Clothes and Professionalism

There was a neat little article in the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday on academic fashion, clothes, and professionalism. I’ve posted from time to time on clothes: what to wear when’s cold outside, what I wear on survey archaeology projects, the confluence of tools that makes archaeology work, and even wrote an earlier meditation on the role of clothes in archaeology, academia, and professionalization.

In my post from 2010, I reflect on the way that the ragged edges of our professional identities often manifest themselves in what we wear. It is clear that some areas of higher education have professionalized more fully than others. It is not uncommon to see folks in sharp suits or at least vaguely coordinated blazers and “slacks” in administrative buildings, whereas style ranging from business casual to just casual tends to dominate academic buildings. It is also gendered, of course, but in this area I’m a bit less clear on how the subtle nuances in fashion. It seems to me that most women on our campus wear professional dress, but the gradient between business, business casual, and casual is less familiar to me. 

Of course, the justification for various styles of dress reflects attitudes toward appearance and presentation. Among many academics and certainly in the humanities, a kind of detachment from fashion might reflect a (a real or aspirational) commitment to an interiorized life of the mind. Steve Jobs famous jeans and black mock turtleneck was said to represent his attitude toward picking out clothing as a waste of energy. Moreover, it certainly spoke to academics and the creative class by presenting himself out as a thoughtful, reflective creative leader rather than a greedy capitalist, and this is consistent with larger efforts to market Apple computers as the tool for the creative classes and the liberal arts. Whatever truth there is to any of this is less relevant than the way clothing contributed to Jobs’ reputation as a “genius” and larger efforts to promote his company and his products. A disinterest in fashion and clothing complement into long-standing caricature of the absent-minded professor, but as some of my colleagues have pointed out, this is distinctly gendered stereotype that almost tacitly implies the presence of a dotting wife (or her present absence when the professor invariable dies, alone, buried under a stack of books and unpublished manuscripts). 

Academic dress traces the edges of professionalism even at the level of the individual. For example, in the classroom, I tend to wear a button-down shirt and nice pants or jeans, but when writing in my office all day or writing from home, I might dress in something a bit more casual or slovenly. The most complicated moments come when I have a late afternoon meeting and have spent the day writing at home. I have to decide whether I should change into something more professional (even marginally so) or just go to the meeting in my shorts and t-shirt. 

Clothes among archaeologists In the field are even more interesting. When I first started doing field work in the Mediterranean, I wore shorts and t-shirts, but as I got older and spent more time in the sun (and saw more and more friends suffer the longterm effects of sun damage), I started to wear long-sleeve workshirt, rugged pants, thick socks, and hiking boots. I always wear a hat. Among CRM archaeologists in the U.S. OSHA and worksite rules generally require a stricter wardrobe with steel toe and solid shanked boots and hardhats. Year-round (or at least longterm) archaeological work and the constant rigor of being outdoors, on your feet, and covered with dirt requires clothing that is proportionate more rugged than many Mediterranean archaeologists who work for 6- or 8-week seasons. This kind of professional indicator is a bit more subtle, but several of my colleagues in the CRM have noted (with a bit of professional pride) how they do more to dress the professional part than their academic colleagues.

It seems to me that dress is far more than simply a superficial manifestation or affectation, but cuts deeply into the complicated arena of professionalism in academia. It intersects with gender, identity, and even safety while being thoroughly contingent and dependent on daily schedules, personal attitudes, and, of course, as the Chronicle article suggests, income and economic priorities. Academic dress (and academic culture) seems all the more complicated by the rise of the casual entrepreneur and the persistence of the smartly dressed corporate warrior both of which offer models for complex institutions seeking to instill faith in their students, stakeholders, and employees.  

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