Myth #6: Elitist academics are slobs.
Hmmm . . . this reminds me of an article I read a while back “Professors Should Dress Like Professionals” by Robert Weissberg in which he talks about how folk in our profession often lack “professionalism.” RW made central to his case slovenly-dressed, tie-dyed, novelty-tee-wearing profs and their attendant lack of authority in the classroom based on clothing challenges. I’m not sure where RW got his prime example, but his “Exhibit A” is clearly Business or Law School faculty. (I kid. See photo.) RW surmised that because the individuals did not convey a professional demeanor, students did not take them, the course, the material, and, subsequently, college seriously. The short version, suits and ties would solve a lot of problems. My first thought was that the Annie Hall look has been out for a long time. My second thought was that no one in a suit and tie ever acts unprofessionally. [Serve with a large dollop of sarcasm. Garnish with an eye roll. If an eye roll is not available, the side-eye is equally effective and may cause less eye strain, though the FDA and Sturgeon (typo stays) General have not verified these claims.]
I’m not going to pull a Baudrillard here and cleverly theorize my way out of my own expressed sentiments regarding the importance of professional dress (see “Three-Minute Throwdown.”) In fact, I agree with the basic idea that we should dress the part: the right clothes for the right occasion. Unlike RW, however, I do not believe that “Dressing up also improves lecturing.” Some days, no matter how much preparation has gone into a lecture, the only thing that can save a bad class is an asteroid hitting the planet. It’s not about suits and ties [though it can be sometimes], and it’s most certainly not about price tags and labels. It’s in large part about how clothes make us feel, and suits and ties can make people feel alternately itchy, safe, confined, and/or empowered. I would argue “professional dress” can be highly subjective: my wingtips may offend your sensibilities and your gingham will most certainly freak me out.
My fellow blogger over at Chameleonic had a wonderful “rant” the other day about fashion and self-expression. Although I am paraphrasing here, the gist of her complaint was that we should dress for ourselves. More importantly she reminded her readers that we should always be “thinking about our relationship with clothes and fashion” and that doing so is a good thing. [What I absolutely appreciate about her blog and her style is that she is invested in creating certain looks and is loathe to promote brands or labels, which is not to say she doesn’t have favorite designers.] Her advice was to find what works for us and reflects who we are rather than “copy” someone else’s look. Sometimes the best advice is the most straightforward.
So how then do we reconcile this idea with professional dress? What if my self-expression is screaming for me to wear a two-piece bathing suit and chartreuse platform boots? [An absolutely frightening thought; yellow-tones wash me out.] The funny thing is, I don’t see a whole lot of bathing suit classroom fox pows [disambiguation: faux pas] going on. What I see, instead, this time of year in particular, are colleagues suiting up for the semester, as a way of saying, “I take myself, the material, my students, and what we do in the classroom seriously.” One of the things that I have enjoyed about this first week of class is seeing my colleagues and their regard for themselves and what we do expressed through fashion: a gorgeous swing coat and all-business boots [I'm looking at you Sister Arts], a 70s-era rust-colored pinstriped skinny-legged suit, vegan square-toed lace-ups with dark jeans, a brocade waistcoat, a 3/4 length cashmere trench, a handmade 60s-style knit skirt, a shark-skin signature tie, turquoise jeans and jacket in January, chunky hand-crafted jewelry, layered tights, robin’s egg blue anything, and classic sports coats paired with celery, plum or even persimmon button-downs. Inspiring, truly.
And what about the elitistacademic, you say? I too, made an effort to make my statement. Although I cannot speak for my colleagues, the start of a semester, for me, is preceded by the agonizing selection of a first-day power ensemble (FDPE). I often plan these outfits as carefully as I plan my syllabi. My thinking here is twofold: I want to feel and convey confidence, which then translates into a kind of shield, armour if you will, because even after twenty years of managing my own classroom and regularly facilitating discussion for 200+ students, I still get nervous—butterflies, tumbly tummy, shortness of breath, the whole bit. The FDPE also says, “I mean business.” And I do. I’m often told I’m intimidating and students are afraid of me at first, so clearly the FDPE is working. But it’s no fail safe against disaster, like the time I almost walked into class with the back of my dress tucked into my tights. [Note to the kids out there: better to be humiliated in this instance by one person telling you that your arse is exposed than a whole classroom staring at your bum. T-R-U-S-T-M-E]
In assessing my wardrobe, I realized that I needed to refresh some basics and add a few distinct pieces. The problem was, as I soon discovered, that current fashion trends don’t suit me (Chamelionic has some wisdom about this as well). I am too old to be Forever21 and too young to be matching coordinates. What then is a fashion forward elitistacademic to do? Go vintage, natch. So the centerpiece of this year’s FDPE was a kelly-green striped ascot dress c. 1980s with a 40s feel.
All of this is just to say, “I have eaten the plums in the icebox.” [C’mon, I couldn’t resist, and you know you were thinking it too.] In all seriousness, I didn’t see any tie-dye. I didn’t see any novelty tees. And I most certainly did not see any diminished authority. What I did see were colleagues who were trying to make a good first impression, bringing their A-game with style and professionalism, and not a single slob in sight.