What to wear as an academic may seem like a non-issue or a silly thing to worry about. After all, there’s no uniform and we don’t have to resort to office dress or business suits. We can pretty much wear what we want, right? Survey the academic staff of any department and you’ll see an array of clothing, from jeans to suits, trainers to heels, shirts to woolly jumpers, even piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair to refined make-up and neat hair-dos. We’re free to dress however we want. Long live individuality, performativity, and self-expression.
But this freedom can also pose somewhat of a minefield for the academic to navigate. As a young PhD-er I have found myself agonizing over what wear on many an occasion. I graduated from my BA in July 2011, by September I was beginning my PhD and stepping out into the world of undergraduate teaching. It felt like all that separated me from my students was those three months of summer. Amidst a wealth of insecurities questioning my (lack of) knowledge & experience whilst in front of a seminar, I was also faced with the need to visually distinguish myself from my students. What if I’m mistaken for a student? And the bigger worry, what if I’m wearing the same item as one of my students?
Before my first conference these worries increased. How was I going to show my fellow colleagues (that all felt like superiors) that I wasn’t just a baby student? More to the point, what the hell could I wear? Where could I find that Little Black Conference Dress – smart and sophisticated, whilst still stylish, with a hint of individualism?
As a young petite woman who has never had to follow a professional office dress code for more than a day or two, my wardrobe consists predominantly of t-shirts, jeans, trainers, and the obligatory spattering of university hoodies after my 7 years (and counting) of studenthood. I’m not a ‘girly girl’ – I’m not drawn to the clothes available for women on the high street and I can’t walk in heels. Quite frankly, I’m not comfortable in those clothes. In fact, the styles I like best are worn by the male models in the windows of Jack Wills (admittedly way out of my price range) and H&M. And my style icons include Blaine from Glee and Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds. But being 5’2” and a size 6/8, men’s clothes (and many women’s clothes too, for that matter) are very much oversized. All to often I’ve stood in the changing rooms brought to tears as I scrutinize the reflection that looks like a child dressing up in her parents’ clothes. And this definitely does not help that burgeoning imposter syndrome, believe me!
Let’s face it, our apparel is so important in making us feel comfortable, capable, and most especially, like us. Moreover, what we look like is also vital in how we are received and perceived by others. I hate saying that, but it’s true. What we look like shouldn’t matter, but in our society obsessed with images of perfection, it does. Appearance is a constant battle to juggle subjectivity, performativity, and comfort, all with relation to specific contexts.
These are questions and issues I battle daily, so why is appearance such an issue for me within an academic context? I think that this has to do with the notion of an academic as a recognizable figure or being. I’m thinking of the clichéd image of a tweed-clad professor sitting amongst dusty tomes. I know this is an antiquated cliché, but it persists in culture – think Buffy’s Giles or the Doctor dressed in a three-piece suit. For me, these images replicate and perpetuate the idea of the academic as a product and a recognizable figure. As young researchers attempting to find our way within this semi-mythical world, I think being recognized as one of these figures and appearance can play a large part in this. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like this.
Dress becomes particularly significant as I spend a lot of my time working from home. Not needing to leave the house and wanting to enjoy warmth and comfort, I spend my days in jogging bottoms, fleeces, and onesies. And it’s joyous, believe me. But it does mean that dress really does become a way of presenting yourself when you step out your front door. And I think that this is OK.
So hand me my cravat and waistcoat. After all, it’s all about performativity, darling.