- Introduction: Academic Fashion
Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.Oscar Wilde
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.Coco Chanel
When esc: English Studies in Canada launched its fashionable new look some six volumes ago, it did so with a clear sense of the need to respond to shifts in the style of scholarly self-presentation and to reflect the discipline back to itself. One aspect of the journal’s makeover was the introduction of this Readers’ Forum section as a venue for dialogue and reflection on matters of current concern for our readership and for all of us working in the discipline of English studies. Some of the Readers’ Forums in esc have been developed from panel discussions at accute’s annual conference: this, on “Academic Fashion,” is one of them. The third in a series of esc panels at accute interrogating the disciplinary in the discipline, this panel takes up the line of questioning posed by Stephen Slemon for accute 2007 (“Why Do I Have to Write Like That?” esc 32.2–3, 2006, [End Page 1] 1–38) and one the following year (“Why Do I Have to Read Like That?” esc 33.1–2, 2007, 1–28). Originally conceived in the same form—“Why Do I Have to Dress Like That?”—we shifted from the explicitly interrogative to something that, while in some stylish circles it might still have a question mark archly implicit (“Academic Fashion?” or, perhaps, “Academic Fashion?”), left the question of fashion open to reflections on academic trends, what’s hot, what’s not, how to understand shifts in academic styles of teaching, writing, and self-presentation, how we fashion the discipline, how it fashions us.
While the image of the tweedy, rumpled male professor with a pipe in one hand and a well-thumbed Everyman’s canonical somebody in the other has given way to or at least come together with other ideas of the professoriate, it is still the case that the workplace in the university, like any workplace, has its own complicated semiotics of performance, representation, and identity across a range of categories far more diverse than was the case for the academy for most of the twentieth century. How, we would like to know, do we read this stuff? Paratactically, as Roland Barthes suggests?—“extend[ing] the power of metaphor by developing what could be called an ‘atmosphere’ from discontinuous situations and objects; This blazer is for the girl who’s something of an Anglophile, perhaps smitten with Proust, who spends her vacations at the shore” (247). Do we fashion such identificatory narratives? How is academic “identity” encoded? What distinguishes academic dress in the workplace? What does it undertake to mark or design? What boundaries does it draw? Does it delineate a community—or demonstrate division? What does gender have to do with it? Sexuality? Skin, in its configurations of age, ancestry, colour, nature, artifice? How do we make who we are? How does this make “us”? Georg Simmel suggested in 1904 that fashion “is merely a product of social demands, even though the individual object which it creates or recreates may represent a more or less individual need” (297). What are those “social demands”? How do they work on us in the workplace, and outside of it? How do they pertain to disciplinary self-fashioning in other ways than dress?
We put the topic of “Academic Fashion” before five scholars, inviting them to interpret that term however they might choose—as, for example, a style or mode of dress; as a manner of bearing or behaviour; as a passing intellectual trend or paradigmatic shift; as a discourse of the moment or a nest of buzzwords; as prevailing custom or current usage; as a process of making or a system of formulation. The result is the Readers’ Forum that follows. What we have learned from these presentations and these papers [End Page 2] is that this topic is anything...