A Call for Professional Attire

Erik M. Jensen thinks it's time for professors to start dressing like professors, and he has some fashion rules to share.

February 8, 2008

In his Journals, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted a hotel’s faded elegance: “[T]he lobby is filled with tieless men wearing double-knit trousers.”

Tielessness: a bad sign everywhere.

Professors, it's been said, are the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in America. Instead of being role models, we’ve convinced everyone to slum. As clothing theorist Nicholas Antongiavanni explains in The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, “[M]any came to believe the protestation of academics that taste was nothing but a fraud perpetrated by the great to keep down the people.

It was not always so. In the academic golden age, outliers who refused to follow high standards were viewed with disdain. Edward Larson describes a law professor who, after being fired, represented Scopes in the 1925 monkey trial. John Randolph Neal could walk into a faculty lounge today and, without having evolved a bit, fit right in:

Neal never spent much time on campus -- often arriving late, if at all, for class, devoting class time to rambling lectures about current political issues rather than to the course subject matter, and giving all his law students a grade of 95 without reading their exams. The dean also complained about Neal’s “slovenly” dress, which later deteriorated into complete disregard for personal appearance and cleanliness.

At the trial, “[u]nwashed and unshaven as usual, [Neal] lectured the court in a manner reminiscent of his chaotic teaching style.”

During Paul Fussell’s teaching career, “practically compulsory was the daily get-up of gray flannel trousers and tweed jacket, often, of course, with leather elbow patches, suggestive at once of two honorable conditions: poverty and learning," according to Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. When tweed was no longer boss, however, scruffiness became the standard. At Tom Wolfe’s Dupont University, “the current fashion among male professors ... was scrupulously improper cheap-looking shirts, open at the throat, ... and cotton pants with no creases -- jeans, khakis, corduroys -- to distinguish themselves from the mob, which is to say, the middle class.”

If we’re going to have a dress code anyway, we should be able to do better than “scrupulously improper.” I therefore propose a Uniform Uniform Code (a lawyers joke -- sorry) for professors. My effort to change clothes might not be fully successful, but there’s hope. As Michael Bérubé says, “[D]ressing fashionably in academia is like clearing the four-foot high jump. The bar is not that high.”

I. The Childlike Professoriate

Why the dress problem? Professors might be grown-ups chronologically, but, if you’ve attended faculty meetings, you know we haven’t gotten the behavior patterns right. Joseph Epstein writes:

One of the divisions of the contemporary world is between those who are prepared to dress (roughly) their age and those who see clothes as a means to fight off age.... I know of associate deans who never wear neckties. Others -- balding, paunchy, droopy-lidded -- have not had a fabric other than denim touch their hindquarters for decades. They, poor dears, believe they are staying young.

Roger Kimball adds, “There is something about the combination of denim and tenure that is inherently preposterous.”

Trying to look like students is partly self-denial, but scruffily dressed faculty also have highfalutin goals. Some sartorial underachievement is aimed at furthering a "nurturing" atmosphere. The classroom setting should be non-confrontational, it’s argued, with professors and students hangin’ out as buddies.

But it doesn’t work, except perhaps for sexual poaching. Radical economist Bob Lamb discovered “that if I buy my suits at Brooks Brothers and look like a banker, it is much easier to get Harvard students to believe what I am telling them.” Bonding is nice only if you don’t expect intellectual activity.

Dress once represented a quest for excellence, not leveling, as Donald Kagan noted in a paean to Joltin’ Joe:

[H]is day was not ours. America was a democracy, but of a different kind. Its people were more respectful of excellence, both of matter and manner . . . . People wanted to behave according to a higher and better code because they believed that in doing so they would themselves become better, worthier, “classier.” Those who are too young to remember should look at the movies and photographs of games at Yankee Stadium in DiMaggio’s day. The men wore white shirts and ties under coats and hats, the proper attire in public, even at a ball game.

Russell Baker thinks the shift to shiftlessness occurred in the 1960s:

People [then] had so much money that they could afford to look poor. Men quit wearing fedoras and three-piece suits to Yankee Stadium and affected a hobo chic -- all whiskers and no creases. Women quit buying hats and high-heeled shoes and started swearing like Marine sergeants.

People generally act better when they’re dressed right. If a professor is sending a signal of seriousness, of civility, students will pick it up. I defer to no one in admiring the Marines, but the world is not a better place when everyone is swearing like a Marine sergeant and dressing in hobo chic.

II. The Code

Here’s a draft Uniform Uniform Code:

Faculty members shall, when on college grounds or on college business, dress in a way that would not embarrass their mothers, unless their mothers are under age 50 and are therefore likely to be immune to embarrassment from scruffy dressing, in which case faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother.

That’s it. Brevity works. Unlike good clothing, a statute can’t cover everything.

Anyway, this is just a draft: Maybe your mother is better than mine for this purpose; the phrase “my mother” probably doesn’t work for a statute of general application; perhaps the key age for mothers should be 70 (80?). Whatever figure is used, it will have to be adjusted periodically to capture changes (downward) in mothers’ (other than my mother’s) standards.

So change what you wish, and then interpret the UUC reasonably. When in doubt about appropriate dress, check what people used to wear: it’s usually safe, as Arthur Benson noted, to dress in the “style-before-last.” For men, Fussell’s default rule works: “You can’t go wrong with the classic navy blue blazer and khakis.”

Sanctions for violators? I guess not. I’d like to take ‘em to the cleaners, but you’d wind up with idiots charging breaches of academic freedom. At a minimum, however, violators ought to be dressed down in public for dressing down in public.

III. The Tie

Are ties that important?

For men, yes. The tie is important because it’s always been important; its importance makes it important. You don’t change norms without good reasons for doing so.

Ties show seriousness -- respect for the subject, the students, and oneself (whether or not you really respect any of them). Fussell says ties “serve no purpose except vanity,” but striking a blow for civilization is a good purpose.

IV. Conceptual Difficulties

Skeptics of my project -- all poorly dressed -- see this as hopeless. I’ll deal with a few criticisms.

A. Geography

How, skeptics say, can I draft a uniform uniform code? Isn’t it inevitable that appropriate dress for the fruited plains will be different from that for the purple mountains?

Of course. When Florida professors teach in Maine, their dress should meet Maine standards and vice-versa.

That doesn’t mean anything goes. A flannel suit might not work in Florida in August, but shorts and sandals don’t therefore become de rigeur. Moms know how to dress in Maine and Florida and so should you.

B. The Sex Question

We have a sense of appropriate menswear -- Jeffrey Hart wrote that “any male professor who comes to class without a jacket and tie should be regarded with extreme prejudice unless he has won a Nobel Prize”” -- but this isn’t a males-only profession anymore. Who’s to say how the Hart principle should apply to women?

Me. The rule that applies is the feminine equivalent of the standard for men. Ask female associates at one of the Wall Street firms that haven’t succumbed to perpetual casual day whether there’s uncertainty about appropriate dress. They might not like it, but they know what to wear.

Are pants acceptable? Of course, in the right climate at the right time. Color of suit? It depends on what you’re doing. Ask your mother.

Besides, women profs have a style-guide, Emily Toth’s Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. Some of Ms. Mentor’s more important standards are

1. Avoid poufy sleeves.
2. Dress frumpily.
3. Act like an old fart.

All good advice, and about all you need to know.

C. Outside Class

Maybe it should matter that a professor will not be teaching on a particular day. I’ll take this issue -- is class reserved for class -- under advisement, but the guiding consideration is: You’re a professional; dress accordingly. (I’m certainly willing to grant exemptions for anthropologists in the rain forest and sociologists going undercover.)

D. The Dissidents and the Tasteless

Skeptics note that some folks will flout any rules. If coat and tie are required, dissidents will break the code’s spirit by wearing CAT with shorts and sandals. You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

And some will observe the letter of rules but with taste (or mother’s taste) that is unbelievably bad. Is any tie good enough? What about an iridescent green suit that whispers Chernobyl? Or suppose otherwise acceptable attire is covered with food that the academic, focused on the world’s intellectual work, is oblivious to. Rules are rules, but in enforcing them we should be sensitive to the feelings of those who are severely disturbed.

V. Political Over- and Undertones

Oh, I hear you say: Here’s another political reactionary (true enough) trying to impose his views on nonbelievers.

Well, others have a sense of propriety too. Ralph Nader dresses conservatively. The Green Party convention may have been a gathering of the Birkenstock brigades, but you almost never see Nader out of his gray suit, white shirt, and tie. Nader wants to be taken seriously, and so should you.
There is a political component to this. Jay Parini defends F.R. Leavis, who “made a name for himself by refusing to wear a tie at Cambridge.”

Leavis meant to appear intellectually isolated, but he was also advertising his leftism. That was desirable, says Parini, because “[t]eaching is, after all, a performance art.” Students find clues to “our attitudes toward the world, even our politics, in the styles we assume.... It pays to think of clothing as a rhetorical choice, and to dress accordingly.”

The rhetorical choice is why professors should dress in boringly similar, tasteful ways. By following the UUC, we limit the extent to which students speculate about us rather than study. Parini might want students pondering his politics -- an easy task -- but I don’t want mine ponderously pondering mine.

Does any of this matter? Richard Posner, who can hide suspect attire under judicial robes, ridicules Jacques Barzun, who had written that “[t]o appear unkempt, undressed, and for perfection unwashed, is the key signature of the whole age”: “This is absurd, and not only because Americans, however casually they dress, remain fanatical about hygiene. It is absurd in its insistence that every change in culture, even so mutable an aspect of culture as the dress code, is fraught with menace.”

And, Posner wonders, a decline from what?

[M]ost declinists at least specify a benchmark. But it is difficult even to identify the golden age of formal dress. . . . Are coat and tie formality enough? Or must the soft collar give way to the stiff detachable collar, or perhaps to the ruff? Must women wear corsets, and must men dress (that is, put on a tuxedo) for dinner?

The judge gets the crowd snickering with his riff on the ruff, but he stretches his point beyond Spandex’s limits. Any well-dressed freshman should question Posner’s premise that, just because we can’t draw a bright line, no distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable are possible.

At a minimum, I hope we can agree on one thing: Teaching is a thongless task.


Erik M. Jensen is the David L. Brennan Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. This essay is adapted from "Law School Attire: A Call for a Uniform Uniform Code," from the Oklahoma City University Law Review.


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