clothes do not make the scholar?

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)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic dress sense, Times Higher and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to clothes do not make the scholar?

  1. I just love this image and am sorely tempted to go to work in a catwoman costume


  2. H Dorn says:

    I love what you write in the end about “customer satisfaction.” I once asked my class to write anonymous exit slips so I could evaluate what they were learning in class. I had one girl (I recognized her writing) tell me I should not wear my Monty Python t-shirt again. At first I just laughed – I was wearing it – but I’m pretty sure she was serious.

    I have taken to ending my classes the same way my mentor used to: “Thank you for shopping _________ University, where your tuition dollars count!”


  3. I once took a summer undergraduate anthropology class in New York, and the curmudgeonly professor wore the same, extremely scruffy clothes every single day for the whole six-week course. He continually made derogatory comments about the cultures we were studying, and even put his head out of the window to smoke during class! (This was in the early 90s) Certainly a character who used his clothes to show he didn’t give a damn.


  4. Nathalie says:

    Hm maybe the ESRC should add sartorial communication as skill to the postgraduate training list! Thank you for this article


  5. M-H says:

    I was thinking about this post yesterday, when I was at a teaching retreat for science academics. (Bear in mind we are in our hottest most humid month) Most of the men wore jeans or long shorts, neat T-shirts or short-sleeve woven shorts and sandals or sneakers. The women were wearing cotton dresses or tops and pants or skirts with sandals. This was a fairly mixed group as regards age and academic stage, and I thought they all looked perfectly appropriate for either teaching or attending a meeting in the Sydney climate. Not corporate, because they’re not, but clean, tidy and professional.


  6. doctorfosser says:

    In our (history) department’s Gender and Academia workshops, we often lapse into a sartorial conversation that we can’t seem to escape. I think you’re spot on here, academics certainly put a lot of thought into their presentation! That doesn’t always look the same, and good on us. But I also wonder if this should be a conversation bound up in ideas of authority and relatablity. Our conversations usually center on how we are making a self-conscious effort to portray a specific persona in the classroom, or making a political statement of “mind over Michael Kors.”


  7. Chris says:

    I read this and then clicked on the “dandyism’ link. My first thought was that too fine a tailoring and sartorial sense gives off more of a signal of class and bombast and says more about the wearer’s psychological make-up than anything to do with their abilities. As someone of little financial mean to begin with now immersing myself in an academia increasingly defined by precarious employment, I find it very uncomfortable to sit in a room with someone who flaunts their means so readily.


  8. I love your blog, by the way! To this post I’d add that at a university the “suits” are generally people from the business school or central admin. It’s not a separate world but every workplace has its own cultures, and the thing about academia is that there’s a lot of movement from one institution to the next, which makes it seem similar across all our workplaces and thus a subculture of its own. Or so I think!


  9. Blazer and jeans for me. 🙂


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