Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Academic dress?

A little debate has been going on around the academic blogosphere, about the way we dress in the world of learning. Would it be better to dress a little better, wearing shirt and tie (or skirt and high heels i guess), to signal authority and to better be taken seriously? This post had something to say about it, commented also here with some further discussion here.

From my point of view this is somewhat silly. A teacher wearing a tie would not usually give me a good impression. You know, a suit. Show me your competence, and I will respect you. Show me fancy clothes and I will think that you have a problem with self confidence and need to hide behind a uniform.

I remember a quote from Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson:

Scientists signaled with their clothes just like anyone else, and their signal often proclaimed, 'I am a scientist, I do things because they Make Sense, and so I Dress Sensibly.'

Physicists are known for not knowing how to dress well. The secretary at my department in Uppsala bought a book about clothing for men, and placed it in the coffee room with the hope that the researchers at least would start looking at their clothes and not wear those with missing buttons and holes at the elbows. She also pointed out to me that about half of the people who attend conference dinners don't bother to change their clothes before, and some of them wear the same shirt for a whole conference. I don't watch peoples clothes so closely, but I have no reason to doubth what she said. But, you know, I don't really care.

Myself? Well. I wear my clothes until they fall apart, mainly because I hate shopping (and because I rather spend my money on books). They usually look nice to begin with at least, according to my taste (which is maybe slightly punk/goth/hippie, if you can imagine that). Sensible? Probably that, too. (Long underwear, good boots, layer on layer, hat, gloves, indoor shoes to change to.) Anyway, I'm happy to work in an environment where I can dress the way I want. Maybe I'll think about it a little bit more when (if) I start teaching regularly, the same way I take reasonably neutral and not too worn clothes when I'm giving a seminar or conference talk.

But in general, I think there is lots of room for individual variety within the reasonable limits for how you can dress at work. It would be fun if people used it more.


Magnus said...

Yes, this is a funny debate indeed. Unfortunatley, the little write-up that started the whole thing is out-right silly, and from the "defenders of the faith" seem to be going out of their way to deliberately miss the point. I agree with most of what you write about a suit not being the way to gain respect. However, all too many people in the sciences seem to make a point of dressing badly. The matter of fact is, appearances matter. It's not about wearing Armani suits, but about wearing clothes that clean, whole, and appropriate for the occation. Wearing a suit to you average lecture is not the way to gain respect, but wearing a torn shirt with huge sweat marks to someone's nice dinner certainly is a way of showing disrespect.

It is nice that we can wear whatever is comfortable for our every day working life without having to worry about whether something is a bit worn or if it is a t-shirt or a shirt, but that doesn't mean that there is any inherent good in deliberatly dressing bad.

Åka said...

Hm. Yes. I just don't think that physicists I meet dress as bad as your examples, and not bad enough for me to notice it. I don't think anyone would deliberately dress bad, they just don't think about it.

Or to state it like this: I have never met anyone who make a point of dressing badly.

Magnus said...

I have unfortunately met one or two people who were that bad, and I've met a few more who have made a point, not of dressing outright badly, but of explicitly not caring about how they dress. I've met even more who think that "dressing to the occasion" (meaning that you take something other than your worn jeans and t-shirt when going to a slightly more formal dinner, or even follow a dress code, if there is one) is uptight and "people should wear whatever they feel like at all times".

What irks me about all this is not the fact that people wear old, worn, ill-fitting or otherwise mismatched or plain ugly clothes to work. That's their choice, and as long as they're reasonably clean and don't smell too bad, I really couldn't care less. I start having a problem when people try to make their non-consideration of what they wear into a virtue -- "I don't care about my appearances and therefore I am not superficial and I am a better person than those who care about their clothes" -- or when they explicitly or implicitly try to force their views on me -- "We're all physicists, we don't care" (true enough that in most circumstances I don't care at all about what other people wear, except for taking the liberty of privately noticing when I see something I really like or dislike aesthetically, but I happen to care a little bit about wearing clothes that I like, and I'd like that to be my choice).