There's been lots of interesting discussion the past few days about clothing and other aspects of academic self-presentation -- in the comments to my post, at BitchPhD, at New Kid on the Hallway, at Pharyngula, and Lilliputian Lilith. And probably elsewhere too that I've just lost track of.
In the five months I've been reading academic blogs, this or similar topics have come up several times -- and I'm always an interested participant in such conversations. Academics (or at least those I've encountered in these virtual spaces) are interested in our appearance not because we're hopelessly vain or self-centered, but because we have the skills to analyse our own visual texts (at least some of the time), and our somewhat contradictory position within general professional middle-class culture. In Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu offers a framework for a sociological understanding of cultural taste, based on extensive empirical work with French subjects. Although the specifics of his analysis don't translate to U.S. culture, much of his analytical framework really hit home for me when I first read his work. Academics, for Bourdieu, are the "dominated fraction of the dominant class" -- those who have the education and cultural capital equal to or greater than that of the socially/politically dominant group, yet don't have the social prestige or economic power of that dominant class. So we often respond to that situation by cultivating an anti-establishment attitude, aesthetic, personal style. Yet the desire to buy into the mainstream can still persist (witness the discussion about the economic constraints faced by academics in many of the blogs linked above).
Academic jobs do require us to be up in front of large numbers of people several days a week. Unlike media figures, we don't have handlers, designers, and makeup artists to get us ready to "appear"; unlike people in the so-called "service industries," we don't get uniforms handed to us with the job. So we're on view in a performance or quasi-public kind of way, unlike many people in the corporate world, who may only interact with the people in their unit or meeting room, or a handful of clients at a time. And in that classroom space, we are simultaneously representing ourselves as individuals, but also a number of large abstractions: the University, Knowledge, The Professor.
As an example: for many of my students, I represent the Highly Educated Woman, who seems sort of like an alien from outer space. Every semester, I'll have women in their twenties or thirties, often from East Asian or Hispanic backgrounds, show up in my office and shyly start asking me whether I'm married, if I have kids. For them, I represent an entirely different way of being in the world, one that they hadn't really imagined. I'm Youngish Unmarried Childless Educated Professional Caucasian-Appearing Woman. (The fact that I'm also an out lesbian is usually a bit much for these women to comprehend early on in the term. Other students figure that part out right away.) Whatever content I'm teaching them in class, I'm also teaching them something just by being who I am.
What does this have to do with clothing? One one hand, not much: the fact that I'm at the front of the classroom and have the power to grade will always reinforce certain kinds of power structures, etc. But on the other hand, I'm wondering if the tendencies that are so easily mocked in academic dress (shabby or sloppy appearance, outdated styles, or eccentric costumes) not only serve to mark us as members of our own academic tribes and sub-groups (in English, for instance, medievalists are statistically far more likely to wear velvet to class than scholars in any other subfield), but also present a kind of vague-enough screen for students to project their own classifications and wishes onto us. For them, it's probably better if we look not quite parental, not quite like their peers, not quite of this time period, not quite like anything you could see at the mall. Who wants to be able to stroll into the Gap and come out looking just like Eccentric Biology Professor?
Now, if the comments I've been reading on various blogs are truthful and not just wishful, perhaps the new/next generations of academics will be more stylish. We all (and I have done this too) like to criticize our colleagues but suggest that we ourselves know how to put an outfit together. Part of the freedom and the difficulty of having these discussions online. For all you know, I could be a total J Crew prep who just likes to talk about her proto-Goth alterna-80s aesthetic. [grin]