The post about clothes

Potterpuffs- Minerva Mcgonagall sometimes thinks hogwarts would be better with no kidsSo. One of the reasons I haven’t had much medieval-lit related content to put up is that last semester, vast amounts of my brain got sucked into my first-ever teaching experience. And I wasn’t teaching medieval lit. I have lots of thoughts about teaching, some of which I’m not comfortable putting up here because There Are Boundaries pertaining to responsible blogging, and some of which is too confusing for me to talk about coherently yet,1 and some of which are just profoundly boring to anyone who’s not me.

Something I can talk about, and haven’t been for fear of being thought frivolous, is clothes. But this is the internet, we’re all frivolous here. So let’s talk about clothes.

One thing which was obvious to me, when it came to starting teaching, is that there’s a lot more fuss and angst about Teaching Clothes amongst Americans than there is in Australia, at least as it pertains to tutors/TAs. I read Academichic and a handful of other style blogs2; a number of my LJ-friends are TA’ing in the States. Teaching Clothes are a big deal.

From what I’ve gleaned, people’s Teaching Clothes concerns come down to several factors:

Academia - I'm in it for the outfit1. Establishing authority in the classroom, which means dressing at least one register above that of your students.
2. Projecting a Young Professional image to peers and superiors within the university.
and in some cases
3. Modesty and Standards.

Points one and two apply equally to male and female teachers; point three mostly to women.3

Between style blogs and my American peers, though, I started getting a sense of disconnect. The teaching wardrobes under discussion here seemed to be all a notch or two more formal than what I see on campus at USyd. I have a Young Professional wardrobe, I acquired it while I was working in 09. It consists of a simple grey trouser suit, black trousers and a black jacket which don’t quite match well enough to be called a suit, and a brown skirt suit which is too big for me now. I had this feeling that if I turned up to teach wearing what I’d worn to work in an office, I’d look ridiculous (and boring. I wore the most boring tops possible with these suits. Protective camouflage, I guess).

Maybe our institutional culture is just different? I, as a student, certainly wasn’t rating my tutors on the formality of their dress. Their ability to be interesting while talking about grammar, yes. Not that clothes don’t make *impressions*, but, well, the teacher who had the biggest impact on me in undergrad taught in jeans. She was easy to engage with and approachable and it was easy to imagine that I could be like her, not in some distant future but in the achievable future. On the other hand, a big part of the impression my current supervisor first made on me was to do with the fact that she presented as an a well-dressed professional grownup who gets paid to talk about Lancelot. More of a long-range aspirational example to a second-year.

So I went around asking my Australian and NZ peers – postgrads in tutoring positions, mostly but not all medievalists, and all female – how they picked out their teaching clothes.

Answers I got included:

Cheshire cat - we're all mad here* I try to wear shoes
* Make sure to wear thick tights if your skirts are shorter
* What? We all wear jeans and t-shirts.

That more or less confirmed my suspicion that we’re just that bit more laid-back in Australia and NZ. But it didn’t tell me what to wear. And, although no one I asked seemed to be, I was concerned about asserting some sort of teacherly persona. I’m young, and generally I act like a giant goof. I was taking first-year classes concurrently with teaching first-year classes. Given that some students in first-year classes are second, third, fourth year double-degree students, it was entirely likely that a handful of my students aside from the mature age entry students would be my age or older. In my previous job I’d been noticeably talked down to until I went out of my way to age up my appearance (cutting my hair helped a lot); I didn’t know how students might respond if I rocked up to class wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing as an undergrad.

Next post: stuff I wore to class, and how much (if any) impact I thought it had on my teaching.


1. Not anything specific to USyd or the course I was teaching on, and nothing bad happened to me personally. There was a rash of discussion on the intertubes about something which hit too close to home, is all.
2. There’s an entire blogging subgenre for academic fashion, populated, it seems, mostly by humanities scholars. I mentioned this blogosphere recently to a friend of mine who’s in palaentology, and her response was “are your hiking boots waterproof? Yup? Great, you’re in good academic style!” This is not to say there aren’t sciencey types doing fashion blogging – Fashion for Nerds is one of my favourites – but they seem to be outnumbered by humanities scholars.
3. Bear with me here. I know there are codes relating to how much of a guy’s skin we get to see, too, but generally that’s framed in terms of not being too casual (shorts, singlets, unbuttoned shirts, and so on) and there seems to be less of an implication that if he Gets It Rong his students will be distracted by his sexy sexy collarbones. Which is odd, because it’s entirely possible to be distracted by the collarbones of a suitably attractive man.


8 Responses to “The post about clothes”

  1. magistra Says:

    I think in the UK, there’s still a tendency to think that smartness among academics is vaguely suspicious, and dons are supposed to dress strangely. (Admittedly, I did my first degree in maths, where standards of dress are extremely peculiar). It’s taken as OK to look chic/dapper if that’s your natural style (like David Starkey). But if you look too professional/corporate, that may be taken to imply that you think of yourself as a manager or are unduly ambitious. ‘Power dressing’ doesn’t go down well. It’s probably a relic of the scholar as heir to Ancient Greek philosophers, as being too high-minded to worry about anything but the life of the mind.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Yes, I think that does definitely play into it! My colleague the palaentologist tells me that the fashion choices in her department lean toward the “look, I’m ready to run out and get muddy at a moment’s notice” variety more than what one might call respectable professional wear.

      Interestingly, the two Cambridge PHD students at ANZAMEMS this year were *incredibly* well dressed. Full suits to give conference papers. Stephanie Trigg said something about that to me – she seemed to think that was a newish trend for Cambridge scholars.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        I’d like to think I started it, but Cambridge was singularly uninterested in my research1 so I must actually have been conforming without knowing. Yowch.

        Also, on the modesty angle, I take all gender-balance points on the chin and admit their justice but this must also be registered.

        • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

          Damn, lacking footnote, sorry: should have been…

          1. As in, I got to do so once.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          *reads the post in question*

          Oh, oh my. Oh dear. See, this is where a few choice words along the lines of “remember to look in the mirror and make sure your genitalia isn’t screamingly obvious” should probably be spoken to young men as well as women at some point.

  2. Regan Says:

    Following what Magistra said above (and I think I’m going to have to get around to making my own post about clothes sooner rather than later), I think in the US, the situation is somewhat opposite – the tweedy and strangely-dressed professor is such an object of cultural derision that “corporate-style” dress is kind of a defense mechanism. There obviously variations based on institution and geography, and there are some people who can get away more easily with being tweedy and eccentric (those people are generally male), but I think that for the nerdy female rest of us locked in our ivory towers of uselessness at reasonably elite institutions on the US East Coast facing students who sometimes have little respect for intellectuals as a group, or even for expertise, looking like we just stepped out of a corporate boardroom gives us a boost both in the eyes of our students and in our own eyes.

    On the other hand, I don’t think this goes as much for Canada – the longer I stay in the US, the more I appreciate how differently middle- and upper-middle-class educated liberal Canadians approach life as compared to their American peers.

    • Regan Says:

      Oh, and please mentally add quotation marks around “locked in our ivory towers of uselessness.” Yay, anti-intellectual discourse.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      It’s funny, because we have a really strong anti-intellectual streak going in Australia, too. But my gut instinct says that can’t be fixed by presenting as Professional People, at least not in the Faculty of Arts. The situation may be different in, say, Media-Comms or Commerce or some such place. I think perhaps our cultural thing about ‘big-noting’ oneself (ie, don’t do it) plays into the dress code: too much up-dressing in an environment which doesn’t *require* it would come off as self-aggrandising, and we don’t like that, no we do not.

      So far as I understand it, professional clothing in Australia is also usually one step down from that worn by Americans in equivalent positions (give or take depending on the workplace in question, of course). If that’s true, then that factor plays into it as well.

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