Serious Academic At Work.
Serious Academic At Work.

Last night I sat painting my nails neon blue and pink, and idly speculated on twitter about what attire was expected of academics. Within moments I was part of a conversation that went way beyond my timeline and has continued to received responses today. You can see some of the discussion as it unfolded last night compiled into this Storify.

Academics are often made to think that caring about appearance – beyond being hygienic and “smart” – is somehow frivolous. Certainly I have received comments that suggested my interest in fashion and makeup indicate some superficiality on my part. But this issue goes beyond my white girl whining that not everyone may see me flouncing about in a 50s-style dress and appreciate that I am a Doctor of Medieval Studies and a published author. As the conversation unfolded, my perception was reinforced that the issue of attire in the academy touches on deeply-entrenched problems of class, race, gender, sexuality and abled privilege.

Just now I opened WordPress to find a blog post on my reader about a female academic being frequently mistaken for a student. As scitrigrrl wrote:

Questions like “Are you a graduate student?” or the insistence that I *must* be working in someone else’s lab don’t translate only to “You look young!“****. Instead, what I hear is “You are not who I expect to be here” and “I think you don’t belong” and “I don’t believe that you are qualified”.

I would suggest that there is a strongly gendered implication to this reading, too, as I know many women who are frequently mistaken for students and very few men, even when the men are often as or more casually dressed. As Thomas Whitely (PhD candidate) commented on twitter, different expectations of men and women’s wear in academia “adds a bit to the stereotype that men are professors and women are somehow impostors.”

This is because, as I wrote last night, “a lot of this comes down to the supposed ‘neutral’. The ‘standard’ in our industry (& many others) is white, male, middle aged, straight.” Will Brooker (now a Professor of Film and Cultural Studies) replied that in the past he was asked to dress in a more “masculine” way. The parameters of what an academic is supposed to look like are still very narrow – or as Dorothy Kim (Assistant Professor of English) succinctly put it, “all of this is about how white, male, upper class, able men have monopolized academic ‘authority.'” Dr Hannah Priest talked about how her regional accent is seen as diminishing her authority in the same way her body jewellery supposedly does, too. Any behaviour, characteristics or attire that marks one out as different from the “norm” is something that academics are – either obliquely or directly – warned to suppress if they want to get jobs, get on that committee, be taken seriously by students.

But you know what? There are a hell of a lot of us who aren’t white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle-aged, middle/upper-class men. And even those men are prisoners of patriarchy, too. Which is why I set up the tumblr thisishowacademicsdress (with a hat-tip to Dorothy Kim for the suggestion), encouraging my fellow academics to submit pictures of themselves in their work clothes, so that we can show that our academic community is much more diverse that it can seem to be – and also to insist that we are not marginal, and that invested within us are multiple kinds of authority. Submit!