Monday, June 7, 2010

Academic fashion: an oxymoron?

i haven't written for a long while, in part because i have been musing over a new style - needing one, wanting one. i love what blogging has taught me about writing, but i feel i understand the witty peroration and i want to try something new. and/or i might write a more focused, issue-specific blog (stay tuned).

but for those of you who might be interested, here's what i recently had to say on the topic of "academic fashion" (it's forthcoming in ESC: English Studies in Canada, later this year - remember, you read it here first!):

What to wear is always a loaded question, even in academic circles that pretend to be above such vulgarities. In fact, pretending to be above such vulgarities might be the quintessence of academic fashion, judging from the results of a quick google search on the phrase. Comments on the web range from the casual:

“As an academic, I see nothing wrong with jeans and tee-shirts. Anything more complex is more trouble than it’s worth.”

to the ardent:

“I wear a t-shirt and shorts (unless it’s too cold for shorts) to teach in. I wear that to conferences too. Call me crazy but I got into academia on the theory that it was my brains that mattered not my looks. I wear a tie for no man.”

to the downright polemical:

“I’m an academic. I spend most of my day sitting at my computer or working in the library. There is nobody looking over my shoulder. No one is going to fire me because there is a hole in the elbow of my pullover. Why shouldn’t I wear what I like? Why the fuck should I have to copy the dress code of ‘people over thirty who work in public relations’? GIVE ME MY FREEDOM! GIVE ME MY MOTHEATEN OLD PULLOVER!”


Mind over body: Descartes still rules the university, in an unholy alliance with Calvin and Weber. We are a sober people, we academics, suspicious of glitz and flash and self-promotion. We are socially positioned in a way that works against stylishness, too. We may be wealthy by global standards, but we earn the salaries of public employees. Since we work all the time, we have few opportunities for frivolities like shopping. And while we might have broken down the ivory-tower stereotype conceptually, for the most part our campuses still tend to be enclaved in the city: fashion is not something you can easily fall into, the way (I imagine) you could if you worked in a downtown office tower.

Mind over body, work before play, frugality above all: the antithesis of fashion.

But what if you’re embodied? Let me make an old-fashioned move here and assert that the stakes are different for women. Expectations are higher, exhortations are more urgent, and possibilities are more loaded. Men might get away with motheaten sweaters, but women generally don’t. Fashion is highly gendered, and gender normative – so when I refer to “women” in this context, you should hear white, middle-class, slender, gender-conforming women. Academics are not outside that interpellative address, no matter how much we might want to dismiss “couture” as a despicable ancien rĂ©gime.

Too brainy for mass-culture girlishness but still interpellated as feminine by popular and academic culture, women are caught between the diabolical anxieties of being pretty enough and being smart enough. As a result, we get it coming (“It’s scary that you know a woman’s a social scientist when she’s wearing a certain type of dress or skirt and some awful-looking clay pendants”) and going (“She should spend as much time on her lectures as she does on her outfits”). And lest you think it’s only our students who police our fashion, remember the flak Elaine Showalter took for ‘coming out of the closet’ as a fashionista in the Dec 1997 Vogue? “I was once so desperate for a shopping fix at a Salzburg seminar on gender that I visited a dirndl factory,” she confesses. Condemnation was swift and brutal. Showalter’s irresponsibility – her betrayal of the sisterhood, her callous consumerism – was the talk of the academic gossip circuits, briefly. Warning taken: if you read Vogue and your teaching evaluations, keep it to yourself.

Fortunately, web 2.0 means that if we find ourselves confounded by our closets or confused about consumption, we can turn to the growing world of academic fashion bloggers for help. Threadbared, hautest of the academic couture blogs, discusses “the politics, aesthetics, histories, theories, cultures and subcultures that go by the names ‘fashion’ and ‘beauty.’” Others are more practical. AcademiChic is produced by “Three feminist PhD candidates at a Midwest university, on a crusade against the ill-fitting polyester suit of academic yore,” while The Glamourous Grad Student will tell you how to look good on fifty dollars a year (or, in her words, “share how I balance a grad student stipend with a desire for magic in my life and wardrobe”). My personal favourite is Fashion for Nerds, “Bringing Style to Science, One Outfit at a Time.” Characterized by the familiar generousity of the blogosphere as well as its DIY ethos, these blogs focus on how academic women can put together work-ready outfits by combining off-the-rack purchases from H&M or Banana Republic with vintage finds and the comfortable shoes you already own. They are not preachy – the bloggers use themselves as examples, focusing on what they like about the outfits they wear – but most posts include references to the origin of pieces just like a regular fashion magazine spread might. It suggests their followers find such advice necessary.

Do we know enough to steer between the Scylla of not-pretty-enough and the Charybdis of not-smart-enough? Let me distil our bloggers’ advice, along with observations from two decades in the academy, in a list of Do’s and Don’ts for the Professorial Woman:

  • Do shop locally. (Exception: Matt & Nat. A Matt & Nat bag could be driven around the world in a Hummer that runs on the blood of the spotted owl and it would still be sacrosanct. Ditto clothing from Mountain Equipment Co-op.) Don’t shop big box stores. (Except Winners is okay, and the aforementioned H&M, and Banana Republic, and Club Monaco, and Anthropologie, and HBC and Sears.)
  • Do look sharp, energetic, and youthful, but don’t look like your students. How? Search out the section of the mall not devoted to turning women into girls, while avoiding the stuff your elderly piano teacher used to wear. Hint: if you’re surrounded by cougars and MILFs you’re getting warmer.
  • Do dress in a way that commands respect. However, don’t appear too corporate: remember, you don’t want to look like you work in PR. A jacket is okay, a cardigan preferable. A suit is a no-no, unless you’re gunning for an administrative position, in which case you fail the “smart enough” test. Canadian academics prefer tights to hose, boots to pumps, and skirts or pants to dresses. Blacks, blues and browns are safest, although you don’t want to appear too monochromatic. And don’t wear too much black or you’ll be taken for an artiste.
  • Do cultivate a bluestocking look to prove you’re intelligent and appropriately gendered, i.e., neither head-turningly feminine nor inattentively androgynous. (If you’re intentionally butch, don’t worry, your students will discipline you on ratemyprofessor.) Don’t advertise your sexuality: no heels higher than two inches, no extreme makeup, no bling, no ink, no piercings, no cosmetic procedures. Do consider the academic bob, which will mark you as safely, permanently, numbingly middle-aged. Do wear funky glasses, the signature look for the brainy woman, but don’t wear funky hats (not white enough).

Got it?

If you’re able to walk that fine line, if you can strut your stuff on the academic runway without losing your balance in the face of blinding surveillance by students, colleagues, administrators and the general public, you might be tempted to make academic fashion the next feminist front. I’m tempted, regularly. But to what end? For the right to sit in fusty libraries wearing motheaten sweaters? Or to walk to meetings in Christian Louboutins? Don’t get me wrong: I want to work in a place with more kaftans and Pumas, nose rings and suits, and smart trousers on transmen. But let’s shuffle this up the priority line only after women start earning a hundred cents on the dollar.

Meanwhile, let’s agree that most days it’s enough to brush your hair.


jen alabiso said...

here, at my *ahem* fourth convocation ceremony THIS WEEK, i saw a woman in crocs.

please dear god, let the feminists embrace fashion - or at the very least - SHOES!

Anonymous said...

I find style to be difficult at best. I've worked in professional dress and casual and I have to say... the professional environment is more desireable because it makes everyone more cordial, respectful, and professional. I don't like going to a casual envirnoment where everyone thinks it's okay to make lewd jokes. I can joke with the best of them, but it's awkward at work with people you don't know or just met.

I'd love it if you could check out my blog sometime:

Anonymous said...

I have no idea why you would care what I have to say, but I must tell you: you literally made me laugh out loud, nearly waking the two children sleeping beside my bed, at this line:
"A Matt & Nat bag could be driven around the world in a Hummer that runs on the blood of the spotted owl and it would still be sacrosanct."

Your writing is intelligent, stylish, AND hilarious. Thanks for teaching me more than a few things, and for making me laugh.

Even if it did almost wake the babies.


J said...

It's nice to hear that other female faculty think about these things.