Sunday Silliness? Or Seriousness?

Today I found what I first took to be just a charming fantasy at Female Science Professor.  But the topic of clothing is also a very serious one for feminists, and includes all sorts of issues about institutional conventions and professional credibility, among many other things.

 Let me invite you to look at the fantasy and then consider either a silly or a serious reply:

During our travels, my daughter and I talked about how we will have to do some very quick back-to-school shopping for her, and somehow this led to our constructing a fantasy scenario of back-to-school shopping for professors. We imagined a special clothing store, just for professors, with different departments: Science Women, Science Men, Humanities Women etc. It would have all the latest fashions. What are the stylish Chemistry Professors wearing this year? What cannot you absolutely not wear at the next big international meeting?

We later told my husband about this idea, and he mused about whether the different departments might need further subdividing. We are fairly sure that the physical sciences could probably share one department of this store, but it may well be that engineers will need their own section, and the humanities might need some very significant subdividing. Do philosophers dress the same as historians?

Another feature of this store for professors is that you get a discount on a new item of clothing if you turn in something that you have worn since graduate school, with the discount greater the longer you have been out of grad school.

The commenters point out that there should be a “juniors” section for grad students. There might be others?

References to revealing sources are also welcome! 

9 thoughts on “Sunday Silliness? Or Seriousness?

  1. I should add the grim news in the comments of “the young female grad student meeting uniform of tailored black pants, clunky black heels, and a blue/white/red/pastel-striped button-down shirt.”

  2. I recommend Karen Hanson’s 1993 article “Dressing Down Dressing Up: The Philosophic Fear of Fashion”, in Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective (Indiana UP), 229-41.
    Hanson raises good questions about why philosophers scorn fashion and dressing well, and relates it to disdain for the body and continuing vestiges of dualism. It’s an interesting piece.

  3. Fun stuff. Two thoughts: (1) I’ve sometimes reflected on the fact that even while, as feminist philosophers, we’re writing about cultural dictates that women e.g. must wear make up, we’re working in a profession where that *isn’t* the convention. Which isn’t to say there aren’t conventions that we’re adhering to just as stringently. I’ll look for that article, Calypso– it’s too easy to let ourselves off the hook and think we’ve managed to transcend all that! (2) Confession time: For several years a taught a huge (200 student) intro to feminism. It was scheduled at a convenient time and got lots of students who really just needed something to fit their timetable. Year 1, 10% of the student evals said “I get so sick of you standing up there saying all men are oppressors”. And I’d said no such thing– it’s deeply not my style, and I go out of my way to criticize such simplistic views and offer more interesting ones. I wondered how they cd have thought I was saying that, and figured they were just assuming that I was saying “what feminists say”. So I thought: How can I break through that and make them listen? And I realised I wore jeans and big sweaters every day and “looked like a feminist”. So year 2, I wore lipstick and a skirt for every feminism lecture. (Exactly the same course content.) The nasty evals disappeared and 10% now said “I used to think feminism was crazy but now I see it’s just common sense”. A small experiment, but an intriguing one. Lots of feminists would not want to adopt lipstick and skirts as a pedagogical technique, and I’m not suggesting that they do. But, personally, I felt that changing people’s minds was worth it– and of course eventually we got to critiques of fashion and perhaps they were by that time more receptive.

  4. Calypso, Thanks for the article. I suppose the Cartesian disdain of the material should extend to money; I wonder if our profession is similarly uninterested in salaries.

    Jender, What an interesting experiment. Still, I read your comment with the sickening feeling that lipstick might add to one’s credibility on other topics. I’ve also, maybe I should confess, always acted on the assumption that I’ll get better service, medical care, etc, if I “look nice.” I’m not sure how I got the belief, but the few friends I’ve checked on this with have said, “Yes, of course.”

  5. I see in the Sunday NY Times online’s article on fashion some relevant comments, such as

    “There is this suggestion that fashion is not an art form or a cultural form, but a form of vanity and consumerism,” said Elaine Showalter, the feminist literary critic and a professor emeritus at Princeton. And those, Ms. Showalter added, are dimensions of culture that “intelligent and serious” people are expected to scorn.

    Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is “very much denigrated,” Ms. Showalter said. “The academic uniform has some variations,” she said, “but basically is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid.”

    But clothes are ideas; to use a fashionism — Hello! Scholars like the art historian Anne Hollander have spent decades laying out the way that costume serves to billboard the self.

  6. I’m somewhat concerned that Jender’s experiment seems to involve a pretty strong form/content split that I have to disagree with. (I think this relates to a mind/body split, but that’s a story for another day.) That is, can we assume the content was really “the same” if you were dressed differently and made up? There are some alternative accounts of the greater success in this case. One version goes along JJ’s lines but I dislike the description of Hollander’s work as showing how clothes ‘billboard’ the self. They express the self. Perhaps (1) you yourself had a different attitude being, as it were, a feminist in masquerade–you had more of a sense of humor or satire or irony in delivering portions of the material. (2) Perhaps the students reacted to you more as a recognizable version of a female authority figure, i.e. as resembling more a female TV commentator or politician due to your lipstick and skirt, and they simply paid more attention. (3) Perhaps the students were piqued by some sort of performative contrast between parts of your message of radicallism and your more traditional attire and this made them work harder to figure out the real message of the course. (4) Perhaps your colleagues in general treated you as having more authority because of how you dressed (I’m not commenting on whether this is appropriate or not) so you actually felt like more of an authority or more respected.
    I guess at the bottom I do regard teaching as a performance and for this, all aspects of embodiment DO matter. Teaching is not simply the dumping out of content into an empty head of a student. (That sounds insulting and I don’t mean it to, but I have read nasty remarks by some philosophers about others who win teaching awards just by being more enthusiastic and smiling more–as if this has absolutely nothing to do with being a more effective teacher!).

  7. Calypso,

    Thanks again for your comments. I don’t want to usurp Jender’s role as the central focus of your comments, so let me instead note enthusiastically your comments about teaching. I suspect that the philosophy profession’s dominant mode of teaching has been influenced by its official view of what good philosophy is: Great arguments. Here’s my worry: what we really seem to value are new ideas that change how we see things; creativity is highly prized, though the pedagogy does not seem to encourage it at all. Instead, it’s much more of a “take no prisoners” approach that makes being enthusiastic seem almost non-professional. (This may well vary according to country.)

    No doubt I’m exaggerating, but your comments has me once against wondering what causes the obvious race/gender skewedness of the profession. I mean, if we think enthusiasm and smiles are beside the point, it would be surprising if we attracted many people who didn’t already self-identify with the prof.

    Now I’m probably way off the topic, but your concerns seem to me very serious ones.

  8. Calypso– those are great issues you raise. You’re absolutely right to raise all those alternative explanations– and I can’t rule them out. I also agree with you about the importance of all the things that might be called ‘form’ rather than ‘content’– I’ve been very surprised to hear people saying that it’s bad for student evaluations to be affected by such irrelevancies as use of hand gestures, variation in voice, etc. I agree that these things are all an important part of pedagogy. I still think that there is a distinction to be had, though, between what gets said (content) and how it’s said (form), even though both are important to pedagogy. But I also think one should be a bit dubious about my claim to have taught just the same content. I wasn’t reading every word from a script, after all, so I undoubtedly uttered different words. And perhaps I was extra attuned to making sure that nobody misinterpreted me as claiming that men are all oppressors. A further possibility covering (what I’d call) both form and content is that my teaching simply got better since I’d taught the material before. I’m not at all certain of the explanation I gave above. But I think we’re in agreement that things like how one dresses can affect how one communicates– and that this is very important. Thanks again for your thoughts!

Comments are closed.