Keeping up appearances

Some years ago I was at an academic conference, and found myself looking for a friend and colleague at the reception just before the main conference dinner. I couldn’t see my friend, but as I scanned the crowd it suddenly occurred to me that – how shall I put this – the majority of those present had not exactly made an effort to dress nicely for the event. The de rigueur uniform for the men was an open shirt – generally coloured in some shade of beige – and a pair of jeans, or corduroys for the very adventurous. Their hair was slightly too long, and generally hadn’t been washed in honour of the event. More of the women had made an effort, but in a fairly demure kind of way. And then suddenly the crowds parted, and in walked a visiting American female scholar, all easy charm, immaculate hair and make-up, in a designer dress. She walked about between the academics, clearly charming both the men and the women. She talked earnestly but also with flashes of wit. So was this an interloper trivialising the whole intellectual thing? Or was this someone making effective use of what we might now call ‘erotic capital’?

The term ‘erotic capital’ was coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’. But it was developed much further by LSE Senior Research Fellow Catherine Hakim in her article of earlier this year, ‘Erotic Capital’. In this she suggests that erotic capital stands alongside human capital and social capital as an asset that can be used by people wishing to establish themselves in life or in a career. It consists of elements such as beauty, sexual attractiveness, social skills, liveliness, presentation and sexuality. Hakim argues that it has become more and more important in the labour market and in society more generally, and that women tend to be better at using it. And now, in the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, she suggests that those who make an effort with their appearance and their manner enjoy an edge also in academic life.

The latter suggestion may at first seem hard to believe. Academics, particularly in this part of the world, have long nurtured a reputation for flaunting a somewhat disheveled version of the style of two decades ago. The caricature of the professor is of someone in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches. But if being like that is making a point, what is that point? Is it that the cerebral doesn’t go with visual style?

In the end, the point is that we cannot influence anything if we cannot communicate, and communication is in part about presentation and appearance. To be effective, we need to make an impression. And if we want to make an impression, we need to address all those aspects that make other people notice us.

There is probably a little bit of me that also feels, just a tiny bit, that the force of my argument should be delivered by my argument, and not by my looks or my manner. But in reality I know that’s nonsense. After all, there’s a reason why I bought an Apple iPhone rather than the countless other mobile phone options, and that reason is strongly tied up with design and appearance. And it would never occur to me to suggest that putting forward an idea in an articulate manner is somehow cheapening it, and that it would show more integrity if I expressed my intellectual views in the most boring manner possible. So if my verbal presentation style matters, then why not other aspects of style? This was brought home to me recently when a group of students complained to me about the general sartorial style of lecturers – they felt that it seemed to make the point that the lecturers themselves didn’t value the significance of what they did and whom they were doing it for.

I guess that some will balk at the idea of ‘erotic’ capital, fearing that it stands somewhere close to exploitation. The argument for erotic capital might be that those – male and female – who have harnessed erotic capital (like, say, Madonna) have often done so in an emancipated way.

Let us just say that I find this argument interesting and am open to it. However, I suspect that it will take longer for Catherine Hakim to persuade the academy in these parts: the majority of the comments made by readers of the THE article are hostile. I think they are wrong, on the whole.

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16 Comments on “Keeping up appearances”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    An interesting post given that one of the most read posts in the papers now is a story of a woman who believes she was sacked for being too attractive: clearly over-capitalised.
    I have been generally bemused at students who comment on my apparel in course evaluations – a mixture of the positive and the negative. I really think students should focus on the content and if they are distracted by the instructors clothes they are in the wrong place. Unless of course he/she is wearing a clown suit or a swimming costume which never happens in UCD whatever about other universities.
    There is a small body of economics research on the financial returns to beauty, Dan Hamermesh started this work. So yes beautiful people get paid more than the rest of us. There is a nice result in one paper that lawyers in the public sector are not as good looking as those in the private sector (oops, sorry Ferdinand). There was also a recent paper on how waitresses’ tips were related to bust size (positively, as it happens).

    • Vincent Says:

      Ah yes, but is it that people with more money can spend more of it on dolling up rather that the very subjective standard of beauty.

  2. John Says:

    Yes, thank goodnes for beauty, charm, charisma, grace, sexiness, a nice voice, good dress sense, wealth – they are all fine attributes and fortunately you come across them fairly frequently these days and they always give you a little lift when you do.

    And I agree we shouldn’t be afraid of using these gifts in advancing our careers. I wouldn’t – if I had any of ’em. [Ripple]

    But the human quality I find most attractive is audacity – and it’s what I should probably seek out if I were ever again to find myself at a pre-conference dinner. It’s pretty hard to define, and pretty rare, but I think it’s tied up in some way with independence, individuality, originality, courage, integrity and – um – goodness.

    Audacity is not a thing generally associated with the group. Those who have it seem neither to want to lead nor to be led. They don’t always ‘get on’. But they glow!

    Unfortunately, you can’t get a certificate in audacity. You can’t even get it by publishingapaperinarespectedjournal – on it. And unfortunately again, I agree, neither dinner suit nor designer dishevelment bestow it. Let’s try another G&T – that might do it. No ice.

    The good news is – we seem to be born with it! Just spend an hour with a pre-schooler and you’ll see what I mean.

    So to sum up, conference, I can only conclude most of us must have lost it in the process of advancing our careers. [Dignified applause]

  3. Fiona Ashe Says:

    Hi Ferdinand,

    You raise some very interesting and valid points. Image definitely communicates a huge amount of information. I recently showed my film students still frames from films and they were astonished at how much they understood about what was happening, what traits the characters had and who had power in the scene just from what they could see.

    Another key issue is the appropriateness of a person’s outfit to a specific occasion. While wearing jeans to a wedding would almost certainly guarantee that no-one else would be wearing the same outfit, it wouldn’t fit the importance of the occasion. However, I admire people who dare to dress differently than the uniform you describe, while still respecting the event they are attending. And since we seem to have an Irish culture of dressing down, any woman who wears an elegant dress is going to stand out. But why should we judge such a woman as ‘using erotic capital’?

    Regards, Fiona.

  4. Vincent Says:

    On the general point, are students expecting that their Readers cover themselves with the Gown and Cap.

    I suspect, oddly enough, that with Irish students it would take very little to get all of them don the gown, it might be another matter with the faculty though.

  5. Mark Dowling Says:

    From my recollection of university, while most did make an effort there were a few who probably thought they were already at the conference our host attended. While I don’t think a suit and tie is necessarily de rigueur for academics (or a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches), care for one’s appearance is surely not to be deemed a uniform. Even business casual usually implies “neat”.

    I took a technical drawing class at Glasgow University taught by a highlander in a kilt. That was a bit different, but it was neither stained nor ripped so fine by me…

  6. John Says:

    The young are so conservative these days .. (yawn).

  7. John Says:

    Yeah, but in an age when our intellectual leaders vest their erotic capital in a mobile phone .. [sharp intake of breath]

  8. Sally Says:

    No thanks. Yeahhh ..

  9. John Says:

    .. and not only watch Eurovision but cite four publishedpapersinarefereedjournal before they feel qualified to express an opinion .. uhh-tt ..

  10. John Says:

    .. one wonders where these post uhh mhorr – denist image-as- ..

  11. Sally Says:

    .. reality? ..

  12. John Says:

    Yeah .. freaks – are taking us.. Cheers.

  13. cormac Says:

    I’m so uncomfortable with the science stereotype I always wear black and people always say I look more like a classical musician than a physicist – come along to TCD on Monday 14th and see if you’re not too traumitised after the Hunt announcement!

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