“If I may say so, sir,” said the college butler, “you always add something to the atmosphere.” While I panicked in fear that I was exuding body odours undetectable to me, he explained that he liked to feel that dons responded to his efforts to array the table elegantly and serve with ceremony. In contrast to the slobbish clothes of some of my colleagues, my gown at dinner was always clean and untattered, over what I suppose would now be called “business attire”.
Since the incident happened 30 years ago, I dare say sartorial standards have slipped beyond redemption. But Kate Chisholm, headteacher at Skerne Park Academy in Darlington, excited debate recently about whether dress matters in places of learning. She asked parents to set a good example, when calling at the school, by abjuring pyjamas.
Outer clothing is literally superficial, but it reflects some of our innermost thinking, and can affect some of our deepest feelings. “Dress thoughtfully,” my mother told me, “and make sure those thoughts are for others, not for yourself. Dress not for comfort or display, but to show respect for the people you live and work with.” To everyone I encounter, good manners demand that I’m clean and neat. At dinner and other entertainments, thoughtfulness for hosts, table companions and waiters or servants (if there are any) requires extra care, and a nicely adjusted level of elaboration. To be ostentatiously casual is as brazen as bling.
In the old days, it was easy: you donned the prescribed uniform for every occasion. Nowadays, you can seem out of place in some circles by wearing a tie. But I minimise embarrassment and avoid offence by sticking to old-fashioned norms. I may be less physically comfortable than a fat companion in what look like dirty pyjamas, but I am at ease in my mind.
In some contexts, proper attire is easy to identify. The news, for instance, that priests – or whatever they now call themselves – in the Church of England may be allowed to doff alb or surplice and stole when celebrating the sacraments is a further sign of the degeneracy of that once venerable institution. Appropriate dress is harder to specify, however, in my Indiana classroom, where the mutations of weather change my students’ apparel abruptly, every year, between equally unbecoming extremes: as the temperature falls suddenly from fiery to icy, loose T-shirts and unsightly shorts give way to bulbous parkas and furry boots. I, meanwhile, rise above the environment in unvarying collar, coat and tie. Of course, US manners are different from those in the Old World, and, therefore, I have stopped jibbing at male students who wear baseball caps indoors. (I draw the line, however, at eating in class. When a student unwraps a sandwich, I stop lecturing. When the class becomes uneasy I say: “Please excuse my silence. I’m waiting while Mr Hunkelpfeffer” – or Mr Studebaker or Mr Webster- Brewster or whoever it may be – “finishes his lunch, as it would be rude for me to lecture while he is eating.” The problem never recurs.)
Still, I yearn for uniformity. The purpose of academic dress was to smother differences of wealth and taste and clad the entire community in fellow-feeling. At Oxford, I stopped wearing a gown when lecturing only because the undergraduates left theirs at home and an unreciprocated gesture of solidarity became pointless. School uniforms exude, for me, distasteful memories of the origins of modern schooling in militarisation and identity-processing. My own experience, however, is that outward conformity makes inner dissent more precious; membership of a sodality therefore stimulates independence of mind. And I like the fact that, unless you’ve the right to wear a fancy waistcoat at Eton, uniforms make it hard for swells to strut their stuff.
More insidiously, I find it hard to abjure the thought that we work best when we are well dressed. I do not know whether subfusc is still required for Oxford exams: perhaps, like Cecil Rhodes’ guano-spattered statue, it remains as a no doubt increasingly shabby relic of the days when Oxford was the seminary of an imperial master-class. But I ascribe my own exam performance to the sense of occasion induced by dressing up. Last year, two young men in my global history class enhanced the fun by mild mimicry: they took to coming in three-piece suits and ties like mine. It would have been even funnier, and, I suspect, more effective educationally, if the fashion had spread.
In any case, the non-academic staff still set my standard, as the butler did at old St Antony’s. At Notre Dame, everything is neat except students. Tireless workers trim the lawns, turn the soil in the flowerbeds, sweep the paths, clip the hedges with cosmetic precision and polish handles and windows until they gleam. As I stroll to work in equally trim collar, well-turned lapels, swept hair, clipped nails and polished shoes, I feel, despite the eccentricity of my attire, less out of place than the baggy-shorted, or track-suited, or bulbous parka-clad brigades.
In a world where pluralism is our only shared value, we should not upbraid those who dress oddly – even, perhaps, in pyjamas when they collect their children from school. But there is a good case to be made, in all places of education, for reverting to historic standards of decency.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.