Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Suit you, sir?

Hi everybody. Apologies for the decline in blogging in case you miss my regular posts (tip: seek help). This is the busiest time of the year: essays and dissertations to mark. Hundreds of them. Good bad and spectacularly weird. This year, because we have a management team that hasn't been near a classroom in several decades, other urgent tasks have been added. With under a week's notice, we've been asked to propose PhD studentships (with a guaranteed job afterwards) and research projects to qualify for workload buyouts. So that's more forms, drafting, circulating, putting together supervisory teams, redrafting etc. ad infinitum. Even when they hit on a good idea, this place manages to screw it up by imposing arbitrary and ill-timed deadlines.

Even more inconveniently – especially to the deceased – I had a funeral to attend today. Jean was a stalwart of the nursing profession, one of those nurses who not only saved the lives of those for whom she cared, but brightened the lives of everybody she met, despite having a considerable amount of heartbreak thanks to losing her son David when he was only 28. The church was packed beyond capacity and the familiar cliché about celebrating a life rather than mourning a loss was for once entirely true. After five years of cancer's ravages, peace was what she wanted.

So here I am in the office at 7.30 in the evening, wearing my best suit and ready to mark some Shakespeare essays. Perhaps the professional garb will up my game. Despite the kind words of a French Philosophy colleague I bumped into, I am a living reproach to the tailor's art. However expensive and lovely the clothes (today I'm wearing Church Oxfords and an Aquascutum black 3-button suit with a Turnbull and Asser shirt), I always look like I acquired my wardrobe by robbing a clothes bank. In the dark.

Tomorrow I'll be wearing my regulation DMs, cords, v-neck jumper as though Belle and Sebastian never went away. I used to laugh at my boss, who told me he decided at 16 that he'd wear the same clothes for the rest of his life rather than worry about it (shirt, tie, jersey, blue blazer) and stuck to it. I've accidentally done the same thing - virtually everything I wear in public can be seen in the publicity shots for Blur's seminal Modern Life is Rubbish. (Though I don't agree that modern life is rubbish, by the way).

Clothes are difficult: teaching means being exposing yourself to the judgement of hundreds of people for whom clothes are important, whether it's students or the other Governors (and it's much harder for women, who are wrongly judged on appearance even more). I don't want to dress like them. I don't want to distance myself with a suit. It's important, I think, to convey to them that what we're interested in is the life of the mind rather than appearances. I tend to aim for utter anonymity. No extremes of style, nothing figure-hugging, muted colours, no artificial materials and no labels (I would make an exception for old band shirts but none of them fit anymore). If I find a good article with a label, I'll unpick it. If in doubt, I think of my colleague who turns up in patchwork clown trousers: nobody cares because he's a genius. My old philosophy tutor took a different approach: brown shoes, brown socks, brown suit, brown jersey, brown shirt, brown tie and brown hair. Accesorised with a brown Gladstone bag. Fully committed to brown, that man.

However… the older and fatter I get, the more I wish I could afford the kind of tailoring that conceals the more grotesque aspects of my ravaged carcass. I have one of my dad's suits from the early 70s. I don't know how much he was paid, but it's a work of art. Dark grey wool three piece, felted lapels, working cuff buttons, horn buttons, ticket pocket, tailor-made for him in Dublin. When I reached the same age he was when he had it made, it fitted like it was made for me. These days I couldn't get my fat fingers into the arm-holes (whereas he's lost so much weight he probably could wear it again) and there's no way on earth that I could afford a bespoke suit of the same quality. I did once get a tailored suit from one of those companies that measures people up in hotel rooms (this is not a euphemism). Though I paid extra for pure wool, I definitely didn't get it, and despite it being bespoke, it looks like I borrowed it from someone of entirely different proportions, and always did.

Ho hum. Back to the marking.


Phil said...

I don't want to dress like them. I don't want to distance myself with a suit. It's important, I think, to convey to them that what we're interested in is the life of the mind rather than appearances

Good grief. This post-92 lecturer with a (touches wood) slightly less insane workload has never given a thought to what he wears relative to the students - that way madness, or at least extreme self-consciousness, lies. Although I will admit to not feeling comfortable going out there wearing Primark.

I wear a pair of hard-wearing Jasper Conran jeans (which were reduced) or else a pair of bright green tapered slacks from M&S; M&S called the "bright green trousers for men" trend wrong, but it suits me. My shirts (pale self-colour or striped) are either M&S or Debenham's - most of them were reduced, too. My socks are in bright colours. My shoes are from Clark's.

Of course this sets me apart from my students. (Apart from anything else, about 70% of my students are female.) Does it convey an enthusiasm for the life of the mind, or does it just suggest I'm an old git who doesn't care what he looks like? I try not to think about it, or to care.

Phil said...

I do sympathise with the bit about the suits, though. When I was 21 my father gave me some of his old suits; since this was in the 80s cocktail/zoot suit/Kid Creole/Club Tropicana era, I was quite keen & had all the trousers taken in so that they would fit me.

Only one problem: when I was 21 I had a 28" waist.

It didn't last - and neither did the suits. I wish I'd had the foresight to go for 34", or even 32".