Ditch the smocks - dress to impress

October 29, 2004

Susan Bassnett offers some sartorial advice to superior academic scruffs.

Sitting in an august body of academics recently, the woman chairing the event caught my attention. For not only was she gracious, authoritative without being bossy, well informed and pleasant, she was also well dressed. There she sat, in a smart, just-above-the-knee skirt and tailored over-blouse, looking thoroughly well groomed and professional.

Around her were the usual bunch of shabby men and women instantly recognisable as academics by their battered trousers, tieless shirts, scuffed brogues, shapeless frocks, haircuts unchanged for 25 years and general lack of style of any kind. A sorry bunch crying out for a makeover.

Should dress matter to academics? Many would say that it is irrelevant, that what counts are the ideas and the publications, not the outward appearance. It's an argument I've heard many times, for many years. But it is increasingly anomalous, in a society where style and image have come to matter a great deal, that one group of professionals should be so complacent about what they look like. The same people who accuse students of not making an effort to present their work more professionally often don't bother to present themselves professionally, even on special occasions.

So before you fling on the old grubby chinos or pick up that hippy jewellery with the little bells on, pause and reflect on how you look. Do students have more or less respect for lecturers who can't be bothered to take care of themselves, and how do people from the world outside academia react when encountering men and women who are supposed to be experts in something but who appear not to have learnt how to polish a shoe? If you want to be taken seriously, at least show that you are aware of the wider world you inhabit. Consider how long it is since you last had your hair cut and styled, since you last bought some clothes that you felt good wearing, since you last looked at yourself critically in a full-length mirror before going to work. Of course, academics do not need to dress as expensively as bankers, nor do you need to follow the latest fashion trends, but some manage to look good and be intelligent at the same time. One famous female academic wears only grey, but it is always well-cut grey and set off with low-key accessories, so she looks like someone to be taken seriously.

Dressing scruffily and claiming that appearances don't matter is a classic British phenomenon, part of the complex game of sending class signals to people held to be inferior. By turning up in jeans to a PhD viva, an examiner is sending a signal that says: "Look how superior I am, I don't need to conform to any social dress codes. I am so intelligent. I am above all that."

Other professionals have working wardrobes. Nobody is going to pay much attention to a solicitor in a stained shirt or a doctor in a baggy sweater with holes in it, and if you want to see how bad clanking cheap jewellery worn over an Oxfam smock looks, get someone to video you walking around in it. Remember, too, to avoid trying to be trendy: your students will recoil at middle-aged women stuffed into tight leather mini-skirts or men in outdated football strips - sights I have seen too often among academic colleagues desperately trying to appear youthful. Like it or not, students see us as aged persons. Even if you can't afford much, there are some basic rules to follow that will enhance both your appearance and your prospects: just think professional, think simple, think appropriate and, above all, think of the effect what you wear might have on the people you teach or the non-academics you meet. But, above all, think clean and remember to occasionally polish a shoe.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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