With its varsity jackets, gilets and chinos, Jack Wills is synonymous with student life for many UK undergraduates.
But for others, the clothing firm – known for having outlets in affluent university towns and its tag of being “outfitters to the gentry” – is a sign that certain social dynamics are at work on campus.
Now a scholar has charted the complicated perceptions that some students have of the brand.
Daniel Smith, lecturer in sociology at Anglia Ruskin University, initiated the study after finding during his own time as a student at the University of Exeter that the term “very Jack Wills” was used to describe a certain type of public school-educated undergraduate.
Dr Smith’s research, which is the subject of his book Elites, Race and Nationhood: The Branded Gentry, was presented at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association on 6 April.
Growth in the popularity of the Jack Wills brand during the 2000s coincided with the entry into selective universities of large numbers of students from widening participation backgrounds. Dr Smith argued that, for these students, the prevalence of Jack Wills clothing “proved the fact that they weren’t born and bred for this”, he told Times Higher Education.
In a series of interviews, however, Dr Smith found that the brand represented something that many of these students aspired to, as a way of “buying into the idea of university” and confirming that they had entered a world of which their parents had not been a part.
“Russell Group universities, where you’re seeing strong concentrations of traditional and widening participation entrants, is where it becomes quite marked and there is a strong sense of people trying to hide their origins,” Dr Smith said. “You can see it in the first weeks: people show up in their clothes from home, and a few weeks later they have ‘got the uniform’ and changed the way they talk.”
In choosing Jack Wills as their uniform, students from less privileged backgrounds were taking their lead from role models around them, Dr Smith argued, and his research details the role that the company has played in this process.
He highlights the role of “seasonnaires” – Jack Wills brand ambassadors who are recruited to promote the brand over summers in holiday resorts frequented by public school leavers such as Salcombe in Devon and Rock in Cornwall, or who are sent on student ski trips.
Dr Smith argued that becoming a seasonnaire was often dependent on personal connections (often via public schools) with existing brand ambassadors.
Dr Smith said he detected “profound ambivalence” towards Jack Wills from many students. But he also found evidence of outright negativity, including one reported incident on a ski trip where a Jack Wills event was attended by students from a northern university wearing branded T-shirts embellished with the slogan “because every toff needs a uniform”.
At Anglia Ruskin, Dr Smith said, Jack Wills was often associated with more affluent students at the University of Cambridge. “My students…do feel themselves being partly inadequate and in the shadow of Cambridge, and the Jack Wills brand is having a profound effect [in their perceptions],” he said.