The Chronicle Review

What We Wear in the Underfunded University

Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle Review

August 27, 2017

Whenever I catch a glimpse of my reflection during late-night lecture writing or midway through a mountain of marking, I recall, with dismay, a line from Jonathan Swift: "She wears her clothes as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork." Academics can be a motley crew, coffee-stained and ink-blotted, so dedicated to ideas we can barely spare a thought for what we wear. But this dismissal of dress seems to me so often only an artful pose, implying that to care about clothes is to have fallen victim to vanity when you ought instead to have been immersed in abstract intellectual inquiry.

The way that we dress in the academy has changed because the academy has changed. Learned professors once inspired confidence with their tweed jackets and elbow-patched blazers, understandably unbothered by fleeting fashions when the longue durée of tenure stretched so happily ahead of them. A few hard-wearing separates, well-made and durable, in a muted palette, could make for a perfectly passable and desperately dull uniform, worn on rotation, week by week.

By contrast, the harried teaching assistants of today’s university, underpaid and overworked, have neither time nor income to spare on sartorial matters. Somehow they must seamlessly segue from graduate students slumming in sneakers to professorial formality. A blazer thrown over a Ramones T-shirt might do the trick, or you could try fishing out that pair of respectably stout court shoes you bought for the wedding you went to last summer.

And while those dusty dons sail in from time to time, the rest of us are asked to put our best (shoe polished) foot forward, smiling on campus-visit days for prospective students and for marketing brochures. Wandering around the administrative corridors, you can feel suddenly surrounded by a swarm of smartly pressed suits. Here you can see in clothes the professionalization and managerialism that increasingly circumscribe the modern university.

To show that you care about your clothes can be taken as a token of intellectual inferiority.
The glaring irony is that despite this gleaming vision of the university as a smoothly managed and efficiently administered organization, appearances are deceptive. Wander over to an actual department, and you’ll find a teaching assistant working late in a still-unwashed sweater, a lecturer slumped over a pile of essays, an errant pen mark on her brow. There is a gap between the way the professionalized university wants to present itself and the less glossy realities faced by the people who teach within it.

What we wear should not matter: Ideas, arguments, theories, and thought are the stuff in which academics trade. But our institutions are riven by power, and teaching and research are themselves underwritten by claims to authority and expertise. No matter how much we know, we still feel the need to show that we know it to solidify our status as bona fide intellectuals, deserving of deference and respect. One of the ways we demonstrate our possession of knowledge is in what we wear — an age-old tradition beginning with Plato in a himation, or cloak. Only now we stroke manicured beards in thought, carry bulging book bags to demonstrate commitment, and wield Moleskine notebooks when inspiration strikes.

But, sometimes, embarrassingly, the assurance and authority we possess on the inside is betrayed by the clothes we wear on the outside. My friend Anna, hurrying in from the rain to teach her sophomore-year poetry tutorial, once jammed the zipper on her fluorescent yellow puffer jacket in the rush to remove her coat and commence class. "I tried to shimmy out of the thing," she explained to me glumly afterward, "and then my head got stuck in the neck hole." Apparently the students sat and watched in silent horror for the 20 minutes it took for security to arrive with a pair of scissors. "Read stanzas 28-35," she instructed them, weakly, from the muffled interior of the coat. Nobody did.

And who hasn’t had the odd sartorial disaster? Who hasn’t casually brushed a sleeve across a flame while reaching over the Bunsen burner, or had to Sellotape her stockings to her legs when the adhesive wore off minutes before a lecture? If you’ve never tumbled down the stairs with a cup of coffee in hand and a crisp white shirt gleaming in its freshly washed glory, you’re more agile than I.

In such moments of sartorial crisis, the best strategy is to adopt a nonchalant attitude: Forget the wretched perfidy of outward appearance and immerse yourself instead in the holy life of the mind. When your zipper fails, teach Zola! But this decided indifference to matters of dress is itself an intellectual attitude, a pretense of haughty detachment, as though the indignity of material life and bodily form could never be of real concern to a real thinker.

In 1991, Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and now director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, made this same point in a nicely arch essay for Lingua Franca. She recounted how a Yale history professor, inquiring after the topic of her dissertation, responded enthusiastically, evidently mishearing her reply of "fashion" as "fascism." "Oh," he replied, once corrected, apparently aghast, "and then, without another word, he turned and walked away." In 2017 a dissertation on fashion is unlikely to send a Yale professor scuttling from a seminar. Indeed, histories of dress, costume, and textiles are topics deemed illuminating enough to warrant monographs, conferences, and research centers — the whole scholarly kit and caboodle.

It is a mark of our broadened academic horizons that the modern study of material culture thrives. This intellectual adventurousness is our profit on all the Barthesian hijinx of the early ’80s and ’90s — that melee of "signs" and "semes" once hurled so wildly that it seems astonishing that we should have escaped from it uninjured. Happily, there are now many ways in which scholars might valuably investigate fashion, variously finding in textiles a pathway into the history of race and empire, reading dressed bodies through the lens of feminism, assessing costume and performance as the site of complex sexualities. And if you’re looking to try dress studies on for size, you might rifle though Alison Matthews David’s excellent Fashion Victims (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2015) for the history of 19th-century industrialism, Peter Stallybrass’s 1998 essay "Marx’s Coat" for commodity fetishism, or Mark M. Anderson’s Kafka’s Clothes (Clarendon Press, 1992) for modernist aesthetics.

Yet, while fashion can be a deep and enlightening subject of study, there remains within the profession a niggling suspicion about scholars who spare a thought for matters of their own dress. To show that you care about your clothes can be taken as a token of intellectual inferiority. That we might be faintly interested in what we and others wear is too mortifying a folly to reveal, so instead we exchange earnest opinions over the coffee machine, only espying by side-eye the patch on the jacket, the brooch on the collar, the neat Cuban heels. If we do deign to remark on a new scarf or admire a jaunty tie, we do so hurriedly, exchanging pleasantries in passing, en route to the abstractions and arguments that are, apparently, the real business of our lives. This seems an especially absurd position at which to have arrived since, at times, ours can be such a dandified profession. We are plumed peacocks at the lectern. We are poseurs with PowerPoint.

In retrospect, my own undergraduate days seemed unusually peppered with marvelous old dons and brilliant young brains, all dressed with the most astonishing nonchalance and an artfully careless savoir-faire. I recall, for instance, the venerably three-piece-suited emeritus who would stride into the lecture hall with black homburg firmly planted on head and attaché case swinging in hand, as stiff-lipped as though food rationing had ended just yesterday; the radical Renaissance feminist scholar and yoga aficionado, nose studded and blonde cropped, whose lilac leather jacket would fly (like her thrown caution) in the wind as she roared off on a motorcycle at the end of a supervision; the serious-minded and untenured tutor who would arrive to teach Hamlet, inadvertently dressed as, well, Hamlet, in full sables and weeds, complete with mournful expression.

In fiction and film, where clothes serve as a kind of shorthand for character, academics rarely escape unscathed. When Kristen Wiig’s timid physics professor abandons academic ambitions to become a "Ghostbuster" in the recent reboot, she casts aside her habitually frumpy plaid skirts and pussy-bowed shirts for overalls and "proton laser" backpack. But even an ectoplasm-splattered suit won’t get you tenure at Columbia, the film reveals.

In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Delphine Roux, Coleman Silk’s French feminist nemesis, is mocked by cruel colleagues and derided as "so passé, such a parody of Simone de Beauvoir" in her "vintage Chanel jacket with tight jeans." But Roux’s expensive wardrobe is only a costume. She is a bundle of carefully concealed status anxiety, cultural mistranslation and academic isolation, all of which is expressed in her clothes. Roux favors cashmere and leather, Roth informs us, as though it were code for her particular continental brand of vanity and pretension.

Roth’s novel is a rare exception with its imaginary academics whose surface appearance conceals deeper waters. Michael Douglas’s ponderous professor of creative writing in Wonder Boys (2000), is a model of academic despair, disguised in a black turtleneck. A jaunty maroon scarf casually slung around the shoulders just so gives him a dash of verve and flair, the horn-rimmed glasses sitting low on his nose remind us he is an intellectual. Even the covertly rolled joints and Katie Holmes’s demure-lipped, overfamiliar grad student seem part of the act. It feels hokey as hell.

And yet there is something familiar in the film’s depiction of academic languor and stalled intellectual ambition, particularly in the scenes in which Douglas takes to staring blankly at his cranky typewriter, lolling in his ex-wife’s dusty-pink bathrobe. Haven’t we all been there? Maybe some of us are there, right now, whiling away an unproductive midafternoon in crumpled nightwear, cowering behind a squalid tower of coffee cups and a glaringly blank Microsoft Word document.

Wearing a black turtleneck, of course, condemns you to existential crisis, being, as it is, so beloved of pained writers and French philosophers. Part of its allure is pragmatic insofar as it circumnavigates the stuffiness of a shirt and tie, whilst not quite degrading the wearer to the slovenly blasphemy of a T-shirt. What we wear can signal our intellectual identifications, nodding to the schools of thought to which we subscribe.

Think of Foucault in a leather jacket and bottle-top glasses, Beauvoir with an elegant chignon and silk scarf, Butler in loose-fitted pants and deep pockets for a casually plunged hand, Cixous insouciant in an artfully draped Sonia Rykiel and a turban for added panache. Derrida dressed, as someone once put it to me, with the look of a "rakish ski instructor."

Even the ubiquitous tweed jacket has its place. It is not always redolent of the humorless humanities, of stuffy and stagnated spheres of scholarship. The great irony of the tweed jacket is that it should have fallen, quite by accident, back into fashion as part of the reclamation of heritage style in recent years. These days, department-store blazers come with elbow patches attached — a worn sleeve no longer the proud war wound of long stretches at library desks.

Even my very own array of academic cardigans, uniformly perforated at the elbow, and shirts, ink-stained at the breast pocket, are made (God forfend!) fashionable in the ironic light of "normcore" — the modern hipster aesthetic which so placidly appropriates the sensible and staid as the height of style. "Where did you get them?" a student keenly inquired of my owlishly oversized plastic glasses the other day. "1986," I replied.

Yet not all of us can wear what we like. Behind our workplace wardrobes lies the nexus of inequalities that structure the university. Dress bears upon our relationships with students and staff. The female professor who looks younger than her years knows this; she thinks hard about how to connote her age and command the respect her learning deserves. So too does the recently graduated teaching assistant who wants not to be mistaken for a student any longer, but to be seen by colleagues as an equal in the competitive job market. "Dress for the job you want," goes the mystifying mantra. The irony is that this should mean so little in an industry marked by a paucity of any jobs at all.

Correction (9/1/2017, 11:10 a.m.): This essay has been updated to clarify, as several readers pointed out, that Plato, a Greek, very likely wore a himation, or cloak, rather than a toga.

Shahidha Bari is a senior lecturer in English at Queen Mary University of London and is writing a book on the philosophy of dress.