Why do (male) academics dress badly, and what about the women?

When I first began to move to and fro between the Social Studies and Maths and Computer Science buildings on campus, and attending various events in both (and occasionally in the hyper-fashionable Arts Faculty), I couldn’t help but notice a relieving and liberating feature of departmental life which is rather different in those different departments: fashion. Going to Maths suddenly meant I was suddenly among others who seemed to think it was ok to wear whatever they are comfortable in. It has also been nice to not have to notice what my interlocutor is wearing (or feeling obliged to pass the usual compliments about their cool new jumper or dress, or feeling rude when forgetting to do so). Fieldwork didn’t quite change the way I myself dressed – but it did made me more likely to wear the more comfortable clothes more often, compared to the slightly more complicated outfits.

However, the interesting point here is that this is a warning sign to never take my own fieldwork judgements at face value. I am clearly in the minority with my reduced appreciation or understanding of fashion, and as anything unreflected, this might cause problems.  I have since come across a number of articles (in newspapers, so far no serious research) bemoaning the state of academic dress and comparing (unfavourably for the sciences) across departments (like this recent one  by Jonathan Wolff in the Guardian), or this one expressing sheer personal anxiety about what to wear at a large anthropology conference by Carole McGranahan et al. There are also advice articles to women working in academia by Francesca Stavrakopoulou. The author refuses “to wear the male uniform” because:

“… a male academic can afford to look scruffy if he chooses: no one will question his intellectual or professional authority. Male academics who wear jeans, hoodies and t-shirts are “lads” to their students, and “good blokes” to their colleagues. Older men who wear scuffed shoes and a fraying tweed jacket, accidentally accessorized with a splodge of egg yolk down their tie, are “eccentric” or “distractedly intellectual”.  But a female academic who looks similarly casual, or scruffy, or unkempt, risks becoming the target of a range of sexist assumptions: she must be a student, or a mother distracted from the job by childcare, or a woman too old to need to bother about her appearance.”

I have to say, I have often been mistaken for a student. But it never occurred to me to think of this as a bad thing, because, well, I do look and feel like one. And because looking like a student is less effort, ergo it leaves more spare energy for work – just like Jonathan Wolff writes, “There we have it. Academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work.” I actually think we are all students of our subjects, although perhaps others prefer to call themselves “academics”. It is helpful for getting to things for free, too, sometimes. Perhaps I’m not well suited to understand the fashion, or social science point of view of things, but as long as I remember that not everyone agrees with me and pay attention to the majority who don’t – for example, already several of my female interviewees in the mathematical sciences find fashion important and find it annoying that they aren’t “taken seriously” when dressed as they like –  it should be ok…

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