Brainy is the new black

March 24, 2006

You can't skirt the issue, insists Sally Feldman - academic intercourse is all that matters, and conference style is about dressing to pull. So, isn't it high time you learnt to decode the sartorial signals?

There's really only one reason why academics go to conferences - it's carnal. The serious-minded may deny it, but deep down everyone's after intimate interdisciplinary collaborations. The giveaway is the dress codes.

Just look around at the opening reception of the gloriously cross-boundary Pedagogic Praxis conference. Sociologists mingle with systems analysts, chaos theorists rub shoulders with neuroscientists, all peeking over the canapes for a glimpse of a potential short-break romance.

See the men in beards whose shirts are dotted with cartoon characters? They are geographers, hoping that a kindly logical positivist will perceive a quirky charm lurking beneath the morbidity of maps and meteorology. And look out for the shaven-headed techno-maniacs, whose oversized sweatshirts blazon the branding of whichever super-sized search engine they've just been beta-testing. "Pick me," their attire pleads. "I'm a Pentium-charged, Bluetoothed, wired, broad-banded 200-gigabyte piece of hunky hardware."

By far the sloppiest are the semiologists, puzzlingly unattuned to their own signifiers. A man could well be the most impassioned deconstructionist of phallocentric stucturations within metonymic indices - and yet he might never have considered the subtext of his breakfast-encrusted T-shirt, his baggy jeans or his anorak. Surface matters are of no consequence to the clever boys of the senior common room.

Or clever girls, come to that. No, I don't mean the vamp in the Roland Mouret Galaxy dress and black feather boa slugging back the Cava and untying the pretzels with her tongue. She's just one of the neofeminist fatales aiming to be spotted for I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! Look closer, and you'll notice a smattering of radicals brandishing their unreconstructed response to the male gaze: mannish trousers, velour tracksuit tops, scuffed Doctor Martens.

But don't be fooled. This seemingly artless disregard for appearance is in fact a naked sexual come-on. If what you want is an intellectual partner in the pursuit of ungendered self-actualisation, their arbitrary colour combinations whisper: "Come and get me, baby, and I'll show you a good time."

Ambiguity, it seems, has struggled out of postmodern discourse and on to the academic catwalks. So those sombre-suited rakes with sad faces and drooping moustaches are not, after all, renegades from accountancy departments. Those are avant-garde artists who, like Gilbert and George, have chosen to demonstrate the dualities between appearance and inner turmoil. With any luck, some sensible epidemiologist or urban planner will thrill to the sparks of creative genius shimmering through the lugubrious externality.

As for that skinny goth in the corner with the spiky boots, pierced eyebrows and handcuffs - who would have thought she was the black holes expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, celebrated for her technique for demonstrating quantum metaphysics via a PlayStation? No doubt she, like so many hapless bluestockings before her, is hoping to convey the message that she may be balls-disintegratingly brilliant but underneath she's just an old-fashioned girl who likes to be dominated.

But not everyone is seeking to confound. That bunch over there flaunting large pendants, lurid ties, unlit cigars and fur-trimmed tattoos are, of course, psychologists - liberating their libidos from the unconscious to run wild for once. Only they probably don't realise that is what they are doing.

It's easy to spot the fashion designers. Most are in black, rushing to the loo after each mouthful of vol-au-vent. Except for the one in camouflage combats. He wore that same ensemble at a teaching and learning symposium a couple of years ago, during the Iraq War. No doubt he's hoping for a reprise of the glory of all those patriots asking if he was one of our boys and offering to support him.

Whoops, the queen of the arts in her signature Issey Miyake has just thrown punch all over the Higher Education Funding Council for England representative. He unwisely complimented her on the originality of her tiny pleats and asked if she'd made the outfit herself. He, clearly, is not going to get lucky this time around. But you could, if you just follow a few simple rules.

Women - keep your jacket on at all times to prove you can compete in a man's world. Do not on any account wear a hat, or people will think you're making a play for the vice-chancellor. If you are planning to make a play for the vice-chancellor, go traditional - a classic little suit with suspenders just showing and maybe an MCC tie.

Men - remove your jacket, Blair-like, to give the impression of passion, spontaneity and relaxed sexuality. By the way, guys - those boxer shortsJbearing the PowerPoint logo with a judiciously placed return arrow? Leave them off.

And if you're thinking of taking your new-found beloved for a little spin in the country to get away from the milling crowds, do make sure you've removed the baby seat from the back of the Volvo.

Sally Feldman is dean, School of Media, Arts and Design, Westminster University.

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