Today’s Times Higher readers have been greeted by an article about academic dress sense. It perpetuates some rather hoary old stereotypes about people who live in their heads, so much so that many do not care about their appearance. It recalls gendered images of plain and frumpy blue-stockings and dotty colonial professors in socks and sandals (the pith helmets tucked in a cupboard waiting for a topical tropical conference).
The argument made by the interviewee, who not surprisingly works as an “image consultant”, is that in order to be taken seriously by students, academics need to dress smartly. The same argument is of course made for office workers, doctors, teachers, social workers – academics are merely the latest target for a make-over. Dress for success is hardly a new idea.
Now this is not the first time the THE has run such a piece. There was another one in 2004, written by a fashion scholar. The argument then was that most academics were better at commenting on popular culture than actually participating in it. If you wanted to get on, the article suggested, you had to dress on trend. Inside Higher Ed has run one of these articles too, their’s more about fusty tweed and patched elbows. And apparently going against the grain, in 2012 The Chronicle ran a piece on black dandyism, suggesting that this fashion movement had moved from the wider world into the hallowed halls.
These kinds of articles rely in the first part on the assumption that higher education is somehow separate from the rest of society, rather than being part of it. It’s the ivory tower, it’s a bubble, it’s not the real world. There is also a second assumption that academics seem to live in the university rather than this being their place of work. We don’t have mortgages, families, stand at the school gates, go to football, shop at the supermarket… we are somehow different from everyone else – because the rest of society must be dressed very differently. But if we looked at a picture of a random group of middle class people could we pick the academics from everyone else? I doubt it.
This is an us and them norm. And it’s one based on a very small number of anecdotes and an unexamined set of assumptions about consumption, identity expression via clothing and gender appropriate behaviours. So to lapse into anecdote, which seems to be the accepted mode for this topic, I have rather a lot of conversations with doctoral and early career researchers anxious about the dress code for conferences and vivas and key notes and job interviews. Thesis Whisperer has an ironic pinterest board about academic clothing. I have a colleague who tweets about his new suits. None of this suggests indifference, but rather some degree of thoughtfulness about how the academic self is presented.
But if anyone I know wants to wear socks and sandals, quite frankly, I don’t care. I won’t blink an eye. That’s fine as far as I can see, it’s their choice. Mostly, it seems to me that the university is a relatively casual kind of work-place, but it does have a strong ceremonial tradition which is situated around the use of the academic gown. By and large, most university staff are tidy and unremarkable – but we do have our share of scruffiness, untidiness, fashion-consciousness and eccentricities. And why not? I for one value the fact that academics can largely choose how they present themselves. This is a luxury not afforded in many other occupations where there are strict uniforms and dress codes.
You do have to wonder if those arguing about poor academic dress sense ever get out at all, or just live in some kind of Harvey Nick’s catalogue world. But maybe there’s more here than meets the eye. The article did make me pause for just a moment to consider whether we might have to guard against the simplistic equation of a marketised higher education and a more marketised “profession”…. Is this just a trivial example of the spread of discourse about what academics might have to do in order to provide “customer satisfaction” and better scores in the league tables (1)?
Could I imagine a league table for the best-dressed academic? Or the most fashionable university? Or the most eligible academic? It’s a bit David Lodge-ish, but unfortunately, I can.
(1) According to Becky Ropers-Huilman, women academics already report that students make comments on their clothing (PW)