Is she a news reader or a new Darwinist?

May 16, 1997

Ambitious young academics should cast off their cords and jeans and get smart if they want to climb the career ladder. Joanne Entwistle reports

Last week 55 former academics took their seats in the Houses of Parliament as Labour MPs and will become the focus of media attention along with the rest of new Labour. Given new Labour's emphasis on style and the high incidence of power-dressing to be found in politics, one wonders how these new recruits will choose to wear on their first outing in the debating chamber. In many respects, it is hard to imagine a more dramatic career change or such a contrasting clash of sartorial cultures than that of academia and politics. Academics are not noted for their sartorial elegance and the lingering stereotype is still corduroy, jeans and long hair: new Labour's new image is one of sharp suits and serious hair cuts.

On a "normal" day at any university, it is sometimes hard to spot the staff, many of whom are close in age to the students and dress in jeans, T-shirts and training shoes. Indeed, some of the smartest staff at a university are likely to be the secretaries. This reverses the trend that can be found in business, politics and the other professions. In most business settings, a formal look, such as the suit, is associated with professional roles, while a more casual look, such as a cardigan, is associated with secretaries or support staff. My research into career women and their dress revealed that while most of the women favoured casual clothes at home, they did not wear them to work because they wanted to look professional and career-minded, and this meant wearing a suit or a matching jacket and skirt. However, in academia, "professional" is not generally signalled in terms of dress and indeed, it is often the secretaries wearing the suits and the academics wearing the cardigans.

All occupations have their own particular dress culture. Some like academia are informal and relaxed, others like politics or business are, more formal and often explicitly codified. In the worlds of business, politics and the professions, suits have long been the norm for men and a jacket, collar and tie are required for the office whatever the weather. This sartorial status quo has been maintained in the face of a growing number of women entering commerce and politics who have adopted the female equivalent, the skirted suit or "power suit" as it became known in the 1980s. These dress cultures are not arbitrary but say something about the occupational setting itself. Dress can be seen to be one aspect of a more general management of bodies in space. According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the body is a highly restricted medium of expression which has to bear a whole variety of social pressures that are brought to bear on it. The more formal the occupation, as in the case of politics, law or business, the more constraints there are on the body and in terms of dress, this means formality and restriction on what can and can't be worn to the office.

Douglas illustrates this contrast between formal and informal work environments by comparing shaggy and smooth hair. At one, time (the 1960s, the era of university radicalism) shaggy hair symbolised a rejection of establishment values but would only be found in academia, not in law or business which favours establishment values and smooth hair. In contrast to business, academia, along with the creative and media professions, is a highly informal occupational setting and the constraints on the body and dress are more, relaxed. There are few, if any, rules of dress in academia and a casual, informal appearance is not only tolerated, it is the norm. Hence it is that academics have got away with a "shaggy" appearance and this is the stereotype that still lingers in the popular imagination. This informality in dress carries a message about academia itself.

The culture of academia has traditionally stood at a distance from the rest of the world, hence the symbolism of the "ivory tower". When it has made contact with the real world, it has intervened with radicalism and critique. Artists and academics are professionals who comment on and criticise society and they are thus in a position to display, according to Douglas, a "carefully modulated shagginess". It would therefore seem that academia's rejection of the formal, bureaucratic and hierarchical culture of business has meant it places fewer constraints upon thought, the body and thus dress.

While casualness reigns in academia, there are times when it is appropriate to dress more formally. It would be foolish for anyone wishing to get a job at a university to turn up in T-shirt and jeans. The interview situation is always a formal one, even in academia, and requires formality in dress. The casually dressed applicant may just be inexperienced in the art of dressing or interviewing but the overall impression created is one of disrespect for the occasion or straightforward arrogance. The applicant in jeans seems either to be saying "I don't have to try" or "I am one of you already" when the whole purpose of the interview is to persuade the panel of your suitability as an academic and the right to be included in the club.

Other occasions requiring extra effort are similarly formal events: the external exam board, the quality assessment visit or the degree ceremony. One feature of this smartening up comes down to ritual, some situations are simply imbued with a greater sense of occasion and significance.

The culture of academia is slowly changing. The 1990s has seen academia characterised by an increasing managerialism, a fact of life brought about by the "audit culture" of the last government and the impact of market forces on universities.

As universities become more and more like businesses, they have had to become more aggressive in their marketing strategies and increasingly interested in image and style. In the wake of auditing and marketing, academics in the 1990s found themselves in an occupational culture that is taking on some of the shape and form of the corporate sector. This means that the dress culture of academia is beginning, very slowly, to shake off the corduroy and denim image in favour of smart suits for men and women. The new dress culture seems most apparent the further up the academic ladder one goes, with deans, vice chancellors and the like favouring the suited look. This smartening effect is however, slowly permeating the whole of academia.

A quality assessment visit will usually see all academics, even those whom one might have imagined organically connected to their jeans, turned out in their smartest clothes and looking "formal". This change is particularly evident in the new universities where managerialism has taken a stronger hold. However, the older universities are beginning to feel the onset of change as well. If Mary Douglas is right, as the culture of academia changes, we should find the dress culture changing also. As academia becomes more managed, bureaucratic and hierarchical, it may well be that the standard of dress found in business is increasingly adopted. In place of the once "shaggy" image, we may find a smarter, "smoother" academic image emerge.

Joanne Entwistle is a lecturer in sociology at the University of North London.

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