What not to wear if you want to get on

How long before academics are told: that blazer is so last century - and so is your job? Caroline Evans ponders the effects of equating dress sense with pedagogic sense

June 18, 2004
Price label on rack of designer clothes
Source: iStock

Not long ago in Times Higher Education , Valerie Atkinson asked what it might mean for academics to "modernise" according to government initiatives. Might they, she asked, deliver their lectures in rap, dressed in clothes bought in this century? The equation is one that even I can compute: academic + chic = oxymoron. An academic whose dress sense is too sharp may be considered suspect, but the point itself is academic because there are no chic academics.

That's the received wisdom, but it's not always true, particularly among American celebrity academics. Andrew Ross of New York University made it into The New York Times in 1991 by wearing a yellow Comme des Garcons jacket that, he said, was a send-up of the academic male convention of wearing yellow polyester. (I have never seen a British academic clad in yellow polyester, but if I did I would argue for his modernisation, if not instant liquidation.) Jane Gallop, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, aka "the poststructuralist Mae West", vamps it up on the lecture circuit - Jshe once gave a lecture on psychoanalysis and the phallus dressed in a skirt made of men's ties stitched together. And Wayne Koestenbaum, professor of English at the Graduate Centre of City University New York, has been known to choose his cologne to suit the author whose work he is teaching.

Most of us are not such aesthetes, and most academics are a nondescript lot. Elizabeth Wilson, author of the uber-text on fashion and modernity, Adorned in Dreams , once noted that in her university secretaries were smart and fashionable whereas academic staff dressed as if they'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. You may say this is as it should be; our minds should be on higher things and our inattention to dress signals this - shabbiness connotes seriousness whereas high fashion is frivolous.

But "dress down", the academic equivalent of "dress for success" can also be a form of inverted snobbery. After all, you don't want to look like management.

Academic dress is also a badge of affiliation. Walking once from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies into the senior common room for the whole university, Wilson noted that "whereas I and my companions were all dressed in an early 1980s cross between punk and new romantic, the 'normal' academics in the lounge were all wearing blazers and flannels, outfits I hadn't seen since my father died in 1963".

This is the sad truth about the academic wardrobe at its worst. It is more Terry Thomas than tweed. Would that it did still consist of the shabby-genteel corduroy, leather elbow patches, pipes and brogues so bitingly satirised by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim . Even the dashing braggadocio of Malcolm Bradbury's History Man would have a certain 1970s retro appeal. Instead, we have polyester and power suits, chinos and smart casuals. The dress historian Christopher Breward says that "the mediatisation of academics generally has upped the ante across the academic spectrum. Roy Porter was as notorious for his medallions as Simon Schama is for his leather jacket - image becomes a kind of signature".

Tweed survives only in a few obscure habitats where it has returned to nature; a few feral examples exist in the Institute of Historical Research.

Elsewhere, it has modernised unexpectedly, its olde worlde charm a passport to the new world of fetish wear, where it is included in the dress code at "Night of the Cane" evenings, as in "fetish, school uniform, academic, evening dress and military".

None of this would matter had postmodernism not made cultural commentators of us all. Styles may shift, but academics' reputation for bad dress sense never changes, and no one is keener on anatomising this than academics themselves. Students take to the internet in droves to dissect their professors' clothing choices. Soon, however, the academics turn their excoriating gaze to themselves. Masochists to a man, they are hardest on their own disciplines. A social scientist says his male peers in ill-fitting blue suits occupy "the very bowels of hell".

The professors are at it, too. In a colloquy on academic dress in the US Chronicle of Higher Education in 1998, the advice columnist and author of Ms Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia recommended sartorial experimentation for only the eccentric, secure and tenured. For the rest, "dispiriting conformity". Ms Mentor - in real life Emily Toth, an English professor at Louisiana State University - Jargued: "If you don't know how to dress, what else don't you know? Do you know how to assess students or grade papers? The clothes are part of the judgement of the mind."

But when I look at a photo of Toth, witty as her prose is, I'm not sure I like her blouse - Jsorry, her mind. On the other hand, I do like Jane Gallop's argument that style, far from being superficial, is, as any literary scholar will tell you, often the best way to convey complicated ideas. As Gallop says: "You should use everything you have to make people think." I have never seen her picture, and I think I had better not in case it turns out that I don't like her clothes, either. (Not that I'm shallow or anything.) Should we follow the Americans' lead and modernise, and, if so, why? Isn't the inalienable right to dress badly one of the precious few perks in academia? Of course, we might have no choice but to spruce up if policy-makers heed the French academic Gilles Lipovetsky. He argues that fashion trains us to be adaptable and produces exactly the sort of "kinetic, open personality" that higher education needs, able to reinvent the educational wheel on a weekly basis.

If dress sense became a measure of pedagogic sense, the sartorial equivalent of academic league tables would be required. It is in the nature of fashion - and fashionable people - to change constantly, so sartorial quality assurance inspections and research assessment exercises would have to be quite frequent - twice a year, in fact - to keep up with the fashion seasons. The spring and autumn sartorial quality assurance inspections could take place during London Fashion Week in February and September; the altogether classier biannual RAEs could be staggered to correspond with the Paris couture shows in January and July.

How would we be assessed? One suggestion is academic reality TV, "a sort of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy " for academics. And why not? We have peer review for our articles, we have quality assurance for our teaching; next stop, reality TV for our dress codes. Trial by Television , the sartorial equivalent of peer review, will maintain dress standards. But who will be the judges? Trinny and Susannah, or David Starkey? I'm not sure whose victim I'd least like to be.

Best not go there. Try something different. In Big Rector , academics are clustered together in a conference venue on the banks of the Bosphorus.

There are spats, rivalries, alliances and dalliances. The losers, voted out of the lecture hall one by one for their dress deficiencies, hope for lucrative book deals and media opportunities... not that different from a normal day, then.

Caroline Evans is reader in fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (University of the Arts London).

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