purple is “in” this year, allowing her to stock her closet for possible drought years in the future.

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