“Well, she seems okay, but she has a Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster on her wall,” I can distinctly recall one of my best high school friends telling me of her freshman roommate. I didn’t fully comprehend what was wrong with that, but I gathered this meant her new roomie was a little fussy. Stuffy, too girly, kind of lame. That was the gist. To be fair, my friend was the type who was probably too hip to hang up any posters. She just had some bizarre pictures ironically torn out of old children’s books or something similar on her wall. But they ended up becoming good friends, Audrey Hepburn notwithstanding.
I am fairly certain the offending Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster originated at their small liberal arts school's semi-annual poster sale, because pretty much every college or university has one of these. Typically staged during freshman move-in time, or the first week of the new semester, folding tables are erected outside the bookstore or in the quad, topped with big binders of images. In them are scenes from The Big Lebowski and Animal House, smiling portraits of teenage heartthrobs, reproductions of old French liquor advertisements, logos from legacy bands like Guns n’ Roses and the Grateful Dead, and written-out, blown-up instructions on how to play seemingly obvious drinking games.
Why do college students love posters so much? Part of it stems from necessity: Those stark cement walls make little dorm rooms feel cold and impersonal if they’re not decorated. “College can be so stressful and sometimes you just need to be surrounded by that visual motivation and inspiration to be happy,” 21-year-old Katherine, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Refinery29 via social media. “Also decorating walls can just become a huge pet project and way of expressing yourself creatively when your major is less creatively inclined.”
Freshman, already scrambling to find and loudly articulate an identity, can leave the poster sale with two or three plastic tubes housing scrolls that represent the very essence of their new, parent-free, on-campus selves. Posters become an affordable, demonstrable expression of who they are as a person — or, in the tradition of people eager to leave behind their hometown selves, who they want to be.
For example: All my stoner friends at the University of Rochester (way back in 2008) had Bob Marley posters and tapestries that pleasantly billowed in the slightest breeze. The group of pretty, cliquey girls who let me pregame with them a couple of times all had posters of Johnny Depp and Jack Johnson, contrasted with thousands of photos of their friends from high school, plastered together into a reminder of how much fun they were. The chill older girls in my sorority had Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. Some frat houses had pictures of bikini models; the more hardcore ones opted for pictures of women who were just straight-up naked. According to AllPosters.com, among the most popular posters for college students are Vincent Van Gogh’s Almost Branches in Bloom, Caddyshack, and a picture of a model in a tennis outfit, lifting up one side of her skirt to reveal her buttcheeks. Sounds about right to me.
In my own freshman dorm room I tried to cultivate a deliberate contrast between what I thought of as the fashion-y side of my personality (represented via collages of arty images from Vogue and Interview) with what I hoped might be perceived as a bohemian, rock and roll sensibility (I actually purchased and displayed a poster that said “Hippies Always Welcome,” and I am very ashamed to admit it). To seem extra edgy, I positioned several black-and-white, topless photos of Kate Moss near the entrance to the room. Once I started taking art history classes, I invested in a huge poster of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. No one bothered to tell me that this was probably the most cliché of all the canonical paintings I could have selected.
"Decorating walls can just become a huge pet project and way of expressing yourself creatively when your major is less creatively inclined.”
But then, most college dorm room posters are riddled with clichés, because college is riddled with clichés. This isn’t a bad thing. College, with its infinite beer pong tournaments, 101-level seminars and dingy common spaces full of grumpy students “sexiled” from dorm rooms, is one big, honking cliché. Even those, like my high school friend, who don’t fall victim to the poster sale, who instead do something offbeat and unexpected like covering their room in Duck Tape or making a bunch of abstract paintings, reveal something about themselves. Namely, that they’re non-conformist. Though on many campuses, “non-conformity” may just be the biggest college cliché of all.
“I used to steal posters from my local coffee shops that had woodcut or screen print style designs on them — I would use them as inspiration in designing posters for my college radio station but I would hang them all in my dorm room,” admits 25-year-old Ramona, clearly a card-carrying member of the non-conformist camp.
College dorm rooms, for most people, are the first solo expression of their style of decor — that is, if you can call the standard Target bed-in-a-bag with a microwave next to it “decor.” Most fascinatingly, since everybody lives next door to each other, you inevitably see not just the dorm rooms of your close friends, but also those belonging to your crush, that kid from your science class, and even the impossibly perfect-seeming girl who lives down the hall. Posters become not just a self-aware homage to one’s social caste, but a conversation starter during a time in life when you’re never needed one more.
Like so many other highly commercialized forms of self-expression — from fast fashion to social media — college dorm room posters are equal parts an achingly earnest expression of one’s innermost soul and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to try on a prepackaged, Halloween costume version of a self.
And then, by the time we reach our first real apartments — those slivers of the world painstakingly procured despite entry-level wages and inspired too heavily by Pinterest — having posters on the wall seems juvenile. Unless they’re rare or nicely framed or hold some sort of sentimental value, it feels like all of a sudden you’d better get your ass on Etsy and order a nice art print or something. Somewhere between graduating and becoming a panic-stricken but contributing member of adult society, the need to define ourselves through pictures of our favorite bands and movies just falls away. And that’s probably a good thing. But it sure does make it a lot harder to figure out what your new friend or sexual conquest’s favorite band is, doesn’t it?