Academics: dump the corduroy and flaunt your fashion sense

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Feel the inner power of walking to the lectern dressed like this. Academics have had a bad rap for their clothing choices. More than two decades ago fashion historian Valerie Steele scoffed that “ academics may be the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group .” Today this…

Runway
Feel the inner power of walking to the lectern dressed like this. Photograph: Xavi Torrent/Getty Images

Academics have had a bad rap for their clothing choices. More than two decades ago fashion historian Valerie Steele scoffed that “academics may be the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group.” Today this perception remains intact, as campus security – not known as the arbitrators of fashion and style – reveals they label academics Planet Corduroy.

It’s not that all academics don’t care about what they wear. But many of us feel pressurised to don a deliberate uniform. Choosing rumpled jackets and jumpers is our way of telling the world we’re too focused on matters of the mind to care about clothes. The teachings of Descartes, not the runway, seemingly guide our decisions.

Female academics receive particular criticism for their dreary earth tones and boxy cuts but sexism requires them to trade sartorial flair for intellectual credibility. Fashion is associated with the frivolous, vain and “feminine”. And what is “feminine” is deemed of less value to the world.

As a queer scholar, I know the advantages of wearing some form of masculine clothing. Adhering to a uniform of understated blazers and button-down shirts can shield marginalised, “different” academics from the discrimination that often discounts or diminishes their ideas and contributions.

By suppressing our style, we think we’re demonstrating our intellectual worthiness. But instead we’re giving in to the worry of being perceived as anti-academic. We reinforce the assumption that fashion, and all that it represents, is frivolous. And worse, we embody uniformity when what we value as scholars is creativity, uniqueness and originality.

Simply put, I believe our fashion choices matter. Here are my reasons why:

Fashion has an impact on the world

From how the cotton that made our shirts was grown to who spun it, the manufacture of our clothes influences people and the planet. I buy my jackets from a second-hand store because I know they will have a new life in my wardrobe rather than in landfill.

When buying new clothes, I’ll check the ethical rating of the brand and see if its production was associated with child labour. Whether you’re in international development, gender studies, environmental sciences or another field, issues related to fashion production intersect, providing us with the opportunity to discuss how our clothing links with the topics we teach.

Fashion expresses identity

Academics in the humanities and social sciences often engage with questions of identity. What we wear is a concrete expression of how identity is both individual and diverse and our clothes bring theories about self-definition to life.

I’ll wear a navy blazer and grey tie one day and a black leather jacket and black kilt the next. Dressing in ways that challenge expectations on campus can fill me with anxiety. But what gives me the confidence to shun norms in favour of floral prints and sequenced mesh is the belief that my outfits will not only teach students about the performance of identity but also empower them to be themselves.

Fashion tells stories

Most designers aren’t just making clothes to protect us from the sun and snow but are sharing their thoughts about the world. I own items of clothing from Walé Oyéjidé who incorporates motifs from his African heritage, and Wear Your Label which embroiders slogans challenging the stigma of metal health.

By discovering the artistic vision behind our clothes, we can use them to tell stories. Whether queuing for a coffee or chairing a seminar, what we wear can turn into a conversation starter about the world.

Fashion can empower the wearer

Fashion doesn’t only express who you are to others but also to yourself. Psychologists have coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe how clothing alters the mood and mindset of its wearers. When I step into a faculty meeting in my purple velvet knee-length coat, I feel empowered, poised and ready to assert my opinions. The symbolic meaning of clothes combined with how they make us feel can influence whether or not we are ready to deliver a compelling lecture.

By dismissing our fashion choices as superficial and irrelevant to academic life, we miss a vital opportunity to unleash the power of clothes to improve our work.

So tomorrow morning, when you reach inside your closet and choose an outfit for the day, I encourage you to have fun with fashion and ask yourself: how can the clothes I wear introduce new ways of thinking into the academy and the world?

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