On Professorial Style

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

14 Comments on "On Professorial Style"

  1. I predict that following the publication of this essay, Professor Caplan will commence smoking a pipe and wearing a signet ring.

    I’ve been doing both for decades!

    C.

  2. Charles Barkley appeared in deodorant commercials wearing the epitome of professorial attire: a bow tie and a tweed gun-check three-piece suit with suede elbow patches. His catchphrase was “Anything less would be uncivilized!”

    https://youtu.be/eXce26k-leU

  3. Vern Trotter | October 29, 2020 at 5:28 am |

    Nice piece. Good to know that Edward Said wore a blazer and was a dandy. I would have thought he might have worn desert attire. Now, youth wants to know, did he wear a signet ring? I think not.

  4. Robert Archambeau | October 29, 2020 at 7:58 am |

    Interesting you should mention Edward Said—I was once seated next to him at dinner. Most of our conversation was about the novels of the Brontë sisters, but I do remember him expressing admiration for Omar Sharif as a style icon. A controversial figure, Professor Said, but never let it be said that he didn’t dress well.

  5. Yes, an interesting adn well-argued post. Thanks.

  6. Jonathan Mitchell | October 29, 2020 at 10:05 am |

    In short, there is no longer any such thing as professorial style though there are still some professors who are tweedy and show respect for themselves, their students, and their profession by dressing properly.

  7. PocketSquare | October 29, 2020 at 11:26 am |

    Living and working in a Big Ten town, i can tell you it’s extremely rare to see college professors coming into the shop to buy anything. It’s a shame too because our university is practically our towns “factory” and the professors and staff are customers we just are not seeing. We are not a stuck in the past shop and always have attractive window displays. Sadly they seems to drive to work, drive home and rarely take advance of our downtown business district.

  8. PocketSquare | October 29, 2020 at 11:27 am |

    advantage*

  9. Charlottesville | October 29, 2020 at 2:57 pm |

    Thank you, Dr. Caplan, for another very interesting post. Locally, most of the faculty I see rarely wear anything much dressier than jeans, Dockers, or the equivalent. Mass-market OCBDs, sans tie, are fairly common, but I see far more fleece vests and quarter-zip sweaters than sport coats. Not to say there are no exceptions to the rule, but exceptions they most certainly are. (I probably should note that I am a lawyer and not part of the university faculty, so I would not count as an exception to the rule.) At Washington & Lee and UVA in the 80s, the faculty still included a fair number of tweedy types in repp ties and good shirts worn with khakis, cords or flannels and penny loafers or plain-toed bluchers, but not much any more. I am glad that you are doing your part to maintain the standards in Ohio.

    Pocket Square – As stated above, it is much the same at the local university (and primary industry) in my town. It is a shame here as well, because, in Eljo’s, we have one of the few heyday-era college-town men’s shops still in business. I hope that your shop is holding up during the pandemic, even if the customer base is no longer academia.

  10. Kurt R. Keller | October 29, 2020 at 4:03 pm |

    Excellent article. I am currently working on my PhD. (my comprehensive examinations at the end of November). Several years ago, the chair of my department (who unfortunately passed from cancer last month) said he welcomed the fact the tie is dead in academia. I, rather distraught motioned with my hand to draw emphasis to the tie I was wearing, which happened to be my undergraduate tie.

  11. whiskeydent | October 29, 2020 at 5:48 pm |

    This Texan is again amused with Berkeley Breathes, a play on the hilarious cartoonist who grew up in Houston, and Beto O’Leary, a play on the 2018 US Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, tangling here. Though I have to say, Mr. O’Leary’s politics appear to be a long, long, long way from Beto’s. Meanwhile, Breathes’ views are much closer to Breathed’s — and my own.

    And what is this “FNB Ivy section” that everybody but me seems to know about?

  12. Henry Contestwinner | November 2, 2020 at 12:29 am |

    As a professor, all I can add is that while I give it the good old college try and wear a jacket & tie every day, few of my colleagues can be bothered to wear either. Not all hope is lost, however—our provost wears a bow tie every day!

  13. For college professors, I like a navy blazer with an LL Beal flannel shirt, khakis, and brown AE shoes.

  14. Mardy Philippian | November 12, 2020 at 9:34 am |

    I enjoyed this article very much. I’ve been a professor of English for twenty years and have worn a coat and tie every day that I’m on campus. When I joined the faculty at my first university, an older colleague asked me why I bother with the coat and tie every day. Growing up aspirationally middle-class and graduating university as a first-generation college student, dressing well (without, of course, immoderate expense) is a privilege for me and a sign of respect for my students, my colleagues, and the university as a cultural institution. Dressing well is not a sign of arrogance, cultural elitism, or any other ridiculous knock commonly leveled at professors who do so, as if they are holding on to a bygone era in which professors unreflectively enjoyed an elevated social status and expected conspicuous deference from those whom they passed by in the halls. If such a time existed any present conjuration of that past is likely more simulacrum than documentable historical fact. I dress as I do because doing so signals to students and colleagues that I take the world of the university seriously and hope that they do as well. Yet, I must add, I maintain no illusions that all of my students and colleagues feel as I do. This fact, however, has little bearing on whether I wear tweed coats and rep ties as opposed to golf shirts and jeans. Investing a modicum of salary in attire, whether the clothes be thrifted or purchased at deep discount, is no different than purchasing protective equipment in a trade or books from which to teach. Respectful attire is a tool in itself.

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