Sartorial Confessions Of An English Professor

I like to teach the essays that the poet Donald Hall wrote in his eighties, beautiful, moving and often funny reflections on literature, aging, and mortality. Before leaving academia, Hall worked as an English professor at the University of Michigan. One summer he retrieved his mail at the department, dressed (as he recounts) in “plastic flip-flops, sagging striped shorts, a Detroit Tigers T-shirt, and a grubby stubble . . . My chairman greeted me, noting my rank: ‘Good morning, Professor Hall.’”

Hall grew a beard and dressed that way because he wanted to look “raffish,” “not like a professor of English literature at the University of Michigan.” “So how did those professors dress?” I asked my class last week when I taught the essay. (It doesn’t explicitly say, only defining their clothes and grooming negatively, as the opposite of Hall’s.) “Like you,” one of my best students answered.

I am not sure that he was wholly correct but knew what he meant. A few years ago, I started to dress more formally when I teach. When I am feeling nostalgic, I put on a Wadham College tie and remember the happy Junior year abroad I spent there. Trips allow me to enjoy new stores and sample their wares. When my wife and I went to London to celebrate a significant birthday, I treated myself to a pair of George Cleverley brogues. She indulged me, although she was taken a bit back by their cost, which the salesman unfortunately announced as he ran my card. Before leaving the Royal Arcade, together my wife and I climbed the narrow staircase to the small second-floor workshop and marveled at the shoemakers as they worked. They were no less impressive than the actors we watched the next day perform Henry IV, Part 1 at the Globe Theatre. 

Few other professors dress this way. One colleague, a brilliant novelist, explained to me that he owns two identical hoodies, one to wear when he exercises, the other when he teaches. The garments’ odor helps him to distinguish one from the other. Another friend told me the best part of being a professor is never having to wear a tie. Indeed, he never does. Most of the male faculty dress only slightly more formally than our students, often in jeans or chinos, unironed shirts, and, on colder days, a sweater. One or two occasionally wear a sports jacket unaccompanied by a tie. 

I do not dress this way because I long for an earlier period in academia, whether the 1950s, when Hall taught at the University of Michigan, or the decades before that, when, as the poet Karl Shapiro, a fellow alumnus of the University Virginia, observed, “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew / Is the curriculum.” If more professors were to dress like me, I suspect I might be tempted to dress differently. In this respect, I am a bit like Hall. Aside from a friend’s occasional compliment, few colleagues have not told me what they think of how I dress. No doubt some find it off-putting if not pretentious. 

However, I do think tailored clothes flatter me. I also like how they separate between my professional and personal lives, especially since email and the changing nature of the profession have blurred this line. It is hard to prove, but I suspect that the formality of my clothes also has helped me to establish better relationships with my students. Our clothes confirm our roles, which, paradoxically, allows us to relate to each other more easily. 

Above all, though, I dress this way because I enjoy it. The flourish of a pocket square, a map of Chicago or Ponte Vecchio, a burst of color against a more somber gray or blue jacket, contains in miniature what Wallace Steven called “the essential gaudiness of poetry,” the material’s delight in its own useful uselessness. The clothes remind me I am about to go to work at a job I enjoy, sharing my knowledge of literature and writing with students discovering their own talents and interests. On the inevitable, challenging days, they also offer a means (as TS Eliot noted of one of Othello’s speeches) of cheering myself up, as I put on a jacket that fits me it should and an ancient madder tie, whose colors are magically both vibrant and restrained. — DAVID CAPLAN

Professor Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University.

22 Comments on "Sartorial Confessions Of An English Professor"

  1. Kudos to you Professor Caplan, sir! Your sartorial prowess matches your eloquent style of writing, earning you a summa cum laude from the Ivy Style commentariat.

    In my experience, literature professors are the best dressed members of academia. Ancient madder ties, George Cleverley brogues, and a raffish pochette are all indicators of a refined elegance, creativity, and an intellectual acumen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and keep up the good work.

  2. Phil Bosche | October 16, 2020 at 2:53 pm |

    Nice piece. The death knell of Western civilization sounded when those who should know better abandoned the tie, both for comfort and a pathetic desire to be liked by those who should rather hold them in awe. The tie stood for repression: the symbolic cinching off of heart from brain. Now it’s gone and just look about to see whatthat hath wrought.

  3. Charlottesville | October 16, 2020 at 4:53 pm |

    Thank you, Dr. Caplan. It is good to hear from someone who keeps up the classic look among the professariat. I hope you may contribute more posts to this site. However, as I hope you discovered during your time at UVA, the curriculum has changed considerably since Mr. Shapiro’s time.

    If I had been on grounds at the local university today, rather than in my makeshift home office, I am sure that most of those whom I met would have been largely hoodied or perhaps encased in fleece and rumpled jeans. FWIW, I am wearing a brown and tan Prince of Wales 3/2 sack sport coat from Brooks Brothers of fragrant memory, a U-stripe OCBD from the same source and a “vibrant and restrained” paisley ancient madder tie from Polo. Alas, I am not shod in Cleverley brogues, but my shell cordovan penny loafers probably also would have raised the spousal eyebrows had my wife been present when the credit card was swiped, although perhaps not to the same degree as in the Arcade.

  4. john carlos | October 16, 2020 at 5:14 pm |

    Charlottesville- when were your Alden shell cordovan’s purchased? I was looking at a pair this week, but I talked myself out of them b/c of the hefty price. And b/c I have a like new pair of the Alden calfskin penny in cordovan. If I had a wife, I’m sure she would have applauded my decision.

  5. Luca Jellinek | October 16, 2020 at 6:02 pm |

    Very well put, relatable and with nary a trace of presumption.

  6. Charlottesville | October 16, 2020 at 10:24 pm |

    John Carlos – My cordovan loafers were from BB. Not sure of the price, but along with my shell cordovan Alden-for-Brooks tassel loafers and monk straps, and my double soled long wings and plain-toe bluchers, they were purchased on sale in decades past. My guess is that each was under $400 in those days; maybe under $300. The longwings are Allen Edmonds and the bluchers from England, were bought at Burberry’s at least 25 years ago, with my wife present and approving. Sale prices on shell cordovan are rare, but I agree that the current tariff is too stiff for my wallet. Most of my shoes are calf (smooth, pebble-grain or suede), and they are much more reasonably priced and also seem to hold up well. Still, real Horween shell cordovan is pretty special. I hope you are able to find a pair one day at a reasonable price.

  7. NaturalShoulder | October 16, 2020 at 11:00 pm |

    John Carlos – are you familiar with The Shoe Mart. They care Alden shoes and periodically receive batches of “seconds” which have slight imperfections which are priced at a discount. I believe you need to sign up for their email list to receive notification.

    Professor Caplan – thank you for taking the time to write such an eloquent post to the site, it is heartening to read about someone else who dresses in tailored clothing for the mere fact that he enjoys doing so.

  8. Old School Tie | October 17, 2020 at 3:14 am |

    A well written piece by Prof. Caplan, however…J’Accuse…! There are quite a few pictures of the good professor sans necktie that come up in a Google search…I say this light-heartedly since we all have our casual days. I am reminded of my first day working at a big pharmaceutical company when a senior member of staff, not my boss and now a professor of Psychiatry at an Ivy League school, told me upon seeing my attire – chinos, stripped shirt, navy chenille pullover with a rolled neck and some deep mahogany wholecut oxfords from Loake, no tie, that “oh, we are pretty relaxed here, you’ll soon start to look like one of the team…”. Well, the very next day I turned up in a chalk stripe suit, Herbie Frogg contrast collar shirt and medical school tie. I have to say that we never got on…

  9. Charlottesville-my first pair of shells purchased in 1966 cost $35. NaturalShoulder- I’m very familiar with Shoe Mart. How are their Alden seconds?

  10. This is a well written and thoughtful piece. Thank you.

    It’s amazing to me that UVA has somehow retained the identity reputation as an especially “preppy” school. Those days are long gone. In the year 2020, no large state school can claim any sort of ubiquity, especially sartorial. I suspect a majority of Cavaliers dress no differently than the undergrads at George Mason, William and Mary, and VPI.

    There’s a good reason to rest in the assurance that Sewanee and a couple of other southern schools have retained something resembling a traditional dress code.

    It’s interesting, how we complete this sentence “when I think about tasteful, traditional clothing, I think about…”

    Some would fill in the blank with the phrase “English professors.” Four decades ago plenty of people would have responded, “Yalies and Princeton alums… and UVA alums.” For others, the guiding lights were the leaders of local Mainline Protestant churches.

    It never occurred to me to consider jazz musicians.

  11. When I attended class at George Mason University (’77) I wore a tie and jacket. Perhaps going straight to work afterward at Woodward & Lothrop had something to do with my choice of clothing.

  12. A few Asian and Russian students have remarked to me in recent years how overly casual they find students and faculty on US college and university campuses. Here at Michigan State (when we were actually still on campus), the only ‘dressed’ men I ever noticed besides myself were higher-ups in the the administration. A few of them are really quite natty and clearly know how to put together their attire for the day. A bit lower down the food chain, the only comments (and very occasional at that) I have ever heard about my usual Monday-Friday ‘work’ attire in the almost 20 years since grad school (from students, staff, and colleagues) have been favorable. If anyone has had something pithy or negative to say, it has never reached my ears. I dress like my maternal grandfather, father, step-father (on a good day), and the other men in the extended family by the way. On a related note, I spoke to a small rural high school in Central Illinois about something college-related 10+ years ago and was shocked by how poorly the teachers presented themselves. Only the principle looked like anything resembling a capable professional. My, how standards have changed since I graduated from a small rural Pennsylvania high school in 1985, where most male teachers and the principle almost always wore a jacket and tie if not a full suit during normal school hours. Besides the pronounced slide toward awful just about everywhere, I wonder if geographic proximity figures into this sartorial difference? What in the world happened to the idea of putting one’s best foot forward at all times?

    Best Regards,

  13. Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke | October 17, 2020 at 8:36 pm |

    “Principal.” I really should just hang it up.

    H-U

  14. NaturalShoulder | October 18, 2020 at 12:06 am |

    John Carlos – the Alden seconds have minor flaws and I was unable to detect a flaw when purchasing.

  15. Ezra Cornell | October 18, 2020 at 5:49 am |

    I enjoy the breathe of fresh air from an actual college professor, like myself, rather than just hyperventilating reports about college professors and students. I have always dressed “formally” because my father was a professor and I admire how he looked: professorial. I am proud to follow in his footsteps. But I think we must be frank and acknowledge that the look puts off people who are used to having the privileged look down upon them. So I am glad that Dr. Caplan is open to the nuances of this dress style, and that for all the love we give it, we must always treat it with some caution knowing that what we take to be its glories are precisely why it alienates others.

  16. Neither of my grandfathers, nor my father were Ivy leaguers, not by a long-shot, yet when appropriate to dawn a coat and tie, they did so, and no one felt alienated.

  17. There are many reasons why CC’s seminal piece will live on— hell, it may outlast this forum.

    One of them is the manner in which he began: by stating a thesis the form of a good question. A hypothesis in the interrogative:

    Brooks Brothers… or the campuses of New prep schools and Ivy League colleges?

    In a post-Ivy world heavily populated by slothful undergrads, the answer is Brooks. We complain, whine and moan about the evolution (downward spiral?) of Brooks, but it’s probably true that, decades from now, after O’ Connell’s and The Andover Shop finally ‘close shop,’ Brooks will remain. There may even be reasons to predict that Brooks, bought and owned by whomever, will outlast Mercer & Sons and Rowing Blazers.

    Flusser is right, after all. It’s not about dressing like a professor or Southern Episcopalian or the 60s incarnation of Miles Davis. It’s about the Golden Fleece. Available to (accessible by) anybody who digs this vibe.

    I think Mr. Press said as much, yes? No matter the particular spin we put on the style, it’s always and forever Brooks Brothers. Still being welcomed and worn by suburbanites who want a little bit of luxury. The same folks who keep country clubs, BMW-and Mercedes dealerships, and real estate firms going strong:

    The upper middle class.

  18. Why do you long for the day when the goal of the curriculum was ‘to hurt the negro and avoid the Jew?’
    Are you proud of that?

  19. Well said, S. E.

  20. Robert Archambeau | October 18, 2020 at 12:52 pm |

    Great to see this piece, David! Even though we’ve known each other as academics for years, I had no idea you read Ivy Style. I should have guessed, since you’re always one of the best dressed people at academic conferences (where, I am sad to say, the sartorial bar isn’t set much higher than Donald Hall’s was in his Michigan days).

  21. Charlottesville | October 19, 2020 at 9:40 am |

    my1 – I believe that you have misread Dr. Caplan. He says his love for traditional dress is NOT because he longs for a return to a prior era of bigotry. There are many things to like about the 1930s through the 1950s, at least seen from this distant vantage point, including clothing, movies, music, architecture and other aesthetic features. However, while they may exist, I know of no one who longs for Jim Crow or antisemitism.

  22. Wonderful essay, Professor Caplin, thank you! Please don’t ever lower your sartorial standards; your students may not know it yet, but they will never forget your example and will remember you as an elegant, dignified ADULT.
    “Our clothes confirm our roles, which, paradoxically, allows us to relate to each other more easily.” – How true. I wish more adults understood this. Best wishes.

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