Doing it in style?

Most academics get to where they are without receiving professional advice. By that I mean, they may have mentors, departments heads, supervisors and all such helpful folk; but they won’t tend to turn to a professional consultant in planning or developing their careers. But there are such people, and one of them is Karen Kelsky, who runs the website The Professor Is In. There she advises people on interview techniques, on writing skills, on preparing for retirement, and other such matters.

She also offers advice on what to wear. In an article just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelsky makes suggestions on how to present yourself to greatest advantage at an academic interview. The article comes with photographs from what looks like a model shoot.

Am I sneering (as some academics might, I suspect)? Absolutely not. Kelsey remarks in her piece, with some understatement, that ‘academia doesn’t prioritise fashion’. It certainly doesn’t. And I’m not at all sure that this suggests integrity and seriousness of purpose, as some probably feel it does.

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 has been called ‘erotic capital’ (a term originally coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’, and popularised by the British academic Catherine Hakim)?

The reality is that style is a form of communication. We are saying something when we dress, or when we decorate our homes, buy our cars, choose our coffee shops or bars. We may not be saying whatever it is we want to disseminate in our academic mission, but we are creating a background that will sometimes make people more or less open to our message. The academy has, I suspect, never quite worked out whether it accepts the legitimacy of packaging of any sort. But then again, the person in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches is also coming in a package; whether it is one that will help disseminate the message may be another matter.

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6 Comments on “Doing it in style?”

  1. Whether you like it or not people judge or mis-judge you on your clothes. We all probably do it. So if you want to “win friends and influence” people you are about to meet for the first time it is probably best to put in a bit of effort. However, it’s tricky for us academics who are not practised in this art. I went to a “corporate” event last week and decided I’d better replace my duds with a shirt and tie, only to find that all the corporates were in smart casual. You could spot the academics by the ties.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Perhaps it is useful for readers to have a look at Kelsky’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned above – ( ) this is not *just* about fashion or style (the two terms differ) as a form of communication, but also as a form of *identity* and how such identities are expressed in an academic context. There is a passage in the Chronicle’s piece which reads “Not everyone chooses to present according to cisgender conventions; I have a post on my blog about dressing for interviews as a butch dyke” which is revelatory enough of the kind of pressure faced by people whose sexual orientation does not fit nicely into the usual binaries (for the record cisgender means: relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex). What is implicit in such discussions is that appointing committees are not exempt from conscious and unconscious bias towards some categories of applicants, this is the elephant in the room wearing a timeless classic: the cloak of invisibility…

    • anna notaro Says:

      Just a follow up thought on the expression ‘making an effort’ often used in these discussion, my view is that ‘doing it in style’ means doing it effort-lessly…

  3. cormac Says:

    In Ian McKewan’s wonderful book ‘Solar’, the professor is unable to distinguish between his three male postdocs, all of whom have ponytails and glasses. It’s fiction of course, but there is some truth to this – in their attempt to express their individuality, many academics end up looking very alike!
    More seriously, I remember that my father, and his colleagues, did not approve of postdocs and young professors who dressed very casually. Of course it wasn’t a deal-breaker, but little did many of the young academics know that jeans, straggly beards and sandals didn’t impress their elders…

  4. Greg Foley Says:

    The last time your wrote about this, Ferdinand, it was the day after the annual Teaching Awards in DCU. I seem to remember that one of the winners appeared on the podium looking like he’d been out doing the gardening! Even I thought it showed a lack of respect bordering on disdain.

  5. In FE (as opposed to when I was in HE) I used to dress smart with a tie. It helped set the tone respect-wise and in our open plan teaching space one could be easily recognised. Some colleagues, to avoid the associated hassle, had a more casual style.

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