Academics: They’re not Women, you Know.

I’ve just read (via twitter link from two female academics, Alice Bell and Lisa Jardine), this delightful Guardian article, titled ‘Why do academics dress so badly? Answer: they are too happy’.

Well, that’s lovely, I thought. It is nice to see an article acknowledging that, amid the chaos of REF 2020 and funding cuts and short-term contracts, there is someone sticking up for the fun side of academic life. I’ve just started a new job. It comes with perks like an actual living wage and the chance to move to a city with decent shopping. One of the things I have very much enjoyed doing with said living wage was buying a couple of new dresses and a very swish dressing gown from Nomads on King’s Parade, which is one of my favourite shops in the world. (Don’t worry, I also splashed out on some lovely new books and spent time walking past King’s chapel sighing contentedly and pretending I was in Granchester with James Norton. I have a Life of the Mind, you know).

The article tries for an arch, tongue-in-cheek tone. But as I read it, I was confused.

Paisley body warmers? Cornish pasty shoes? ‘Amusing’ cufflinks? Fortunately, Marx can explain our crimes of fashion,” it began. 

That’s funny, I thought. I can’t remember when I thought of wearing any of those.

Ostensibly, the article engaged with the question of gender in academic dress. That is to say, it dragged out the tired old chestnut that women can wear whatever they like and men have to wear suits. And it’s so hard for them! To be all fashionable! Because they have thinky-thoughts and everything!

Women (who are, btw, on average doing the lion’s share of housework and child-tending), don’t have such difficulties. Their butterfly minds rise above the serious work of hard thinking (or the dollops of baby-sick) and straight in to LK Bennett. Well, my mind does. I have no child-sick to contend with.

If you are wondering why I’m irritated by this article, read it, and look at its use of language. ‘Academic’ is, virtually throughout, synonymous with ‘male academic’. Early on, a woman is referred to as a ‘colleague’ (in implicit contrast to the ‘academic’ to whom she speaks). Now, sure, she might well be non-academic staff, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that an article on how ‘academics’ dress is really all about men.

There was one ray of light – and I thought we were getting to some kind of sensible acknowledgement that women academics existed, for eventually we reached a straight comparison of what men and women academics should wear to look good.

Apparently, for a man to look good as an academic, what he needs are good cufflinks. No brand, you know. Just cufflinks. The last time I bought cufflinks (and they were nice), they cost about £40.

For a woman to look good as an academic?

“a Hermès scarf should be enough to swing the vote.”

Oh, ok then. Mind if I pick the cheapie option? I’m so sorry, I know … but £250 is more than my weekly rent, so …

I could go on about this article, which has really irritated me with its casual assumptions about who the default ‘academic’ is, and I could moan more about its utterly patronizing and misguided attempts to throw a bone to those few women readers who might care. I will point out that the financial side of things matters, in part, because the average age and seniority of female academics is lower than that of men, so we are less (not more) likely to be in a good position to shell out on that designer scarf to impress. And, sadly, we’re also more likely to be judged for it if we claim we’re just too ‘happy’ to care about how we look. But, I’m not going to go on. I’m an academic, and caring about my clothes not only makes me happy – it’s also perfectly compatible with being fulfilled by my academic work.

A few weeks ago, the very stylish Rachel Moss set up this tumblr account, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. You can add pictures, to broaden everyone’s stereotype of what academics look like. This is a hugely positive thing: a simple, effective way of showing people that there’s a wide range of academic images, far more diverse than the ‘(white) man in a suit’ we’re used to seeing.

More recently, I was discussing clothing with my brilliant third-year student, who is starting to write a fascinating dissertation on the subject (why yes, Prof Wolff, people can expend real academic energy and time on clothing! I know, right?!). I won’t spoiler her research, which is her own, but there was one snippet I thought relevant. We noticed how much, when you read and look at medieval texts, men dress in flamboyant clothes, in silks, in embroideries. For us, it’s easy to read those clothes as ‘feminine,’ because that’s our stereotype. But we’d be wrong. The tiny details of masculine dress – the green and gold of, say, the disguised baddie in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which tells a sharp-eyed observer how to spot him later in the text – are designed to separate the clever readers from the dupes. In short: clothing matters.

NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duc du Berry. c. 1400. St Jerome in a Woman's Dress

And never more than for poor St Jerome, a martry to a pretty dress. Perhaps this explains the deep-seated male anguish over academic clothing? Image from http://johanoosterman.tumblr.com/.

Update

It’s been suggested I need to clarify that, in this post, I am referring to academics who teach and/or research at universities, not to teachers in schools. I’m not sure what the dress codes are in most schools, but they may be quite different. Apologies to anyone offended.

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7 thoughts on “Academics: They’re not Women, you Know.

  1. Wonderful post. I remember reading a posted notice about “professional” clothing: Suit, tie, dress-shirt. That was thirty years ago, and we’re still fighting the fight merely to have our existence acknowledged. Infuriating.

  2. I was doing a puzzle of a medieval painting recently. And although it was outdoors with horses there seemed to be a lot of women in it. So I’m sorting the orange dress and the green dress, putting their pieces near each other. But where the hell do they go? Where are the women in this picture? Finally I twig. There were zero women in the painting. The dresses were on the men! Then the puzzle went together quite quickly.

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