Make It Work

October 05, 2010

My literature class had ended, but six students remained. They arranged their chairs in a semicircle in front of my desk, and then, with a great sense of purpose and candor, denounced my tapered-leg jeans. "They really are awful," one student said, while another countered with, "You mean, hideous." The others agreed. I was undergoing, it occurred to me, an intervention.

"Your shirt and tie are tolerable," someone continued, "but those shoes! I mean, come on!"

I glanced at my shoes. Other than being fit for a clown (literally: I wear a 12), my white Adidas seemed fine to me. I said as much when the laughter subsided. I noted I did not wear them often. I usually donned my high-top Doc Martens, classic footwear whose coolness was unassailable. I referenced them now. "The Docs are awesome," I was told, "if it's 1985." I gathered my things. As I put on my sunglasses and headed for the door, someone called after me: "And lose the mirrored shades!"

I came to realize, during my walk home, that those six students were not necessarily evil. They were just trying to be helpful. But I did not need their help. At least not as much as some of my colleagues, like the one whose idea of haute couture was Looney Tunes neckties. Or the one with the matching suede jacket and fedora, à la Indiana Jones. Or the one who always wore weight-lifting gloves, a clear fashion no-no. I had told him so myself. "They're not an accessory, you moron," he responded. "If it's any of your business, I wear them because of a rare medical condition." I wondered if that also explained his ponytail and fishing vest. I decided not to ask.

I also decided not to ask about a colleague's plunging neckline, even though it seemed a curious thing for an academic to wear, especially a male. He had walked into the conference room where a committee was about to convene and sat at the table, directly across from me. The meeting lasted an hour, but I heard little of what was said. Instead, I spent much of the time imagining him strapped to a plank, being sheared. "You know, to really make that look work," I wanted to tell him, "you might consider incorporating a codpiece."

Instead, and curious to have other opinions on the matter, I went to my office when the meeting adjourned and researched him on The results were irrefutable: Exposed hairy torso, in the context of the liberal arts, was frightening. That view crossed the gender divide. By contrast, I saw that female professors with plunging necklines met with strong approval from their male students. That approval was generally accompanied by approval of the course, suggesting, at least with this sample, a correlation between cleavage and mastery of subject matter.

The broader point—that students respond favorably to attractive professors—has been well documented in the literature. Back when I was a first-time teacher, and at little risk of being confused for a model, I had given a great deal of thought to my wardrobe choices, going so far as to poll my new colleagues at orientation events. The consensus was for "intellectual casual," which was explained as slacks and a blouse for women, and khakis or jeans and a dress shirt for men. The more conservative respondents called for long skirts and sports jackets.

One professor, however, insisted on formal attire. "It commands respect," he insisted. A week later I saw him commanding respect as he walked across the campus. It was 94 degrees. His face was wet and pinkish, the underarms of his tan suit ringed in sweat. I fell in step with him, exchanged a few pleasantries, and then offered an observation.

"You look near death," I said.

He did not deny that he was. I suggested he remove his jacket and vest. "Your students will still respect you," I assured him. "Mine seem to respect me, and look what I'm wearing."

He gave me the once-over, his gaze lingering on my tapered jeans. "Doubtful," he said.

I identified with his skepticism. It was what I felt toward our colleagues who wore flip-flops, T-shirts, baseball caps, cowboy boots, nose rings, ponchos, and Crocs. Were I their student, I would have spent the class drawing them in caricature. I still have some of the sketches from my college years, including one of a guest lecturer whose all-black ensemble consisted of a turtleneck, beret, combat boots, and leather jacket. I gave him a shotgun and a caption that read, "Up the Revolution."

That image came back to me as I walked home after my students' intervention, and I shuddered thinking there were caricatures of me out there, perhaps saying "U Can't Touch This" or singing "Purple Rain." I glanced at my jeans, noted how they ballooned at my thighs before narrowing to grip my shins and ankles. Then I surveyed passers-by and saw only jeans that were narrow from thigh to knee and progressively loose until they reached the shoe.

"My students want me to dress like a mermaid," I told my wife that evening.

"I hope you refused," she said.

"And they want me to stop wearing white sneakers."

"I hope you agreed," she said.

"What's wrong with my white sneakers?"

"Well, they're white to begin with, and they're sneakers."

I rose from the couch and stepped to the center of the living room. "And my jeans?"

"Out of style," she replied.


"I've told you that before."


"Probably when I told you to stop buying white sneakers. And Docs."

I asked her to stand. Her jeans were neither tapered nor mermaidian, but rather somewhere in between. She had found a happy medium and made it work. The next day I bought several pairs similar in style to hers. I also picked up some designer ankle boots that a sales clerk explained were all the rage with young professionals, even though I saw no direct application for the steel toe.

When I entered my classroom, the students who had confronted me applauded and cheered. But that soon gave way to ribbing as they lampooned my previous attire. "What did you do with all that stuff?" someone asked. "Gave it to Goodwill, I hope, or to a vintage store!" They burst into laughter, of course.

I let them have their fun. After all, I understood that such things were cyclical. By 2015, I figured, 2020 at the latest, my old wardrobe would be back in style. And while everyone was going to the mall, scrambling to respond to the whims of New York and Milan, I would simply have to reach into a large cardboard box, tucked away, for now, in the back of my closet.

Jerald Walker is the author of "Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption" (Bantam Books, 2010). He was recently hired as an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College, where, he notes, all of his new colleagues dress splendidly.