On The Academy and Its Sartorial Crimes

Cosma Shalizi and Brad DeLong share some thoughts on appropriate professorial attire. Cosma:

I have just had one Prof. Erik M. Jensen’s op-ed “A Call for Professional Attire” referred to me by multiple sources (none especially pointedly, thanks), and I find myself greatly irritated.  Jensen says that contemporary American academics generally fail to dress up, in the modes that are supposed to reflect seriousness and status, and spends about 2000 words bemoaning this; longing for a lost “golden age” (his phrase); and trying to ridicule, brow-beat, and shame his audience into complying with his wishes.  The closest he comes, in all of this, to present an actual reason for doing so is saying this: “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.”  This is backed up by a casual, second-hand reflection on how “in DiMaggio’s day … [t]he men wore white shirts and ties under coats and hats, the proper attire in public, even at a ball game.”

This is a style of cultural commentary which drives me up the wall, so I try to avoid it.  It is not that hard to think of an actual rationale for what Jensen wants; it would go something like this.


A professor’s clothes–supposed to lie somewhere on the spectrum between total nudity and the purple-red dress of a Byzantine emperor–need to serve four purposes:

  1. To make the appropriate people envy, in an appropriate way, the professor’s (actual or counterfactual) spouse.
  2. To make the professor comfortable.
  3. To make the students more willing and eager to learn.
  4. To take a particular stand on the great debate between the courtier Lord Chesterfield on the one hand and the intellectual Samuel Johnson on the other, summed up in Johnson’s remark that Chesterfield’s fashion-centered advice to his illegitimate son taught the boy “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.”

I will pass over (1) as requiring a knowledge of evolutionary biology and a working aesthetic sense–which disqualifies me on both counts. I will pass over (2) as requiring a knowledge of biological thermodynamics which I do not have, save to observe that the traditional tweedy professor male academic clothes are, from a thermodynamic point of view, appropriate only for some British or New England campus without effective central heating.