The Year of Dressing Formally

January 25, 2008

I am approaching the one-year anniversary of a dramatic change in my personal style as an English professor at a liberal-arts college in the rural Midwest.

It started after a post-tenure sabbatical during which I lost more than 40 pounds (see my 2004 column, "On Being a Fat Professor"). Apart from shoes and accessories, I no longer had any clothes that fit properly. I also realized that, for the past seven years -- while I was keeping my untenured backside glued to an office chair -- I had, more or less, started to dress like I worked in a bait-and-tackle shop. Nearly all of my clothes came from L. L. Bean and the Tractor Supply Company. Sometimes I would buy my shoes at the local supermarket, along with some beef jerky and a case of Budweiser.

Male professors do tend to dress casually at my college. And it was my plan, you see, to assimilate -- at least until I received tenure.

Dear reader, you must know that I have since trimmed my mullet, shaved my mutton chops, and donated my Carhardtt duck-billed overalls to Goodwill. In the evenings, when our kids are in bed, my wife and I watch Tim Gunn's Guide to Style on cable. We drink Cosmopolitans and make snarky comments about Gunn's penchant for trench coats and foundation garments, while the professor in me adores his gentle mentoring of the pitiably fashion-challenged: "Oh, you are now so lovely, so perfect, and I am so moved. Look: tears of joy."

Of course, like most academics, I have not limited my research to TV programs; I have also searched the Internet. There I discovered a fabulous blog: "The Fashionable Academic: Where One Academic Wages War Against Frump." It was she -- I assume she -- who introduced me to Dolce & Gabbana, riding boots, and the inevitable revival of an icon of Orientalist leisure wear: the fez. The Web site also directs readers to sales that place fashionable clothes within range of an academic budget.

Eventually I did consult a number of books on the subject of men's clothing. I began with Colin McDowell's The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen (Thames and Hudson, 1997), which details the origin and development of the codpiece and the zoot suit and provides mini-biographies of such masculine exemplars as Beau Brummell, Comte d'Orsay, Oscar Wilde, and Liberace.

McDowell shows how, in one century, men dressed as Puritan ministers and, in the next, were transformed into Versailles courtiers, complete with rouge, applied moles, and cascades of powdered wiggery. The apotheosis of style in The Man of Fashion seems to be form-fitting black hose surmounted by a Renaissance doublet encrusted with 10,000 pearls, which is sure to get one attention at the local farm bureau.

Like any regular American guy, I respect Thoreau's warning against enterprises that require new clothes, and my sartorial tastes were mainly set in childhood. I went to parochial schools, where I wore a jacket and tie from the age of 6 to 18. And after that -- when I temporarily aspired to a career in advertising -- I based my work style on John T. Molloy's Dress for Success (P.H. Wyden, 1975), in which he advised men to combine dark, three-piece suits with red ties if they wanted to look both sexy and professional. He denounced pocket squares as old-fashioned and affected; bearded men, he thought, seemed unkempt and possibly subversive.

That was in the days when women wore enormous shoulder pads, like linebackers, to complement their Aqua Net encrusted, leonine hairdos.

Even with some caution, I suppose we are all doomed to be embarrassed by the fashion debacles of previous decades. There was a time when I tried very hard to mimic -- ironically, I now tell myself -- the spiky hair of Billy Idol (see my high school yearbook, for more information). And I think I still own a pair of parachute pants. But, dear reader, please withhold judgment; as William Blake said, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," at which I hope I have now arrived.

I am turning 40 this year. I haven't lost my hair, but I am getting a few strands of gray. More and more, I embrace my age. I don't want to be like the high-school guidance counselor who wears Converse high tops; nor do I want to be the choral director who covers the classic works of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I admire the sober suits of the Hasidim and elderly librarians with eyeglass chains. I am no longer in solidarity with the young; I want my students to grow up. And what better way to achieve that than by seeming to grow up myself?

So my current project -- now that I am a "respectable, middle-aged professional" -- is to learn how to build a classic wardrobe that will last for decades with simple upkeep and minor updates, one that won't embarrass me 20 years from now. To that end, once again, I turned to the books.

I liked the no-nonsense title of a small, black volume called A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up, by Bryan Curtis and John Bridges (Rutledge Hill Press, 2003), but it contained no pictures and little more than a sequence of pseudo-proper tips such as "A gentleman does not fill his pants with unnecessary paraphernalia" (define unnecessary, one wag might ask), along with a few useful diagrams like "Five Ways to Fold a Pocket Square."

On the other ostrich-gloved hand, Carson Kressley's chapter in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Clarkson/Potter, 2004) seemed mainly intended for the guy who is too macho for grooming, who cannot use a battery-powered nose clipper unless it's called a "power tool."

The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man (Da Capo, 2003), by Michael Flocker, is a marginally better book, somewhat less condescending, with lots of basic information for the semi-clueless. His most important advice about clothing is to "avoid ridicule" and "dress your age." Unlike the flamboyant Cressley, there's nothing particularly "metro" about Flocker's advice; I would expect to get the same guidance from a young John Wayne.

Gentleman: A Timeless Fashion (Koneman, 2004), by Bernhard Roetzel, is well-illustrated, with hundreds of color photos. It focuses less on grooming than on well-made, luxurious clothing, along with interesting detours such as the history of the electric shaver. Wholly Eurocentric, and mostly Anglophile, in outlook, Roetzel shows one how to tie a cravat, where to shop on Saville Row, and where to purchase the finest umbrella (Swaine, Adeney, Brigg). He has some arbitrary and fussy rules, like Ms. Manners without the irony: "Knitted and woolen neckties do not form part of the English gentleman's wardrobe." It's a gorgeous coffee-table tome, perhaps better browsed than read.

The best book I found on men's clothing is Alan J. Flusser's Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion (HarperCollins, 2002). Another sumptuously illustrated volume, complete with gatefolds on suit fabrics and detailed chapters on every element of the wardrobe, Dressing the Man is also worth reading for balanced advice that takes its primary cue from the classic era of Hollywood. Flusser's heroes are Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant (though he also nods to the English aristocrats with amiable postcolonial bemusement).

Among other things, Mr. Flusser has led me to discover the value of the male garter for holding up slouchy socks, but, most significantly, he emphasizes that a lasting style must complement one's physique and complexion; fit and proportion come before everything else.

I regret that I found most of those books -- particularly the last one -- late in the year of my self-refashioning. I made some mistakes, particularly regarding the matter of contextual propriety. I progressed rapidly from sport coats to suits and ties. I even experimented for a time with French cuffs and pocket squares.

The apex of that trajectory was an absurd moment when I came to an administrative meeting more formally dressed than our provost, a matter on which he commented with some humor.

If one dresses too formally at my college -- or most colleges -- one might be mistaken for an administrator, which is a clear violation of the unwritten sumptuary laws. One might be given inappropriate deference by the unknowing. And I did find more students holding doors for me and calling me "sir" as if I were a person of importance.

Such gestures embarrassed me a little, but they also made me feel more confident and capable. I began to think I could exert some pressure on my institution to raise the bar of formality a little by raising it a lot for myself.

In the process, I probably irritated some of my colleagues, a few of whom are aggressively informal on principle: denim, work boots, sandals -- anything goes but formality. The situation is not unique to my home institution. Professors (in the humanities, at least) don't make much money relative to other professionals, so we press our sour grapes into the sweeter wine of smugness: "We are too important to pay attention to such trivial, privileged matters as clothing."

One day you put on a tie, the next day you are driving a Hummer and voting Republican.

There is some truth to that criticism. After a while, the dramatic change in my clothing began to make larger demands for a complete change in my lifestyle. How could I possibly live on a farm? And drive a 10-year-old Jeep Cherokee? I started to covet glass and steel urban loft apartments, and I began visiting the Web sites of Volvo and Mercedes. If I pursued this course to its logical end, I would need to get an entirely new life, when I am mostly happy with the one I have.

Although it got out of hand, I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment. In general, professors at liberal-art colleges are encouraged to be nurturing. But I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with "Dear Professor" instead of "Hey."

And, in a weird way, being formal in the classroom made my less formal, sweater-clad self more effective in one-on-one meetings. The unexpected softness of my appearance in my office seemed to cause students to open up and speak more honestly of their difficulties and aspirations.

In the end, as nearly every writer on the subject advised with varying degrees of emphasis, the most important thing about clothing is contextual appropriateness, in addition to quality and fit. In an academic context, clothes are a complex negotiation -- a means of communication -- among students, faculty members, administrators, and staff. You want to find the mot juste without being too highfalutin.

Over the course of a year, I straightened the bent stick of my personal appearance by bending it in the other direction. And now I have come to rest somewhere between business casual and business formal: I have fewer clothes but the ones I do have are of higher quality, with better tailoring. Above all, when I dress, I pay careful attention to context, including my age, rank, and the nature of the task at hand, even if that means adjusting my clothes in the middle of the day -- like superman in a phone booth -- as I change from professor to counselor to administrator and back again.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at