Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

What’s the meaning of professorial fashion?

Posted 14 Mar 2016 / 0

2016-03-14aThere’s an interesting article about professorial fashion published in Vitae today. Written by Ben Barry and entitled “Fashion Matters“, this short piece explores how professors have traditionally expressed their being “above fashion” by wearing either very predictable or very boring clothing. Barry claims that there’s a lot of under-utilized potential in the professorial wardrobe. He suggests that faculty can express their values through what they wear, including the labor conditions that went into making the clothes draped on the professor. He also suggests that professors can highlight the importance of identity — in particular diversity of identities — through their wardrobe choices. He also points out that clothing can shift the emotional state of both the wearer and those who encounter the wearer: what you wear impacts how you are received socially.

I agree wholeheartedly with the basic thrust of what Barry has to say: fashion matters, and professors are not excepted from this rule. But, as an ecologist who teaches about sustainability, my ideas about what’s appropriate for professors to wear is a bit different. Barry seems to be a lot about making a statement through what his fashion is — traditional one day and provocatively off-beat the next — but to me the most important statement I make is through what my fashion is not. Primarily, my fashion is not disposable: I am downright proud of having a couple of pairs of pants that I wear almost exclusively on a day-to-day basis. I suspect that some of my students notice that there’s a limited palette of pant choices emerging from my office, and to me that has the potential to send an important message: I own a minimal wardrobe and wear it to the full extent possible (I used to have a third pair of pants in rotation, but eventually they became threadbare in the seat!). Similarly, I have a triad of sweaters that I favor, one of which has some subtle but noticeable repair stitches throughout. Like Barry, I am proud that a lot of my basic wardrobe comes from second hand stores.

But I also agree that the identity portrayed in my wardrobe also matters, and there’s identity to be found in my sometimes-odd clothing choices. I have a rather extensive tie collection, for which my late mother can take almost full credit. Back when I was a middle school teacher she discovered that ties were the one item of clothing she could buy for me that I would predictably wear, and so over the eight years of my first teaching career she piled on the interesting ties: some artistic, some scientific, and some whimsical. I love representing my mom’s offbeat sense of humor and science pride every day I rock one of her ties. I am also proud that my one pinstriped blazer that I occasionally throw on to be a bit more formal (or when I am cold!) is the last surviving bit of the three-piece suit that I wore to my high school graduation, a nod to both the late 80’s and the fact that I am still as scrawny as ever. And for those who get it, I represent my punk roots by favoring a lot of darker shirts rather than standard white (is “black collar” a social class?).

Perhaps my favorite aspect of my wardrobe choices are my shoes. Shoes are tough because unlike most other parts of a wardrobe they tend to wear out pretty quickly. They also can start to look too beat up to teach in well before they actually are worn enough to dispose of. Like a dutiful vegan, I used to only wear fake leather shoes, but I quickly discovered that their lifespan was so short that it seemed to make more sense from a sustainability standpoint to go with more durable leather shoes. But even formal leather shoes eventually start looking too worn, at which point I prefer to retire these shoes from work and give them a second life in the lowered-fashion-expectation environment of my home. Problem is, I don’t really wear formal shoes to anything but weddings, funerals, and to teach. My solution to this problem has been simple, and has been working for me since I taught middle school in 1990’s: find a pair of all-black skate shoes, use them at work until they are spent, and then take them home to skateboard in. The point at which their formal life has come to an end is the same point at which a pair of skate shoes is just perfect for hitting the skatepark. Oh, and I also don’t mind the subtle clues as to my skate heritage that my footwear choice hints at.

Perhaps the most important idea that Barry’s article explores is that professorial wardrobes should have intention. Whether you intend to assert your identity, to make a statement on social justice or sustainability, or just establish that you take your job seriously, dressing the part is key. I am sure that many of my students are underwhelmed by my fashion choices. But if they look at who I am and they look at what I wear, insightful students can see the congruence.

Corduroy image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Minor Post, Fashion, Higher Education, Resource Consumption, Sustainability, Teaching

Leave a Reply