Posted tagged ‘style’


July 8, 2011

It’s Friday. And all round the working world there will be offices and other workplaces in which today’s convention will be to ‘dress down’. In such places men often won’t be wearing ties, and there’ll be a lot of denim in various forms, some of it pleasing, but much of it unfortunate.

So is it time more generally, and not just on Fridays, to re-think clothing? Should we, following the lead of places like California, give up wearing ties altogether? Or is there a risk that men, many of whom are not style icons, will simply descend into general scruffiness? Is it time to free the neck but persuade men in particular to be more imaginative in what they wear? Or is that all just too trivial? And how will any of this work in universities, where a sense of personal style has perhaps never been one of the most obvious hallmarks of academic life?

Keeping up appearances

June 5, 2010

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.

The generation game

August 11, 2009

Recently an academic colleague told me about how he had, during a lecture, referred to the TV show The Generation Game, and suddenly realised that nobody in his first year student audience had the remotest idea what he was talking about. This seriously shocked him – he could not believe that this cultural icon was unknown to his students. For heaven’s sake, he pointed out to me, the last series had only ended in 2001! Leaving aside for a moment that you couldn’t seriously expect anyone to watch a show hosted by Jim Davidson (Generation Game, 1995-2001) – the only real presenter was Bruce Forsyth (Generation Game, 1971-1977) – it had clearly not occurred to him that a 17-year-old would have been 9 when the show had its last run, and might not have been interested then or be able to recall it now.

A similar experience was reported by an American professor who was unable to get his students to see the 1992 US presidential election campaign as something relevant to their own lifetime experience, though it seemed something very recent to him. I suspect that many of us have been aware of those moments when, in talking with students, we shared some little experiences which we thought must make us look rather cool, only to see their eyes glaze over as they became aware of just how old we must be. And it was always so; hell, I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed for the lecturer who in 1974 wanted us to think he was absolutely with it by mentioning the 1960s pop band, the Tremeloes.

Of course every older generation struggles when it wants to impress the next one, and it is no different for academics. However, academics have as perhaps the main ingredient of their profession the task of communicating with younger people, and may feel that they need to do it in terms that students can recognise as addressing their interests and concerns. Can this be done successfully? Does it in fact need to be done?

It’s hard to say. I remember that when I was a student we had some professors who were really quite endearing because of their obvious and complete ignorance of anything contemporary – the kind who would still call a radio ‘the wireless’. And there were others whose hard-worked-for trendiness was simply grating. But then again, we also appreciated the lecturer who made a genuine effort to listen as we talked about what we regarded as important and who even did a little bit of research on the things we mentioned.

In the end, I think the key issue is not to know about every aspect of youth culture (or whatever we might guess it is), but rather to have an open mind and try to understand what the next generation is interested in. For me, that has meant recently becoming acquainted with the rapper Eminem, in order to understand a little better why a group of students I spoke with liked him so much. And it has been a useful bit of learning: because yes, as I already knew, Marshall Mathers is somewhat foul-mouthed; but he also is a genuine poet with something to say.

So what is my advice? Don’t try too hard, and don’t think that you need to be someone you are not – that doesn’t particularly impress anyone. But it is important to understand what the generation we are teaching think and believe, and it is right to engage with that and to learn about it. But don’t ever think that what you felt was modern when you were young still feels that way now. Don’t ever be tempted to show your old photographs when you had outrageous sideburns and wore flares. Just be thankful that era is gone.

I know it’s only rock ‘n roll…

July 30, 2008

The story goes that, back in the 1990s, when the band Primal Scream were asked to appear on the BBC show ‘Top of the Pops’ they declined. At the time they were touring Ireland, and to appear they would have had to fly over to London for the day, do the show, and return. They would have had to fly in to Luton airport, near London. They refused, allegedly saying that they wouldn’t fly to Luton because ‘it isn’t rock ‘n roll’. They were banned from ‘Top of the Pops’ as a result, and the whole episode was a great PR success.

I have nothing against Luton airport myself, and have used it a good few times. On the other hand, image is important, and style is often seen as a good interpreter of content. This blog is written (as I have mentioned before) on a Macintosh computer, and Apple has achieved its recent phenomenal success by understanding and working with the effect that style has on people’s perception and appreciation of functionality.

Universities are in the first instance institutions that need to protect and enhance their reputations through rigourous intellectual integrity. But even for us, how we present ourselves is important – whether the campus is clean, whether the buildings are well designed, how good the leisure facilities are, and so forth.

I am not actually sure what has happened to Primal Scream. But I hope they would be willing to perform in DCU and would regard it as adequately rock ‘n roll.

Men in suits

June 26, 2008

Do you ever attend gatherings at which you wonder whether you are appropriately dressed? Well, you’re not alone in this.

To the best of my recollection, I have attended six meetings this week at which I was the only person not wearing a suit. That may tell you – though it needn’t be so – that at these meetings no women were present. But it also tells you that, in Ireland at certain meetings, we are all still very traditional in our tastes. As it happens, I very rarely wear a suit; it’s not that I disapprove of them, but I don’t like the air of formality they tend to convey. I do usually wear a tie – though not always – but I don’t tend to put on a suit more than about once or twice a month.

But actually, why are men in senior academic positions still so attached to such formal wear? In the business community it is now increasingly common to see men wearing informal clothes (albeit often very expensive ones). What is it that we feel we need to prove that makes us buck this trend? It is perhaps part of the outward formality that tends to mark out academic life: formal clothing (or if not formal, then usually remarkably old-fashioned) accompanying formal procedures and visible hierarchies.

One of DCU’s most successful student societies is the Style Society. I think I need to get in touch with them to get some advice on how universities can shed some of the excessively traditional image. Or maybe I need some advice just for myself, so that I can confidently start to discard the tie as well as the suit.