Shapeless, ugly, scruffy ... formal academic gowns may be OK for men, but high-flying women are designing their own. Elaine Williams reports
Vice-chancellors have rarely given a second thought to the donning of traditional academic gowns for formal ceremonies. But two new female chief executives are signalling a change of style in their management by radically altering the style of gown they wear.
Elaine Thomas, principal of Surrey Institute of Art and Design, has been in post for little more than a month, but already her new gown - designed by herself - is being made up by Ede and Ravenscroft, ceremonial outfitters in London's Chancery Lane. The traditional academic gown, she believes, is unsuitable for women and "makes you feel ridiculous".
"Balancing a mortar board while trying to stop the gown falling off your shoulders is painful. It's shapeless and ugly. I wanted to feel comfortable, to take charge of the occasion in my own way, to be authoritative rather than self-conscious."
The gown she has designed is different. Rather like a padre's tunic, it is buttoned through from neck to floor, fitted and tailored, black with green and silver embellishments on the sleeve that relate to the college's coat of arms. Instead of a mortar board she will wear "a nice, big, velvet squashy hat". She takes her cue from Dianne Wilcocks, who became chief executive of the College of Ripon and York St John last July and has also opted for a redesign.
Wilcocks's gown is French navy with gold trimmings, a classic tunic but with an Elizabethan flourish. "It's tight over the bust and flows out from a high waist. It's buttoned through to the floor but with a kick pleat at the back. It's gorgeous and rich," she says. "I want people to take notice, just as I am being proactive in making people take notice of this college."
According to 49-year-old Thomas, appearances matter; they are important outward signs of management style. In this respect, she believes, women have an advantage over men.
"Most male heads are fairly anonymous in the way they dress. For them it's basically the suit. Women in positions of power do have to think consciously about what they wear for every occasion, but that gives us the opportunity to surprise people, to create conversation pieces."
Thomas favours tailored suits with short skirts or trousers, but as a fine artist by training, she goes for brightly coloured accessories, shoes and jewellery and individualistic designer wear. Today, her cream-and-brown checked Paul Costelloe suit is matched with claret tights and mossy green shoes and matching earrings. "I don't want to be provocative or distracting, but thinking carefully about what I wear gives me pleasure and helps me in the job.
"I regard myself as an individual and I want to be seen as one. As a chief executive you take a leadership role motivated by your personal vision. You are very much on your own and you have to think hard about how you come across as an individual. I think being more flexible about the way we dress is just one of the repertoire of skills that women bring to the job."
Wilcocks, 55, believes male higher education managers proclaim what they are through "the metres of books and computer hardware they have in their offices". But she feels they would benefit by thinking more about what they wear. "There are suits and suits. They don't have to come from Moss Bros. They could be more modern or more creative in their choice of colour or fabric."
She also favours designer wear, especially Christian Lacroix and Laurel, clothes "that create and state the kind of person you are" and that signal a more open and flexible style. "I have no difficulty talking about the fact that I am a life-long Arsenal supporter. When I headed the college's first graduation ceremony in York Minster last September, my four-year-old granddaughter was there with me," she says.
"I am not the stereotypical chief exec, I have not had a straightforward career line and I think that is an advantage. It signals to staff and students and to people outside that there are different ways of doing things."
A former Herefordshire grammar-school girl, Wilcocks horrified her family and teachers by marrying at 19. A family came first and her academic career later, leading to a specialism in social gerontology.
She has already created waves by thinking the unthinkable, with plans to consolidate the college in York away from the beautiful Ripon site. "Women have had to make more choices, I think their management style is often more multi-faceted and our dress can express that. I think we say to people: 'It's all right to take risks as long as you have confidence in yourself to ultimately get to where you want to be'."
Eileen Green, professor of sociology at the University of Teesside, is writing a chapter on the female professor's wardrobe for a book about women's dress.
Women who make it to the top in academic institutions, she says, are often keen to display a different kind of authority, a different way of doing business.
"They don't want power suits or normal business suits, they don't want to be mistaken for an administrator, they want to be stylish but individual."
Nicole Farhi and Armani are favourite designers. Sleeveless shirts and dresses are out, as are high heels, but women, Green says, are keen not to shadow male professors, "most of whom I know are scruffy and rarely think about what they wear".
Women want to show that they are aware of body language, of the way people communicate and of the choices that can be made.
Through the Wardrobe, edited by Alison Guy, Eileen Green and Maura Banim, is published at the end of this year, Pounds 14.99.