Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I was just pointed, via Facebook, to a PHD Comics post that might be the very definition of up my alley. For the link-following-averse, it's called "Academic Dress Code," and is sketches of six academic "types," not unlike the "types" I used to research in the 1840s illustrated compendium "Les Français peints par eux-mêmes." In other words, folks, follow the link, because I'm hopeless at describing images. (All I remember from art history in college is that the TA pronounced "focus" "fuckus.") It's designed as a graph, going to "less formal:" people donning, from left to right, a tux, a graduation robe, a business suit, a sports jacket and khakis, pajamas, and rags. I was specifically asked for a gendered reading, and believe it or not I'd already found the comic and gender-read it in my head earlier today, so this shouldn't take too long.

Two of the six images are of women. Not in and of itself a disaster, unless you're of the board-game-commercial, Benetton-ad school of thought, and believe that every single image must be demographically representative. All are white, which is worth addressing, I think, but to properly address that would veer off into intersectionality beyond what I can handle this close to 11pm and on Bisou Standard Time. Of the two women, one is in a graduation robe and you can barely make out that it's supposed to be a woman - a hint of skirt at the bottom is a giveaway. The only unequivocal woman is a grad student in PJs clutching a pillow. OMG guys, grad school is sooo stressful!

Then there are the men. One is in a tux winning the Nobel Prize. Another dons a regular business suit, but is crossed out because academics don't own suits, because they of course never need to attend weddings, funerals, anything outside of academia. A third is the "Smart Academic," who is an impressive cartoon rendition of every man of Assistant Professor age I see around Princeton, saw around Hyde Park. Yup, that's what they wear. What do their female equivalents wear? Who cares, because where are they? They had babies or lost confidence or who knows a few years back, while still in PJs, and have long since become SAHMs, middle-school teachers, dabblers. No one in the lineup appears in any even marginal sense fashion-or-style-conscious. God forbid!

But the final entry - "Hobo-chic" - is the reason I had to post on this. He's the very definition of "too brilliant to bathe," a Nobel winner, "leader in his field," who can dress as he does because he's that important. (He's the only one represented whose skin isn't pasty-pink, but I'm going to assume this is meant to indicate dirt, not that the "hobo" is of color.) A female version of this is inconceivable.

Add all this up, and the issue, gender-wise, is a bit more than women making up only a third of the academics depicted in what is, after all, one cartoon. This is dangerous territory I'm entering into here, I realize, because it will elicit the inevitable, 'but don't you get that this is satire, you humorless feminist?' response, when... yes, of course I do, of course I know "Piled Higher and Deeper." I'm a grad student! What it's satirizing is academia, and this particular installment may be ostensibly poking fun at the geeky unfashionable world of academia - no sharp "douche" suits for us! - it's also, between the lines and I suspect inadvertently, reinforcing the ideas: that the word "professor" should summon the image of a man, that geniuses must be male, that competent profs must be male, that the academics who might otherwise have high-paid jobs are men, and that confidently-displayed (but fully-clothed! maybe even fashionably-clothed!) female bodies have no place in academia.


PG said...

Steaming pile of anecdata:

The full professors at my alma maters wore suits about a quarter of the time. It seemed to correlate more with personality than by department, as I recall my Mark Twain seminar prof was a pretty unreconstructed hippie with a white ponytail, but the guy teaching one of the required large lectures for the English major wore a suit. And there must be some expectations about appearance, because I remember when Peter Singer came for a conference or panel about something and sat at a table with two of my bioethics profs, both in suits and the one from religious studies looking downright dapper (the one from philosophy had more flyaway hair). I heard several people make cracks about how Singer must REALLY be committed to utilitarianism, given how poorly he was dressed (his attire made me finally understand what Victorian novels meant by "rusty black" in describing old, worn clothes).

Also, many academics have side jobs for which they must go into an outside world that expects them to look normal. The aforementioned religious studies prof served on Clinton's bioethics commission; my antitrust Econ prof was involved in the Microsoft trial. If an academic plans to exercise direct influence outside the tower, a shower and a suit appear to be obligatory.

I have to admit that I don't remember what most of my female professors wore. Generally a sort of business casual of skirts, slacks, sweaters, etc. I think my English Renaissance professor, an Englishwoman, wore suits. My mentor in the bioethics internship wore suits, but again, she frequently left the tower to attend meetings on the state Medicaid budget and things like that. Ditto the professor supervising the internship course, who was on the med school admissions committee, and the professor of public health who had a joint appointment in the law school. Suits are very common for law school profs, but I figure it's to familiarize us with the fact that soon WE will be the suits.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I think the genderedness of too-brilliant-to-bathe is the biggest problem here; it's a very male vision. But there's also a problem, and it's a related one, of how much it's a science vision. Cham comes from the hard sciences, and the core of the strip's (back when he followed characters and plots) was in the lab, notwithstanding the couple of characters from non-science fields.

I think that the sciences reject suits, and usually ties, much more uniformly than do the liberal arts. There's variation within the liberal arts, too-- but there are plenty of us for whom the choice is between the suit that he's X-ed out and the intermediate step between suit and his khakis-polo-and-a-sportscoat. That intermediate step is, yes, sportscoat, but gorwn-up slacks not khakis, and a shirt and tie not a polo.

I think that spot in the spectrum-- bounded by suits on one side and polo-with-jacket on the other-- is where most liberal arts faculty, men and women alike, are most of the time. (Maybe not on the west coast; I don't think I've ever seen a tie at Berkeley outside the law school. And I think Cham is a west coaster, too.) And there's plenty to talk about in the complexities of that part of the spectrum! Including the ways in which it's not the same for men and women, and the basic problem that there are all kinds of ways to dress terribly within that part of the spectrum.

Loud patterned jackets and ties from the 70s, slacks with indecorous holes or split seams, ties with coffee stains, polyester, or just basically *not matching*-- those all exist in that space, and in the world. And sometimes they're the liberal arts equivalent of too-brilliant-to-bathe, including in its genderedness: it's almost only men who would make a point of dressing so badly within the bounds of ostensibly professional clothes.

But actual hobo-chic is, I'm guessing, something you see in math and physics, not in economics.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Side job or not, people need suits (well, a suit) for non-professional reasons as well, so I didn't really get the humor in this. And across gender and discipline, sometimes a young-looking TA or prof will wear a suit simply to get the point across that he or she will not be attending the awesome frat party this Thursday night.

I still maintain, however, that all the hard-and-fast rules of dress you've mentioned a bunch of times here re: law do not hold in much of academia. There don't really seem to be settings where pumps would be OK but not ballet flats, skirt suits but not pants-suits, expensive suits but not cheap ones, suits but not nice pants and a sweater, etc. It's much easier to look more dressed up than usual when you're around undergrads in sweatpants. And you're more likely to have it be in your favor if something about how you present yourself labels you a "character" than would be the case in a more corporate setting. And that for some, this, or what it seems to symbolize, makes academia appealing.


True enough re: variety among the disciplines. We just this weekend had over some sociologists and were discussing academic dress, and we all had a good laugh over how in the sciences, one will probably never need to wear a suit, or sports jacket, or anything beyond a hoodie, in a work setting.

But "hobo-chic" does not strike me as coming from the sciences. I mean, there will be sandals-and-socks, there will be cargo shorts worn year-round, there will be Crimes Against Fashion, there will be norms of dress that maybe put off women from entering the field... but in general, it's sporty-ish clothes worn by people who look like they spend their free time hiking, and probably do just that. Fleeces, t-shirts with school names on them, etc.

While I wouldn't go looking for "hobo-chic" in economics, in philosophy, in classics, in some subfields of literature (not French! we look elegant at all times!), in any area of the humanities or social sciences without massive crossover into the kind of important outside-world jobs PG refers to. The men are celebrated for looking like disheveled geniuses, while the women... don't quite have this option. Relating to this, the idea that eccentric genius could come from a woman is considered... unlikely.

Finally, I'm having trouble picturing where womenswear fits into this: "the spectrum-- bounded by suits on one side and polo-with-jacket on the other-- is where most liberal arts faculty, men and women alike, are most of the time." Women tend not to wear polo shirts with jackets, unless maybe they're coaching a team. What is female prof-wear? I kind of suspect it wasn't in that lineup because we don't have a cliché for it, because "academic" summons in our minds a dude in a blazer. This is a problem as well.

jim said...

My sense is that the comic over its life exhibits better gender balance than does its subject: graduate school in the sciences (Piled Higher and Deeper makes sense as the last part of an interpretation of BS, MS, PHD as an acronym; BA, MA, PHD it doesn't work). So if there is gender bias in this one, it's probably inadvertent.

This particular one is also science biased. It may be true that STEM faculty never wear black tie (even for the Nobel ceremony, which is white tie), but humanities types often do: when my wife brought out her book on Trollope we hit the Trollope Society dinners in both London and New York. And as Jacob said, hobo-chic is probably a math-physics-chemistry phenomenon (not even biologists, let alone biomed or engineers).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"the Nobel ceremony, which is white tie"

Glad we cleared that up! Does someone not get the prize if they forget?

I'm still not convinced that "humanities types" wear black tie "often." Maybe there are specific topics that lend themselves to such settings - your wife's work, apparently, and maybe branches of art history - but gala events are kind of unusual in academia, no? And even if a tux must be brought out on occasion, what's worn the rest of the time? I'd think not even necessarily a suit.

And while I may study French, I'm minoring in the fashion habits of physicists, and they do not, like I said in my reply above, wear hobo-chic. This is found... see above. Think "philosophy."

Jacob T. Levy said...

Oh, I didn't mean that women's professorial wear *consisted of* the items I named-- and I expressed what I meant badly, I see. I should say: the spectrum from slightly-too-casual-to-be-business-casual-in-other-professions, through business-casual, to business. I think that that whole range is represented by only suit-guy and polo-guy in the cartoon, and I was (wrongly) using them as synecdoche for that level of formality.

As for the rest: I'm pleased to say that I don't know anyone in the liberal arts at my university who teaches in cargo shorts or sandals-with-socks.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think I understand now. But I still think the point holds, that there's no female equivalent of the "smart academic" look. I mean, there is, but it's tough to convey, in a cartoon, how it differs from "schoolmarm." (I think the addition of a silk scarf might help, and maybe some avant-garde-looking glasses.)

And... Montreal's too cold for that to happen, probably even in the sciences.

Britta said...

I wouldn't discount the West-coast influence of never needing a suit. I know middle-aged adult males in Portland who don't own suits, and whom have never worn a suit, not even to weddings, funerals, the opera, or anything. Unless absolutely required for work, one doesn't need to own a suit for non-work occasions in Portland, even the mayor when I was a kid never wore a suit, and my home congressman wears jeans and a bow-tie out to work events in the area (I don't know what he wears in congress though...) Equivalently, I once went to a charity auction and dinner at the Portland Art Museum, a Fancy Society Event if there ever was one, and I saw numerous women in clogs (black clogs, but clogs nonetheless.)