Academics and the F-Word

Posted in graduate students, resources by Editor on February 5, 2010

One might imagine any number of interesting permutations on that F-word, but here I’m thinking of an even more fraught notion for academics: fashion. Nearly two decades ago, Valerie Steele made the point in her 1991 Lingua Franca essay, “The ‘F’ Word”:

Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York

Once, when I was a graduate student at Yale, a history professor asked me about my dissertation. “I’m writing about fashion,” I said.

“That’s interesting. Italian or German?”

It took me a couple of minutes, as thoughts of Armani flashed through my mind, but finally I realized what he meant. “Not fascism,” I said. “Fashion. As in Paris.”

“Oh.” There was a long silence, and then, without another word, he turned and walked away.

The F-word still has the power to reduce many academics to embarrassed or indignant silence. Some of those to whom I spoke while preparing this article requested anonymity or even refused to address the subject; those who did talk explained that many of their colleagues found it “shameful to think about fashion.” One professor explained the “denial” of fashion this way: “People say that they don’t care about fashion, but that may be because they aren’t self-conscious enough to envision a personal style. Style is what most academics don’t have.”

Academics may be the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in the United States. But they do wear clothes. So I set out to discover what professors choose to wear (the clothes don’t grow in their closets), what they think about fashion (even when they claim not to think about it), and, well, why they tend to dress so badly. . .

For the full essay, click here»

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With the spring conference season here once more, many of us will soon find ourselves rummaging in the closet with an open suitcase on the floor, asking ourselves what an art historian should look like now (I recall one CAA several years ago in which the hotel was also hosting a cheerleading conference: lots of black clothing, scarves, and serious eyewear on the one side with plenty of exuberant hair-styling, makeup, and shiny sportswear on the other — quite the contrast).

The Sartorialist has brilliantly demonstrated how the intersection of high fashion, street fashion, and engaging photography can make for an internationally successful blog (and now book). In a more targeted manner, Academic Chic offers a fascinating glimpse at the unique challenges professors and college instructors face. In the site’s own words: “Three feminist PhD candidates at a Midwest university, on a crusade against the ill-fitting polyester suit of academic yore.” They continue:

We are three Ph.D. candidates in the humanities, who believe that academia and fashion are not at odds. When beginning graduate school we each had an existential wardrobe crisis. What does one wear in grad school anyway? We recognized that our undergraduate hoodies and jeans were no longer appropriate but were unwilling to accept the shoulder-padded khaki polyester suit that was ubiquitous among our female professors. As feminist scholars, we were also forced to reconcile the perceived-superficiality of our interest in style with our academic commitment to questioning gender and class essentialisms.

Today, in the face of all our eye-rolling colleagues, we defiantly wear dresses, fitted jackets, and pointy toe shoes. To teach in. And sometimes just to the library!

But don’t worry. We’ve done our research on this one too. Cultural critic Fred Davis calls fashion “a visual language, with its own distinctive grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.” Theorist Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, points to the power of clothing to create and constantly recreate identity. And even philosopher Charles Baudelaire praised cosmetics and garments for creating beauty where nature fails. In short, fashion is a powerful tool for creating identity, subverting class or gender norms, performing self, and appreciating aesthetic beauty.

This won’t be our dissertation, but it might keep us sane in the mean time. With this project we hope to inspire other academics to embrace their love of clothes, to create unique and beautiful outfits, and to engage in a metadialogue about the art, literature, and garments that can move us all.

A site like Academic Chic suggests that a lot has changed since 1991 when Steele surveyed the American college campus (imagine trying to explain the blogosphere to anyone in 1991). And yet . . . many of her observations still seem remarkably familiar. . .   –C.H.

3 Responses

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  1. Michael Yonan said, on February 5, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Quite hilarious, these articles, and to my mind they ring very true. The single most controversial thing I have ever posted on a listserve was a contribution to a discussion of male academic dress–I championed the necktie as a symbol of professional dignity and a welcome addition of color and pattern to the bland male academic dress code. It was as if I had tried to champion monarchical absolutism to the Jacobins. Clearly this is a very touchy subject.

    Every art historian knows that you can spot the CAA attendees in your home airport long before you ever lift off en route to the conference city. But then that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

  2. style court said, on February 5, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    This made my morning. It’s a fascinating subject and Valerie Steele seems spot on. I did have one art history professor (a sexagenarian in fact) who eschewed the academic look for that of a gallery owner — mod hairstyle and all.

  3. Karena said, on February 10, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Very interesting and yes I have seen hundreds of professors in khakis, and variations of blue oxford shirts!

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