By Thesis Whisperer |

As you may or may not know, I will shortly be heading off to the UK for a few weeks by invitation of Herriot Watt University, the Vitae North West hub and Bangor University. I’m very excited about the trip and I’ll tell you more about it in my next post, but it did present me with an unusual dilemma:

What exactly does one wear when giving a Keynote Lecture?

PhD Comics

Deciding what to wear is not easy when you are an academic; we don’t have the luxury of suit-as-uniform like our counterparts in the corporate world. We often have to front classrooms full of people barely out of puberty and then go to a committee meeting. For some time now, my twin sister, and fellow academic, Anitra (@anitranot) and I have been creating our own ‘clothing taxonomy’ to deal with this complexity.

The academic clothing taxonomy is basically a series of silly wardrobe nicknames expanded beyond the classic Little Black Dress (LBD) to encompass any number of occasions. Presently it includes:

  • “The definitive white shirt”
  • “The sexy librarian number”
  • “The meet the people dress”
  • “The Last Minute Tute” and
  • “Perfect Pants”, to name but a few.

(Stay with me now – there’s a serious point coming up later I promise!)

Each of these items of clothing fit certain social and academic workplace challenges. The “definitive white shirt” goes with anything, including jeans, and makes you look put together with minimal effort. The “Meet the people dress” is the sort of outfit which takes you from classroom to drinks before an evening lecture without looking like you are trying too hard (The “Spring Show” is the art / design exhibition version of the same thing). The “Last Minute Tute” (LMT) was developed when Thesis Whisperer was under 3 and I needed to pull off casual and classroom ready 10 minutes after getting out of bed. It was therefore crucial that the LMT was good at hiding the inevitable toddler ‘yogurt hand’ marks.

These wardrobe Types are like Platonic Forms; @anitranot and I are always on the hunt for new and more perfect manifestations of them. We have been known to ring each other excitedly when we find a Fine Example of a Type and, since we are basically the same shape and size, sometimes we buy two – just so the other wont miss out (it’s a twin thing).

The “Sexy librarian number” (SLN) is perhaps the most elusive; it’s the kind of dress you need when presenting a paper; a dress which makes you look ‘academic’ without being frumpy and, despite the ‘sexy’ label, this dress must not be too revealing. The Keynote Dress (KND) was the older sister to the SLN. The KND needs to step it up a notch in the ‘serious academic’ stakes, but doesn’t need to be as over the top as my one and only “I’d-like-to-thank-the-academy awards night ensemble” (a fiendishly difficult dressing challenge let me tell you – luckily I have only had to do this once).

Anyway, I found the Keynote Dress unexpectedly, on my lunch break, and remarked on Twitter that I was relieved that this wardrobe challenge had been achieved. I was surprised by the number of responses by people who could relate to and were interested in the numerous challenges of academic dressing.

It seems my sister and I are not alone in the nick name thing; @trishmorgan told me about her “lucky conference blouse” (must add that to my list). As usual, PhD Comics has been there before as @jasmine_z pointed out. I was interested when @alisonseaman told me that her creative dress sense was too creative for the other Fine Art academics and when @deborahbrian started to talk about the ‘bloke fashion’ trend in Archeology I realised this academic dressing thing deserves some serious attention.

Does what we wear have career implications? This article from The Chronicle sent to me by @fashademic suggests it might:

“There was just one problem with the English department’s job candidate: his pants. They were polyester, green polyester, and the members of the hiring committee considered that a serious offense. For 10 minutes they ranted about the cut, the color, the cloth. Then and only then did they move on to weightier matters”

They say you should dress for the job you aspire to, not the one you have, so should you have to dress the part to get an academic job?

If we are to believe Pierre Bourdieu, the French social theorist, the answer would be yes because we all possess ‘cultural capital’. With apologies for the gross simplification to those of you reading this who are experts in this area, cultural capital can be thought of as an asset, just like money, property, jewelry and other possessions. We accumulate it by immersion; by being in a world where you constantly watch how others dress, behave and act – and (mostly unconsciously) mimicking what you see.

An example of cultural capital at work is ‘good taste’. Who decides what ‘good taste’ is? Well, everyone and no one. It is something that arises between us and owned by no one, which is why it’s possible to have so many personal definitions at the same time. However, if Bourdieu is right, those personal definitions of good taste will start to converge when groups of people spend a lot of time living and working together. Every academic discipline will comprise different sorts of cultural capital – no group is homogenous, but there will be ‘tribes’ that share values and ways of doing things (as Becher and Trowler pointed out). PhD study is the perfect time to spend some time studying these tribes and acquiring your own store of academic cultural capital.

Acquiring academic cultural capital is much more than a matter of learning how to dress the part. Consider the problem of the literature review. In the literature review you display your knowledge of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a particular academic field. You do this by choosing and talking about the ‘right’ key authors, in the ‘right’ way. Knowing what is ‘right’ is a form of cultural capital you have acquired through reading and talking with other academics. It is difficult to acquire academic cultural capital outside of the academy.

Possessing and displaying the right cultural capital – in your writing at least – is essential for building trust and credibility with your academic colleagues, so why not clothes too? Or should they not matter? What do you think? Do you have ways of dressing which you think help you ‘fit in’ with your academic tribe? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

I have started a board on my Pinterest account called ‘academic dress?‘. I can’t make it collaborative very easily, but please put links to images you want to add in the comments and I will pin them)

By Dr Inger Mewburn (@ThesisWhisperer)

This post was originally published on the Thesis Whisperer’s blog in 2012. It has been re-published with permission. Visit the Thesis Whisperer’s blog for the sequel by @fashacademic, What Not to Wear – Academic Edition 2.

Feature Photo: Jason Hargorve/Creative Commons