The Fashionable Academic

Looking stylish and being scholarly.


May 11, 2014

I recently participated in a program on national Swedish radio. When the program host paid me a compliment and likened my appearance to that of the Swedish pop star Robyn, I experienced conflicting feelings. On one hand, I was certainly flattered (Robyn is a really cool artist!), but at the same time, I felt a slight loss of confidence. If my hairdo looks like a pop star’s, will I perform well as a scholar?

Obviously, there should not be a contradiction in the question above. Looking stylish and being scholarly adept have no natural antagonism. But in the real academic world, I find that there is quite a bit of prejudice against those who obviously concern themselves with their appearance – as if the time that was dedicated to preening should have been better used elsewhere. Looking fashionable signifies superficiality, and real intellectuals should not concern themselves with such shallow activities.

This attitude goes back a long time. Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer active during the interwar period, wrote in his memoirs The World of Yesterday (1942) about his disdain for sports and about his exclusive preoccupation with books and art; “small wonder that with all our intellectuality we looked haggard and green as unripe fruit. What is more, our clothes looked fairly shabby, for every penny of our pocket money was spent on the theater, concerts or books”. Here we are far away from the Greek ideal of the athlete philosopher (does anyone know that Plato arguably was a very good wrestler?) or the Roman command “mens sana in corpore sano” (meaning a healthy mind in a healthy body).

A contemporary writer echoes Zweig’s historical thoughts. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of the bestselling and prize-winning novels such as Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, asks “Why can’t a smart woman love fashion?”. She recounts her personal experience of fashion self-censorship on the basis of widespread prejudice. She writes in a piece for Elle magazine: “For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought into it. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers.” I find this valid for the academe as well.

This attitude cannot be divorced from the influence of a certain variety of feminism, critical of the commodification and objectification of the (female) body by the beauty industry, which further points in the direction of the complex and complicated relationships between beauty (as an ideal and as industry), fashion, and feminism. As an aside and hint for further reading, there is a vast literature on the topic, from the classic Roland Barthes The Fashion System to the more recent titles like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, or Linda M. Scott’s Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism.

So, can there be a fashionable academic? And is there a difference between women and men? On the first point, I think, like Ms Magazine, that “If feminists ignore fashion, we are ceding our power to influence it”. To think that interest in style is parallel to disinterest in the life of the mind is, simply put, incorrect. One can most certainly accommodate a concern for esthetics and a capacity for profound thought.

I am not sure if fashionable men are seen as academically competent in comparison with fashionable women, judged to be less scholarly if they wear stylish clothing. On the basis of very informal discussions with a few male colleagues, they report feeling the pressure of projecting a certain image, prohibiting them from displaying certain subcultural trademarks (for example tattoos, or untrimmed beards).

Maybe in the end, it is not a general concern with fashion and style, but a specific approval or disapproval of certain fashion choices that we see at work here. The academic subculture has its own cultural codes, including a fashion one. As we promote and encourage diversity in our scientific activity, we should also show open mindedness when it comes to the diversity of appearance. I say welcome to the fashionable academics!


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