Writing a column on faculty fashion is no small task. Indeed, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Faculty fashion? Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
It’s no secret that faculty members are famous for dressing poorly, outlandishly or, even at their best, in styles that lost popularity a decade or two or even more ago (the length of that time-lag is dependent primarily on the year the professor in question entered graduate school). What is it about academia that seemingly produces an inability to pay attention to dress and hair styles — styles that are a ubiquitous presence in the media and our daily encounters with normal people? Does graduate school somehow produce the superpower of resisting the conformity pressures of society? Or, as we like to say in the social sciences, perhaps this really is the result of a selection effect: Academia doesn’t produce the fashion faux pas tendency; rather, people with a stunted sense of style are somehow inordinately drawn to the profession of teaching and research.
My favorite explanation: Perhaps we just aren’t paying these people enough and so they have to continue wearing the subsistence sweatshirts from their grad school days.
Really, I don’t think it’s any of these — and particularly not because they can’t afford a trip to Hermès, Gucci or at least T.J. Maxx or the outlet mall. These people, contrary to what a casual observer might infer, are making conscious choices about what they wear, and those choices are intended to convey something. Now they might be mistaken about what message the viewer of their outfits receives, but we are all, professors included, constantly and purposely sending messages to others through the way we present ourselves.
What message might academics be trying to send when they flout the dictates of fashion and good taste, and ignore the color-clash pain they inflict on others? Well, it flows from the same reason we drive beat-up cars (rust-buckets that are still only automobiles in the academic sense) and refuse to edge our lawns. These choices are rarely driven by financial necessity, but rather because we take some kind of perverse pleasure in conspicuously displaying our disinterest in the material world. We wish to demonstrate that we just don’t care about these kinds of mundane trappings because we are so engrossed in the ethereal, all-consuming life of the mind.
Ah, it’s a lovely image, isn’t it? So taken with our own deep thoughts, we don’t even notice that our pants haven’t fit for 10 years, our belts don’t match our shoes, our collars aren’t buttoned down and maybe even that our shirts are inside-out. As long as we don’t get arrested for indecent exposure, well, then, that’s just good enough. The slobs, in fact, sometimes look down their noses at those who do dress more fashionably, as if to say that anyone who actually coordinates their shirt, pants and socks couldn’t possibly be very serious about their scholarly work.
Now that I’m spending more time doing administrative activities, I’ve encountered a different set of messages sent by clothing choices: Efficiency and formality conveyed by the suit — an industrious and hardworking demeanor reinforced when we take off the blazer and roll up our shirt sleeves, and, my favorite, the loosened-tie look that seems to say, “I had to dress up for something important today, but it wasn’t you!”
The question, though, is whether the messages sent are in fact the ones received. I’m afraid in the case of university faculty (who, it has been proven, can be pretty clueless about social interaction and norms) this often is not the case. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that students are considerably more fashion-conscious than their teachers. And believe me, they notice what you are wearing. I’ve heard many a snarky observation by students traipsing out of other people’s classes and have even had comments written on my teaching evaluations about how that student’s other professors dress! (Really, the half-page tirade I once received about some misguided soul who wore the same outfit — a red sweater and black slacks — to class every day was something to behold.)
Their reaction, by and large, is not, “Professor Doffsweater must be brilliant!” More likely it’s, “What a schmo” or “Wow, is she out-of-touch.” Or more pointed and problematic, “He doesn’t even care about himself — he clearly can’t give a second thought to me.” One thing is certain: While they are labeling the prof as a dweeb in their heads, they aren’t likely to also be thinking, “This person is just like me, I want to be just like her when I grow up!”
And let’s not leave us administrators out. When we refuse to stoop to even business casual, the message to our colleagues can often be something different than efficiency and industriousness. More likely, distance and inappropriate status display are inferred, neither of which is likely to help produce a genuine or productive interaction.
What to do to correct all of this? We’ve got a long way to go, judging from the sartorial sensibilities displayed at the most recent faculty gathering I attended. But before we call in Joan Rivers to critique what happened on the O’Shag carpet last week, ask Professor Blackwell to create a worst- and best-dressed list at the annual President’s dinner, or create a hot-or-not voting website to accompany Course Instructor Feedback evaluations, we could just start small. Spend a few moments thinking about what kind of reactions might result from the following small set of faculty fashion flops. Then go, and sin no more:
Twenty popular faculty styles **
1. I’m not an Oxford professor, but I play one at Notre Dame.
2. This outfit worked at IBM in 1957, so why not wear it every day?
3. Why tuck in my shirt? I’ll just have to do it again tomorrow.
4. Bow ties say “intellectual,” are not the slightest bit nerdy and, as a bonus, they emphasize my growing midsection.
5. Versace Monday, Armani Wednesday: I’m sure to get a red hot pepper on rateyourprofessor.com.
6. I don’t have time to iron. I was up all night changing how we understand the fundamental building blocks of the entire universe.
7. That hole burned by 18 molar hydrochloric acid isn’t that bad. Why waste a perfectly functional pair of pants?
8. If you can get it at Sears, it’s still in style.
9. Suspenders and a belt. I teach security studies after all.
10. No one will notice I’m wearing black tennis shoes with this suit.
11. I need those elbow patches. Reading is hard work!
12. Polyester is the new black.
13. My gigantic glasses from 1987 are still in perfectly good shape. I think I’ll just replace the lenses.
14. Peace and Love. It’s still the ’60s, isn’t it?
15.This leather jacket will let them know that I’m cool, man . . . I mean, dude.
16. I’m a low-level administrator, but I really, really, really want to be a high-level administrator.
17. I wanna wear jeans! But I’d better make it formal by adding a blazer.
18. It’s not that dirty. It was on the top of the laundry hamper.
19. My black pants aren’t too short. How else am I going to show off my new white socks?
20.To Tweed or not to Tweed? That is the question. And the answer is: To Tweed!!
**Fictional composites of well-known stereotypes — any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However, if you resemble one (or more) of these descriptions, you might want to reconsider your fashion choices.
Daniel J. Myers is vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs and a professor of sociology at Notre Dame.