Do Clothes Make the Humanities Professor?

Robert Watts, a professor of English and Philosophy at Drexel University, thinks so.  In this piece he reflects on the fashion statements made by all the “frumpy” looking graduate students who taught him in college:

The graduate students who taught me wore old, faded jeans or frumpy, wrinkled corduroys. They donned tennis shoes of the sort worn by junior high students, only theirs were dirtier and scruffier. The women, as I recall, dressed better than the men, though only slightly so. Of all the graduate students who taught me, I recall only one — a woman who taught Introductory French — who looked good. She wore elegant blouses, pressed skirts, and polished pumps. I was surprised when I learned she was not a tenured faculty member. Her clothes spelled seniority.
These graduate students, I was convinced, were making a statement through their frumpy outfits, but what was that statement? Was it that highly educated people have to dress ugly? That the world was full of ugly and that my classmates and I needed to face that fact? Or was it that my fate in life would be controlled by ugly? In the end, I had to face a question of my own: Did I have to look like them when I grow up? 

When Watts became a professor, he found himself descending “into the same frumpiness” as the graduate students who taught him, but he eventually had a change of heart and now wears a suit to work.  (And no, it does not appear that he has become an administrator).  Read all about his transformation here.

A few years ago I was chatting about faculty fashion with some recent graduates of the Messiah College history department.  One of them described my choice of clothes as “the uniform.”  I knew exactly what he meant.  I tend to be pretty predictable in what I wear.  My “uniform” consists of a pair of khaki pants, a button-down shirt, and a pair of sensible brown loafers.  On days when I am in the office, but do not have a class to teach, I usually wear jeans with my button-down shirt and sensible brown loafers.

I don’t like ties and I only wear suits or sport coats on very, very rare occasions.

I remember a conversation I had about a decade ago with a friend and colleague who wore a bow tie and sport jacket every day to class.  He said that he dressed this way because he took a very casual and friendly approach in his classroom and liked to “hang out” with his students after class.  The bow tie and jacket, he claimed, was a way of keeping some professional distance between him and his students.  (By this logic, professors who teach with an air of authority or do not “hang out” with their students can wear jeans, a t-shirt, and an old pair of Chuck Taylors to class).  Whatever the case, I thought it strange that my colleague had devoted so much time to his wardrobe philosophy.

But Watt’s article raises an interesting question.  Why do humanities professors tend to dress so frumpy and ragged?  What kind of statement are they trying to make?

4 thoughts on “Do Clothes Make the Humanities Professor?

  1. I'm usually a lurker here, but am also a humanities grad student who adjuncts at a community college.

    I'm guilty of dressing in jeans and nice shirts for pretty much every class I teach. Why? Because I'd much rather spend my absurdly tiny wages on things like housing and food. If I could afford to dress like the professional I am and aspire to be, I would. But I like a roof over my head more.

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  2. I think that it's more of a statement about the loose expectations for professors' dress codes (which is part of a general loosening of dress code expectations for everyone in society, i.e., most women don't wear hats to church, teens used to never wear shorts to school). We students used to think there was a difference between the way humanities professors and science/math professors dressed, but I'm not sure that's the case upon further reflection.

    I do think it's very different from the business world where dress is still an important indicator of rank/prestige, what have you. Maybe academics are making a statement about how their worth is in their research/writing/teaching than their appearance?

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  3. In my experience, science professors were usually the most frumpy, or perhaps just utilitarian, in their dress.

    I've always had sympathy with Dick Pierard's approach – if you pay me a working class salary, I'll show up in working class clothes. I'm not of the genteel class, and the professoriate has long ceased to be a Gentleman's profession. Nor, for that matter, have I ever experienced the “lift” people claim to get in a tie or uncomfortable shoes, nor do I feel particularly honored if someone wears a tie.

    (Two caveats: 1) I'm a Californian; 2) I'm aware white male privilege does enter into this, though I'd rather see than privilege expanded for others than restricted for me).

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  4. Ummm…”We're starving away in garrets, we spend all our spare money on books, and we're more focused on the life of the mind than on our physical appearance.”

    Or maybe it's something along the lines of, “I am a nerd, I spent my entire lifetime in a library, and I missed out on the whole dress-to-impress peer-pressure thing.”

    “The uniform” strikes me as a good thing. “The costume” — tweed jackets, elbow patches, bow ties, fedoras on twenty-five year olds — not so much.

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