November 21, 2003

Like Circus Ponies?

Some people think I'm a little severe in my strictures against the academy. But I'm sure I've never said anything quite as harsh as this:

Our women look like circus ponies, wearing feathers, tassels, and suits designed by the folks who make clothes for drum majorettes. If a senior academic woman should wear to the annual MLA meeting a skirt made entirely out of men's shirt collars, for example, she would be considered a radical dresser as well as a feminist goddess. Whereas a normal adult woman wearing such an outfit would be regarded as just one frame short of a Looney Tune. Our men look like inmates only recently released from federal penitentiaries, forced to wear clothing thirty years out of style. They wear sweaters knit for them by the girlfriends they had during the Carter administration. These items, never flattering, now fit them around the middle like tea cozies. They have been known to wear clogs. They wear, for pity's sake, berets (Regina Barreca, "Why We Look So Bad")

I can honestly say that I have never encountered a female academic who looked like a circus pony. But maybe I'm in the wrong discipline. Barreca mentions the MLA. What do women wear to this conference, anyway?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 21, 2003 10:10 PM

But maybe I'm in the wrong discipline.

Or maybe you're going to the wrong circuses.

"should wear to the annual MLA meeting a skirt made entirely out of men's shirt collars, for example"

I hope Regina's not in an English department. The sentence would read better if it were refashioned into a Limerick:

Untenured radical flirts
attend MLA meetings in skirts,
feathers, tassels and suits,
with leatherette boots
Rendered wholly from Savile Row shirts

Posted by: Kieran Healy at November 21, 2003 11:08 PM

The women who attend MLA tend to wear either smart suits (if they're on the job market) or fairly average street clothes (if they're not). You might see more black clothing than is average for a US street. And there will of course be some eccentrics dressed in unusual fashions. But by and large most conventions of academics look pretty much like most conventions of non-academics.

Surprising, ain't it?

P. S. I wore Italian suits at the two MLA I attended while on the job market, so I'm not that impressed by the article--to say the least.

P. P. S. Yes, I paid dearly for those suits, but I think they were worth it in the long run. I'm still wearing them today.

Posted by: Ivy League Grad at November 22, 2003 03:03 AM

In a recent issue of the Chronicle, WJT Mitchell remembers Edward Said's impeccable dressing and his bitter frustration with Mitchell and other English professors who did not know how to dress. One gets the impression that the sartorial cluelessness of humanities professors was a greater source of bitterness throughout his life for Said than Middle Eastern politics.

Posted by: Vivian at November 22, 2003 07:03 AM

It seems wrong to dress up in expensive clothes while most academic workers can barely afford to come to a conference. Before I was on the tenure-track (expense account and all), I remember feeling sick as I paid $200 a night for a hotel room at the MLA Convention (after pinching pennies all year). By the end of the three-day convention, I would have spent as much as I would earn by teaching an entire class of 30 students for a semester.

On the other hand, dressing down seems like a status indicator too: "I'm so important I don't have to dress to impress anyone." (Of course, some casual clothes, even the ones that look like hodcarriers' smocks, can cost a fortune if they come from boutiques.) It's only the hungry job seekers who are "dressed for success" in a conventional way.

What choice is there but the frumpy middle--neither indicating status by dressing down (probably in faux worker clothes or multi-culti kitsch) nor mocking the poverty of job seekers by dressing up (say, in Prada or Armani).

I tend to wear casual-dressy stuff from Lands' End (L.L. Bean is too phony-WASPy). I think this makes me invisible, which is what I prefer. I'd rather watch these people than be one of them.

Posted by: THB at November 22, 2003 10:28 AM

I don't know what MLA conference #2 goes to, but the one's I;'ve been to (5 in all) feature some prett hillarious stuff. Big, clunky jewelry, purchased at stores called "Details," "Merlot," and "Contemporary Designs" are everywhere -- except for the NYU female grad. students who are wearing thrift store glasses and short leather skirts. The older women do tend to wear those drapy whatevers, and those blankets (what were they called again, Tasmani's or somehting like that?). The men fall into three categories: the dork/geek; the "rebel"; the "egotist." The dork/geek is wearing a striped oxford shirt with an ill-fitting jacket, and he often has pasty white skin, dank, kind of like I imagine Lazarus to have looked; the rebel, typically an older, 50-something type, wears a black jacket with either grey flannel trousers, or black wide-wale (sp?) cords -- mis matched, slightly off shades of black are common -- and, for the rebel part, because they really don't know/care how to dress, they wear white socks with black wallabies; and the egotists are wearing the cobalt blue jackets with black jeans, or the dark mustard colored jackets with black silk trousers. You can toss in the Italian suit guys here, as well.

Oh God, the MLA happens in about 6 weeks -- God, I cannot wait!

Posted by: Chris at November 22, 2003 10:30 AM

Cute satire aside, Chris, there are thousands of people at MLA, most of whom are dressed just like most American professionals will dress at a conference or convention. Having been to 4 MLAs, I feel quite confidant in asserting that.

There will be more eccentrics in unusual styles, yes. This isn't a conference for CPAs (who, one assumes, would be wearing business casual or business formal). But I'm sorry: English and foreign language professors aren't noticeably worse-dressed than any other group of people in this country.

P. S. Thanks so much for the petty Italian suit dig. So nice to know that I provoked you to a personal attack.

Posted by: Ivy League Grad at November 22, 2003 11:28 AM

Actually, on my campus the English professors are fashionistas compared with the students and the local population. It's not unusual to see women at the weekend market dressed in flowery Stevie Nicks skirts, lumberjack shirts, rainbow knit hemp hats, and plastic beach shoes--all on the same body. Come to think of it, I've seen men in that getup here, too. My profs, on the other hand, tend to dress in Nordstrom neutrals. (All right, so there is one prof who wears leather pants. But they fit him!)

Posted by: Rose at November 22, 2003 04:37 PM

Yeah students these days on my campus are doing anorexia, all black clothes and hair, piercings, and army boots -- that's the women. American women. A lot of the foreign women wear veils, and a few wear head to toe black veils with eye slits. These two all-in-black groups are beginning to resemble each other -- both exhibiting hatred and abuse of the body, depressive withdrawal from the world and from pleasure (no eating!) and beauty.

As Marxism wanes even from the academy, I miss the Marxist English professors. They wore berets, shiny black boots, black shirts, tight well-pressed slacks, and chestfuls of symbols with political meaning -- in short, they dressed like fascists. But I don't think they knew that they dressed like fascists.

Posted by: Vivian at November 22, 2003 05:38 PM

Hey Ivy League -- I apologize. I didn't mean the dig. I think I had "Italian suits" in my mind subliminally and failed to consciously make the link to where it came from. Nevermind with the Freud uncoscious/subliminal jokes, I just f**ked up. The only "dig" I intended was the (I hope) innocuous "I don't know what MLA he's been to ..." line.

Really, I'm sorry.

Posted by: Chris at November 22, 2003 07:08 PM

i have no money. i can't afford to keep in style. i really dislike the tone of ms. barreca. am i alone?

Posted by: better left nameless at November 22, 2003 08:29 PM

No, you're not alone, "better left nameless." I'm all for light-hearted satire at the expense of academic follies and foibles (e.g., Kieran's limerick: that's good!) But I think there's a meanness to Barreca's comments. That circus pony comment rubbed me the wrong way.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 22, 2003 09:02 PM

A constant about those who cruelly comment on other people's sartorial choices is that they are a) ugly and b) themselves poorly dressed.

While there's some dowdiness at the MLA, it is no worse than you'd find among other bourgeois Westerners.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at November 22, 2003 09:30 PM

Chun, as ever, hits the mark.

Posted by: ogged at November 22, 2003 10:55 PM

Oh, and more:

Posted by: ogged at November 22, 2003 10:56 PM

Chris --

Apology accepted. And I'm sorry for snapping before asking if you had Italian suit cracks in mind. :)

Regarding comment #8:

At Midwest Big State U where I teach, I would say that the male students (largely white) try to dress like rappers while the female students (largely white) are currently dressing a la Brittany Spears or Christina Aquilera. If there are piercings, they're accompanied by brightly colored half-shirts and low-waisted jeans in the Jordache mode.

The faculty, however, looks a lot like that described in comment #7.

Posted by: Ivy League Grad at November 22, 2003 11:04 PM

A colleague of mine has a theory to explain why, at least on one of the campuses at which I teach, the women are far better dressed than the men. In his view, it's because women are entering into "public" space, while the men, in a sense, are leaving the traditional "public" sphere behind for the world of academia.

Hmmm ...

Posted by: Chris at November 23, 2003 12:53 PM

ogged, thanks for the links!

they explain a lot, and i do not mean any reference to her looks. she must have plenty of loot to snap up all the prada or st. john in the store based on her trade publications. anyone writing for cosmo or showing up on oprah must be getting paid big bucks. she's climbed pretty high on the class ladder, so it's little wonder she's giving the shaft to the teaming masses at the bottom rungs.

she certainly has found her way to a popular audience, and i mean no sarcasm in that comment. if only more of us could find a way to follow suit.

Posted by: better left nameless at November 23, 2003 05:01 PM

Well, I've been to a lot of MLAs, but not so many since I got tenure (boooo! hissss!) & there were plenty of eccentric dressers & plenty of ordinary dressers too. I'll be heading out to San Diego in a few weeks & will take my digital camera. I promise a wide-ranging survey.

Posted by: chujoe at November 23, 2003 07:50 PM

You know, this just makes me realize that even though I teach about consumerism and fashion from time to time, I pay almost zero attention to what people are wearing. It takes something outlandish or truly stylish to catch my attention, otherwise, I have no idea what clothes people are wearing. Nor, I find in reading Barreca's piece, do I give two hoots. Now I will say that when I'm going to an academic meeting and I hop in an airport bus to the conference hotel, I can usually look around and guess who the academics are in the bus, and I'm sure that has something to do with clothing. But really, who cares?

Posted by: Timothy Burke at November 24, 2003 09:45 AM

#19: For someone who is usually so attuned to the vagueries of academic politics, I'm surprised you can't see how the issue of style of dress is in fact a marker of who's in and who's out in the academic milieu. Let's not forget that academia is hardly an "anything goes" kind of place, but is intstead a totalitarian regime of the dweebs. Woe be to the male applicant for a position who forgets to take out his earring prior to the interview; and even more woe be to the untenured man who shows up to a meeting, or class with said earring. I've had students actually comment in their evaluations on my style of dress -- and it's not exactly radical. If I recall, the comment was ' He wears a lot of black, and I've never had a teacher before who wore a leather jacket -- it's not very "professor-like"." The chair, who eventually saw these evals, admonished me to 'look deeper into my wardrobe'.

Posted by: Chris at November 24, 2003 04:47 PM

Surely "a skirt made entirely out of men's shirt collars" is a reference to a real skirt made out of men's ties? Worn, oh, ten or twenty years ago, to much shock among the MLA? Possibly during a speech that acknowledged sex? This was all ever so not-my-division at the time, but it still rings a bell.

Posted by: clew at November 24, 2003 06:10 PM

Wasn't that Jane Gallop? Late 80s, early 90s? The one who said her "sexual preference was graduate students" to uproarious audience approval?

Posted by: THB at November 24, 2003 06:28 PM

"Wasn't that Jane Gallop? Late 80s, early 90s? The one who said her 'sexual preference was graduate students' to uproarious audience approval?"

This confirms my suspicion that the MLA is a more interesting gathering than the AHA. Nothing like this ever happens at the AHA.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 24, 2003 07:42 PM

Yes, but it sounds nowhere near so interesting as a Shakespeare panel attended by a former colleague of mine, which featured a woman who decided to illustrate her point by...stripping. Apparently, her fellow panelists were somewhat bemused, as was the audience.

One of our lecturers, a former parochial school teacher, suggested to me at a regional MLA that English professors all seemed to be in orders. All that black!

Posted by: Miriam at November 24, 2003 09:28 PM

"Yes, but it sounds nowhere near so interesting as a Shakespeare panel attended by a former colleague of mine, which featured a woman who decided to illustrate her point by...stripping."

Since I'm just a humble historian, I have to ask: what was her point, exactly, and how was it illustrated by, uh, stripping?

Tim Burke asks, "But really, who cares?" and I tend to agree with him. But I guess it's easy enough to ask "who cares" when you're an historian.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 24, 2003 10:17 PM

Thing was, the point didn't have anything to do with stripping--she just did it for emphasis. Apparently, there were strategically-placed Shakespearean images, intended to prevent, um, any excessive revelations.

Posted by: Miriam at November 25, 2003 08:19 AM

What a RIOT! Since my days as an adjunct at Queens College (which ended about sixteen years ago) I've ALWAYS paid attention to what people wore--You'll notice, if you read the COMMON REVIEW piece, that I say IMMEDIATELY that I put MYSELF in the group whose clothing I describe. (And I like circus ponies.) While I confess that, yes, mea culpa, I wish I could buy Prada, like the Italian Marxist in Lodge's novel, I admit that I am not yet in that league. Cosmo pays what the CR pays and Oprah doesn't pay at all. But yes, life on both sides of the line is fun. And stuff like this discussion makes it fascinating.

Posted by: gina barreca at November 25, 2003 11:08 AM

Oprah doesn't pay at all? Now that's funny (almost as funny as the "strategically-placed Shakespearean images").

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 25, 2003 12:24 PM