Thursday, 13 January 2011

Clothes maketh the academic?

OK, I'm sitting in this meeting and looking at what everybody's wearing. The women tend to be dressed pretty neatly or in suits. The male managers are wearing suits and ties. The male teaching staff range from denims and leather to open-necked shirts with tank tips and everything inbetween. Yesterday I was wearing a grandad shirt with a v-neck pullover, but today I'm in my Wales Fencing hoody and grey trousers.

Many academics revel in the freedom to not wear suits - I do too: the idea of strangling myself with a tie every day is very unappealing. The feeling is that we're employed and respected for our minds rather than our dress sense. There's also a very proper rebellion against the concept of 'power dressing': the academic exchange between student and lecturer shouldn't be about hierarchical power but about ideas

On the other hand, there's an argument that more formal clothes instil a degree of mental rigour, and that students respect well-dressed people because that's the way they're conditioned.

I'm torn on this one. I like suits, and the older and fatter I get, the more I appreciate the way a decent suit (especially one with elbow patches) hides all a man's pudgier bits. That said, my job basically consists of sitting down and typing or standing up and talking, none of which require specialist clothing. At conferences, I make a partial effort to be a bit neater, but not hugely. Some people wear their best suits, while others go halfway: a tweed jacket with a t-shirt, perhaps. Brian Cox, I feel, has a lot to answer for.

It's definitely an issue of identity politics. There are a lot of people who dress very carefully to give the impression that clothes don't matter, that they aren't drones in the corporate sector, whereas other colleagues dress to impress, even if it's not clear who exactly should be impressed. It may also be a matter of age and hierarchy: I'm not nervous about my colleagues or superiors' judgements any more, so I've relaxed a bit. When I went to a conference in Arkansas, even the academics' SUVs bore gun racks and Confederate flags: I'm not sure I'm ready for the cowboy-psycho look.

What do you think? What should the young(ish) academic-about-town be sporting this year? Bear in mind that even in the suit I had made specifically for me, I look like I've robbed an alien for his clobber. Perhaps we should all go back to gowns. One of my professors wore an academic gown and bow tie (with a full set of clothes, I should add) and it just looked like a man dressing up as an academic.

Zoot Horn, by the way, adheres to a classic 'mature rock god' look.

Possible looks:

Incompetent Jim Dixon from the film of Amis's Lucky Jim

Suspiciously posed

Alistair Sim as Professor Potter from The School for Scoundrels (1960 version highly recommended: 2006 remake is an excrescence)

Professor Brian Cox, ex-pop star, TV personage, physicist when time allows


intelliwench said...

I quit wearing skirts to work after my boss tried to kiss me last year, but I nevertheless try not to dress like a member of the women's rugby team. I can't claim to fit into your "young(ish)" demographic; still, I struggle with feeling that faculty shouldn't dress so as to be indistinguishable from their students, yet appearances shouldn't be given the weight (no pun intended) that they are.

The Plashing Vole said...

I used to think that all university employees would be enlightened egalitarians and therefore wouldn't behave like that. It didn't take long to realise the error of my ways.

It's getting easier not to dress like students given that the current trend is to wear massively baggy tracksuits that look like pajamas with added logos.

On a tangent, why is it that rugby seems quite healthy in US universities but not in the wider community, and do women play American football?

intelliwench said...

Re: Rugby, it could be because most universities require students to have health insurance. If the wider population isn't insured, they're not as likely to engage in the rough-and-tumble sport. Just a theory, of course.

That said, there are women's football teams -- I don't know why.

Today's dress code, by the way, calls for anything that will keep me alive in minus-zero (F) wind chills and able to navigate the huge piles of snow I'll no doubt encounter across campus.

The Plashing Vole said...

Well, at least such a boring sport as American football is open to both sexes!

That's proper weather. Everybody's been whinging about Britain's winter: a bit of cold and patches of -18C, mostly about -5. Bah. Lightweights.

Zoot Horn said...

Mature rock god? I can't wear suits - they make me feel like an imperialist. I've worked out that if I keep wearing levis jackets, cord/denim jeans and kind-of-funky shirts then, given the hardwearing nature and perenially lived-in look of such attire, and given my age, and given my retro wardrobe, I'll probably never have to buy any clothes ever again.

drleehw said...

As someone whose attire in the academic milieu has drawn the critique of the Vole on precisely three occasions, I feel obliged to comment. Is it possible not only that these decisions are a reflection of identity politics for some, but that by buying into the category error we provide consumerists, capitalists and The Man with a weapon?

My grandparents are/were all working class. Coal miners, milk maid, and brick maker. All were proud to dress smartly, to keep themselves clean, to take care of their clothes ... to show outward signs of their own self worth. None of them has ever had any money to speak of and have had to make clothes last many many years, but that didn't (doesn't) stop them looking smart. Nowadays such behaviour is 'snobbish'.

A parallel was seen recently in the reaction of some pockets of environmentalists to the Tesla Roadster. It's a cool sportscar and it charges up from the mains grid. "That's not environmentalism!" they shouted. "It's 1.32% less efficient than the G-wiz!" Tesla made the 'mistake' of trying to make a desirable product. No scrap that. A cool product. It's the aesthetics of the thing that are different. It grabs you. It's sexy. And that just doesn't fit with the self-flaggelating mentality of the more extremely arboreally enamoured amongst us. By artificially claiming that exciting design and a sense of fun are reflective of a lack of environmental credentials, these folk alienate those amongst us who are keen to Do The Right Thing but who also miss the pretty things in life.

If Che Guevara, Harvey Milk, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Aneurin Bevan didn't find it necessary to associate equality and social justice with mode of dress, why should we accept it now? And it we do accept it, let's take it to its logical extreme. Let's alter our language too, for fear that verbal dexterity will give people the misconception that we're not true lefties. If we're of the people, let's forget all four-syllable words and adopt street slang, shall we?

No. We shan't. We shall, as you say in your post, respect each other for our ideas, not our idioms. Our cognitions not our clothes. When you get dressed in the morning the only thing that should be on your mind is a question: "Do I like these clothes?"

*dismounts soapbox and shakes off the esprit d'escalier*

The Plashing Vole said...

Hello drleehw. I don't remember teasing you for your clothes: I'm mortified. If I did, it was in jest. You're a very snappy dresser.

I actually agree with all of that. The essence of mod was to assert proletarian pride - original chav was a means of satirising the upper classes by appropriating their clothes too, which I thought was brilliant.

I think I'm slightly out of time in that my heroes are the Communists of the 1920s-1950s, who were thoroughly conservative when it came to dress. To them, real radicalism wasn't labels and bright colours: such things denoted vanity and a lack of seriousness, and they knew that to be taken seriously, they had to appear sober. That's why the CP utterly failed to adapt to the New Left in the 60s, which was a shame. I hope I'm much more flexible, but I have inherited a feeling that display is rather superficial.

As to what you say about language: I fear our educationalist 'colleagues' are thinking along those very lines right now!

Yours in the vanguard,

oldgirlatuni said...

I'm an old fashioned Oldgirl, and I think that male academics should wear tweed sports jackets with slacks, while the females should wear tweed skirts, blouses done up to the collar, and sensible lace up shoes.

This sartorial elegance still exists in Unitown, but as far as I can tell, only in the physical sciences. I wonder why?

The Plashing Vole said...

I agree, oldgirl. Given complete control, I'd institute regime based on 1930s campus comedies. All men would be members of glee or barbershop choirs. Relaxed tweed would be compulsory. All women would be named Bobbi-Anne and all communication with management would be phrased thusly: 'By Golly, this won't wash'.

Sarah Williams said...

Since you have, on occasion, also commented on my appearance, I will respond too!

I am always most comfortable in jeans, albeit smart-ish ones, and that will always be my preferred choice. Plus you can't go wrong with jeans and well chosen sweater - the question ought to be, which boots shall I wear with this?!

But then, I am, as you know more obsessed with footwear than clothing!

PS. I love reading your blog; it's like being sat opposite you all day again!

The Plashing Vole said...

Wise words. You're always stylish. I believe I've only said complimentary things, readers. I don't spend my time at work issuing arbitrary judgements!

Glad to be of service Sarah. Think of Plashing Vole as a repository of the low-grade banter from which you fled.