Dressing Academically

In our discussions of the potential focus of the VCCC’s upcoming exhibition, we began to talk a little about dressing academically. Our broad focus for the exhibition, at least for now, is to explore the ways in which education influences dress (does it? in what way?). It is of particular interest to me how an academic environment (and not merely the knowledge gained from an education, which is how I’ve been interpreting the word education in our broad focus) influences dress, especially for women. Did (and do) women  feel compelled to adopt menswear detailing in order to align themselves with an institution (that of academia) that has been historically and traditionally so dominated by men? Do uniforms of academia such as graduation gowns and robes help to portray a person as being more closely aligned with their academic institution (and thus of greater seriousness or intellect)? This is the general thread that I am following in exploring a couple daisy chain dresses that we have in our collection.

My thoughts on the daisy chain dresses are still in their early formations, but I’ve begun to think about this issue as it applies to contemporary dress. This issue is still an incredibly relevant one – we have a long way to go before a professor in a pink dress will be perceived as an intellectual equal to her tweed jacket-wearing colleague. I have a lot of questions (and I’d love it if you’d help me explore them in the comments section): should a person seek to represent himself in a more traditionally academic way in order to help himself? Is it, then, necessary to dress in an academically “appropriate” (feel free to interpret this word in whatever way you choose) manner when going to class – as a student or as a professor? What about dressing intellectually, i.e. creating an outfit based on aesthetic principals or conceptual guidelines? Is an intellectual outfit less acceptable than an academic outfit within academia, and should this be the case?

I was browsing around the internet and encountered a string of fashion and/or style blogs written by academics that partially addressed the issues I’ve brought up in the above paragraph. http://fashionableacademics.blogspot.com/ is a blog written by a group of professors and grad students and is one of the more informative and provocative blogs I came across. They have a category of posts that they label with the tag “professartorial” where they post their outfits and discuss, to a certain extent, the thought process behind creating the outfit. It is refreshing for me to read the blog because it is unusual for either fashion or style to be acknowledged as interesting in any capacity by the academic community.

Now, this is just a blog written by a couple of friends about how they dress, and I acknowledge that, but by aligning their blog with academia in general I feel they’ve opened themselves up to the possibility of a little ideological criticism. When crafting their outfits, the most prominent guiding factor seems to be: is this appropriate for teaching in a classroom? The more serious the event (class lecture, department meeting) the more traditionally academic their outfits appear to become. I appreciate the amount of thought that they put into the appropriateness of their outfits, but I can’t help feeling unsatisfied. I know that not everyone feels compelled to intellectualize clothing, nor should they, but as academics and as self-proclaimed feminists I find their apparent lack of questioning to be a little troubling. They aim for appropriateness when it is called for, but do not question that nature of the appropriateness that they’re striving for. Yes, one wants to dress professionally in the workplace, but the standard of the professional appropriateness (especially in academia and corporations) is masculinized and traditionalized. Tweed and corduroy blazers are the epitome of academic appropriateness because they borrow from both traditionally masculine (blazer) and traditionally academic (tweed and corduroy) aesthetics.

This is not meant to be a critique of the way that these women and men dress, but rather a lens through which to view these issues. Why should a traditionally academic outfit command more academic respect than an outfit constructed to some conceptual end?

I’m hoping that these questions will help guide me through my research of the Daisy Chain dresses and other academic garments in our collection.  At what times did Vassar require a Daisy Chain uniform, and when did it allow students to express their personal taste more freely? At what point did Vassar switch from formal attire for graduation to the classic academic graduation gowns? What was going on in the college and in the world at these times that might have prompted the shift? There’s a lot to think about, and I hope to answer some of my own questions above in a part II to this post at the end of the semester.

P.S. Some other academic (or otherwise) style blogs that are relevant to this post: http://www.academichic.com, http://www.scholarstyleguide.com/, http://www.alreadypretty.com/2010/09/how-can-we-reclaim-traditionally.html, http://whatwouldanerdwear.blogspot.com/ and this post in particular http://whatwouldanerdwear.blogspot.com/2009/12/what-would-fashionable-academic-wear-to.html

3 Replies to “Dressing Academically”

  1. Your post also reminded me of a dissertation I read in the FIT library, “The Graduation Dress” by Lyra McMullen. (http://fit.sunyconnect.suny.edu:4690/F/YSH1J37PF68UX7HVVYRKNA4GVILB6T46YR7M3A744UYXEBMBIG-53047?func=full-set-set&set_number=002998&set_entry=000001&format=999) McMullen looked at high school graduation photos from about 1880-1930. (She chose high school because most American women in her chosen period did not attend college.) The dresses were always white and usually had some sort of lace component. Indeed, one ladies’ magazine columnist wrote “There are just about three gowns in a girl’s life which are preeminently important: the graduation gown, the first ball gown and the wedding gown, and let us hope, girls [sic] that you have occasion to wear all three.”

    It is interesting to note that academic/professional dress is now perceived as masculine when, in fact, in the earliest period of women’s higher education, her academic dress was associated with her coming out and her wedding (and possibly communion). According to McMullen, the traditional graduation gowns we now see did not become popular until the 1940s. Photographic evidence that I’ve seen shows that Vassar girls didn’t wear the cap and gown to Class Day until the mid-40s, and even then its use was inconsistent because I’ve also seen color photographs from the 50s that show that the girls’ dresses were as popular as ever, not looking all that different from (it must be noted) the somewhat masculine, candy-colored shirtwaist dresses from the 30s, like the one I’m researching. I’m not sure, though, if there was a difference between what Vassar girls actually wore on Class Day and at commencement, since I saw a student at convocation this year who was wearing her great-grandmother’s graduation gown. (Quite a step up from the polyester bags we have to wear!)

    In some ways, the bigger question is when the Class Day/ Daisy Chain dresses became less formal, when they stopped being special white dresses and started becoming custom-made dresses that could almost be worn every day.

  2. The issue of academic dress seems doubly sensitive given Vassar’s history as a women’s college. That academic dress is masculine does of course make a clear statement about the way that women and women’s intellects are valued (or not valued). Steele’s answer to Chloe’s question “Did (and do) women feel compelled to adopt menswear detailing in order to align themselves with an institution (that of academia) that has been historically and traditionally so dominated by men?” appears to be a resounding “yes.”

    This is notable because it stands in stark contrast to women in other professional fields who, according to Steele, are expected to perform femininity through dress with especial effort– shorter skirts, higher heels for more powerful executives– thereby neutralizing the threat of women in power by reducing them powerful women to sex objects literally crippled by fashion (at least as far as high heels go).

    The expected masculinization of the style of women in academia poses an interesting dilemma: is it a triumph for women that they are not expected to participate in fashionable femininity (a deeply misogynistic institution if ever there was one), or is the expectation that women in academia align themselves with sartorial codes of masculinity simply an implicit devaluation of women?

    Before I derail this too much I’m going to take the rest of my thoughts to a separate blog post.

  3. I appreciate the distinction you make between dressing academically and dressing intellectually. I’m very interested to see where this line of thought takes you in relation to our collection – I think it’s going to take some digging to find perspectives on this in Vassar letters/diaries/etc., but I think it’s definitely worth digging. I wonder also what light our living alums can shed on this – with the 150th anniversary we’ve been looking a lot at the very early years, but there’s a lot worth discussing right up to today.

    I’ve been thinking lately about how you look at fashion history differently from an anti-fashion approach vs., well, would you call it pro-fashion? As we look back at our Vassar students of the past, there are mentions all over the place of trying to fit in, but none that I’ve found so far of trying to stand out, or at least not fit in. But I feel certain that those stories are out there somewhere, that they didn’t just appear out of nowhere in the 1990’s when I was a Vassar student.

    Of course, at some point anti-fashion becomes its own fashion; non-conformists end up with their own very strict rules . . . lots to discuss!

    Anyway, this reminded me of some blog posts on profhacker.com a while back:


    with the posts themselves very “systems” based (perhaps appropriate to academics who are interested in technology) and some of the comments sharing interesting anecdotes of classroom experience, and gender/age/promotion issues.

    I’m also reminded of a Valerie Steele article from 1991, “The F-Word,” which you apparently can read here (not sure if this is the full text)-

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