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  • Academic Fashion: An Oxymoron?
  • Heather Zwicker (bio)

What to wear is always a loaded question, even in academic circles that pretend to be above such vulgarities. In fact, pretending to be above such vulgarities might be the quintessence of academic fashion, judging from the results of a quick Google search on the phrase. Comments range from the casual:

“As an academic, I see nothing wrong with jeans and tee-shirts. Anything more complex is more trouble than it’s worth.”

to the ardent:

“I wear a t-shirt and shorts (unless it’s too cold for shorts) to teach in. I wear that to conferences too. Call me crazy but I got into academia on the theory that it was my brains that mattered not my looks. I wear a tie for no man.”

to the downright polemical:

“I’m an academic. I spend most of my day sitting at my computer or working in the library. There is nobody looking over my shoulder. No one is going to fire me because there is a hole [End Page 5] in the elbow of my pullover. Why shouldn’t I wear what I like? Why the fuck should I have to copy the dress code of ‘people over thirty who work in public relations’? GIVE ME MY FREEDOM! GIVE ME MY MOTHEATEN OLD PULLOVER!”1


Mind over body: Descartes still rules the university, in an unholy alliance with Calvin and Weber. We are a sober people, we academics, suspicious of glitz and flash and self-promotion. We are socially positioned in a way that works against stylishness, too. We may be wealthy by global standards, but we earn the salaries of public employees. Since we work all the time, we have few opportunities for frivolities like shopping. And while we might have broken down the ivory-tower stereotype conceptually, for the most part our campuses still tend to be enclaved in the city: fashion is not something you can easily fall into, the way (I imagine) you could if you worked in a downtown office tower.

Mind over body, work before play, frugality above all: the antithesis of fashion.

But what if you’re embodied? Let me make a retro move here and assert that the stakes are different for women (read: white women). Expectations are higher, exhortations are more urgent, and possibilities are more loaded. Men might get away with motheaten sweaters, but women generally don’t. Fashion is highly gendered, and gender normative—so the term “women” in this context resonates with all the white, middle-class, slender, gender-conformity a five-letter word can carry. Academics are not outside that interpellative address, no matter how much we might want to dismiss “couture” as a despicable ancien régime.

Too brainy for mass-culture girlishness but still interpellated as feminine by popular and academic culture (see the recent withholding of Canada Excellence in Research Chairs from women: all nineteen “super crcs” went to men), women are caught between the diabolical anxieties of being pretty enough and being smart enough. As a result, we get it coming (“It’s scary that you know a woman’s a social scientist when she’s wearing a certain type of dress or skirt and some awful-looking clay pendants”) and going (“She should spend as much time on her lectures as she does on her outfits”).2 And lest you think it’s only students who police our [End Page 6] fashion, remember the flak Elaine Showalter took for “coming out of the closet” as a fashionista in Vogue? “I was once so desperate for a shopping fix at a Salzburg seminar on gender that I visited a dirndl factory,” she confesses. Condemnation was swift and brutal. Showalter’s irresponsibility—her betrayal of the sisterhood, her callous consumerism —was the talk of the academic gossip circuits, briefly.3 Warning taken: if you swap your bloated book bag for a designer handbag, you might as well turn in your academic badge.

Fortunately, if we find ourselves confounded by our closets or confused about consumption, we can turn to the growing world of academic fashion bloggers for help. Threadbared, hautest of the academic couture...


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