Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Dress Code:

Or "Why do academics dress as if they're attending a blind man's funeral?" [1]

I was recently talking to a fellow post-industrial academic about the parlous sartorial state of many of our colleagues. This discussion took place at conference that, in places, was a sad little symphony in beige and polo-shirt.

On the strength of my visits to international conferences, the US academic uniform seems to sit more on the side of "business casual" (shudder) than in the UK. However, in the UK there's a definite split between the old and new universities: old universities preferring the worn, the stained and the 100 years out of date, newer universities favouring the US-style smart casual. Both seem designed to say "my mind is on higher things": in the case of the old universities it's the writings of Thomas Aquinas or the finer points of Brane cosmology. In the new, it's about being "student centred," "professional" or (horror of horrors) "replicating the corporate environment".

In my current post, I'm surrounded by "Biz Cas" (described by Corporate Apparel Blog as "The rebellious younger sibling of traditional corporate attire" - *snarf*).

Business Casual by thenickster

It's quite tempting to adopt protective camouflage - but I bounce between a new university (my post) and a self consciously old university (hereafter SOU) for a number of ongoing collaborations. I'd need the powers of of the mimic octopus to blend in, even if I wanted to. At work it's notable if someone's not in business casual, in the SOU I am still getting stick for the one time I showed up to a meeting in a dress. I should point out that the dress was more like this:

than this:

What's a girl to do?

I first faced this dilemma in industry and it can be best illustrated using the characters of the (much underrated, honestly!) IT Crowd. I had just come from running my own business, so started out by dressing pretty much like corporate droid Jen. I was never comfortable dressing this way, and my closest colleagues all dressed rather more like Moss or Roy.

(Parenthetically - I wasn't actually using the IT Crowd as my "Vogue" or "In Style" I promise - Graham Linehan was still making Father Ted and Black Books at this point!)

I had a number of problems in finding a style I liked:

  1. I couldn't quite carry off dressing as one of the boys as one look at my outline would be enough to convince anyone that I'm not one of the boys.
  2. At the time I hated my height - I didn't wear high-heels until my mid-to-late twenties as I couldn't stand the constant feeling of looming over people. I'm over that now, though I still try to radiate a non-threatening vibe.
  3. The internet did not have half so many cool t-shirt stores as it does now. ThinkGeek shipped overseas (just) by then but boy was that expensive.

Sometime in the last few years I've settled on wearing jeans worn with "stylish yet affordable boots" (thank you Whedon for that meme!) plus a jacket with a t-shirt or sweater underneath. The jeans and boots emphasise the fact that I could step over a farm gate without a run-up. They also ensure that, in a department in which most of the women are in admin roles, I don't look like an administrator. And they say "I still act as if I'm at SOU. I may go back there sometime. Treat me accordingly. (Give me good research time!)"

The jackets say "I am making some attempt with my appearance - I am wearing at least one item that requires advanced garment-care techniques." (For those not in the know, advanced garment care includes dry-cleaning or, indeed, ironing as far as I'm concerned [2]). Plus they're great at playing down my more distracting features.

By which of course I mean the t-shirts... honest. The t-shirts are neither more nor less than a portable (literally) shibboleth. A visual "handshake" that works across a room. If you know why I'm wearing a t-shirt with an old blue police box and some statuary angels on then there's a good chance you and I will be friends.

Despite the occasional day in a dress, what I wear still feels a bit like a uniform, and is no less of a badge of belonging than business casual or "antiquated slob". But at least it's not camouflage: it's closer to aposematism if anything [3]. And it looks a heck of a lot better on me than beige slacks and a pastel-coloured polo shirt, doesn't it?

[1] Actual question from a dear friend's husband. My momentary outrage died when I considered some of my colleagues. Not the one with the excellent collection of hats. Nor the one with the shirt with the very subtle cannabis sativa pattern. Nor, indeed, the one that's just been in Esquire. But most of the others.

[2] I read recently that there is a word in Japanese that translates to something like "Sweater Girl" or "Cardigan Woman" which means a woman that is too busy with her career to iron. I now can't find the source of this information, so I have no idea what this word was or even if it is apocrypha. Shame - 'cause it suits me down to the ground!

[3] Thanks to David for introducing me to the word "aposematic". For years I've wanted a word that meant "opposite of camouflage" or "the animal equivalent of Doctor Marten boots and a mohawk".

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