Several years ago I called my brother for his advice about which ties would work best with different outfits. I was a graduate student preparing for one of my first academic conferences and wanted to make a good impression on the scholars I would meet. My brother, a lawyer, patiently answered several of my questions before asking me, “Are you concerned you won’t be well-dressed enough for an academic conference?”
It is true that few professors are clotheshorses. However, the vast majority are more indifferent dressers than bad ones. In general, they dress as if their goal were to avoid being noticed. Their clothes don’t so much flatter as neutralize. The exceptions are rather conspicuous. At another convention, I watched an attendee in a well-cut blazer rather confidently cross the hotel lobby. It only took me a moment to recognize him as the noted scholar and dandy, Edward Said.
The actual clothes that academics wear, though, only partially explain the profession’s reputation for bad attire. Instead, it might be more accurate to say that academics and those outside the academy have different expectations about how professors should dress.
Two framed oil portraits that hang in the English department hallway outside my office illustrate this point. One portrait honors William Emory Smyser, a professor of English and college dean. He wears a gray three-piece suit, a white shirt with a club collar, and rimless glasses. A caption notes that the portrait was donated in 1925 by the class of 1915 on their tenth class reunion “in commemoration of Dean Smyser’s twenty-five years of service.” Because Smyser continued to teach and administer for nine more years, he must have regularly passed his own portrait.
The other painting, at the top of this post, depicts Benjamin T. Spencer. By all accounts, Spencer was an extraordinary professor. When I joined the faculty in 2000, three decades after Spencer’s retirement, a senior colleague not known for his complimentary nature still called him “the great Ben Spencer.” Alumni named children after their teacher; the university gave him an honorary degree. The portrait shows a balding man in horned rim glasses, wearing a muted plaid jacket with a two-button cuff, and a slightly askew repp tie. The professor holds a lit pipe. His chin rests lightly on his other hand, subtly turned to display his signet ring. He looks past the viewer, perhaps contemplating the volume of Shakespeare that rests at his elbow.
In the two decades I have taught at my university, several faculty members have retired after long, productive careers and years of devoted service to the university, but no one has proposed having any of their portraits commissioned. The idea would sound embarrassingly old fashioned, if not ridiculous. The two oil portraits already make some colleagues uneasy. Informally we discussed whether or not we should replace them with images more in tune with current student demographics but did not reach a decision.
Benjamin Spencer retired in 1969, the year I was born, but many Americans, even college educated ones, still retain a vague sense that professors should look like the painting’s scholar-teacher. Hollywood does its part to keep the image alive. Unlike actual contemporary professors, professors in movies and television often dress in variations of this particular style. Though I have spent my adulthood in academia, I have seen fictional professors wear more bowties than all my colleagues and teachers combined. At its worst, the sartorial expectation emboldens some students to condemn female professors on course evaluations, denigrating their appearance. Paradoxically, it also discourages some professors who might be inclined to dress a little more formally. They do not want to give in to a cultural stereotype.
I have made some inquiries, but at this late date it is hard to get much information about Professor Spencer’s background. His academic record offers a few clues. Spencer received an undergraduate degree from Kentucky Wesleyan College and an M.A. and a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, not, say, Princeton and Yale. His departmental colleagues included first-generation college graduates, as well as the son of a New York socialite turned Congresswoman. The clothes they wore narrowed these differences, making them less visible. As G. Bruce Boyer notes, “the Ivy League look” allowed college students and, I might add, professors to “construct a basic campus wardrobe without a lot of money.” Many wore those clothes to express a middle-class aspiration, not display their inherited wealth.
Heading to my office, I recently passed Spenser’s portrait and realized I was dressed like him. I do not wear a signet ring nor smoke a pipe, but my Brooks Brothers jacket could pass for his, and my repp tie offered a more colorful version of his. I did not feel as if I were wearing a historical costume or claiming a borrowed identity. If anything, the coincidence pleased me. — DAVID CAPLAN