April 15, 2008

Fashion 103: Intro to Professorial Panache

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Our professors are far too smart to look so silly. In a previous column, Fashion 102: Intro. To College Couture, I discussed the sluggish pace of undergraduate fashion on college campuses. I left off promising a future column on the style (or lack thereof) of our professors and I am honoring my word.
I always imagined the quintessential college professor as a well-groomed man wearing fitted khaki trousers, a crisp white button down, cashmere v-neck sweater vest, a classic tweed jacket and smart leather loafers. English accent optional. Yet, the stereotypical intellectual is marked by ancient ripped and wrinkled clothes, topped off with straggly Einstein-esque hair, shattering my ideal mental image.
Quite logically, professors dress badly because their professors dressed badly and so did their professors. And the professors down the hall, across the quad and around campus dress badly. Even the professors from other schools at conferences dress badly. It’s a vicious cycle.
Additionally, there are clear social expectations concerning what people can or can’t wear. This applies directly to how people in certain professions dress. Corporate lawyers or bankers are imagined in luxurious designer suits. Construction workers don the usual ripped jeans and Timberland-style boots. People dress the part. It is easier for people to dress towards what is expected of them, in a form of path dependence. Thus, professors dress like professors.
So what is wrong with how professors dress? Quite simply, it often is not professional and may even border on distracting. One’s personal appearance is important, especially in the workplace. This is even more significant in a workplace where the employee is revered and looked to for education and inspiration.
The start of each semester is marked by first impressions, where students often attend a single class session to decide whether they should keep or drop their courses. As first impressions are often appearance based, a well-groomed and well-dressed professor may attract more students to keep his/her class. Similarly, most classes are lecture based. Students spend hours staring at their professors. If professors put the time and effort into preparing an interesting and attractive Power Point, they could do the same for their outfits.
Particularly bad outfits can definitely turn into a distraction. I can’t count the number of times a friend has texted me from class to express shock at an outfit that consists of a printed neon sweater (with noticeable holes) worn with pants that look like they were hand sewn out of a boat’s sails and a fanny pack, or some other equally ghastly outfit. Most college students have enough trouble paying attention, so why provide them with yet another distraction?
It would be great to go to class and see well-dressed professors. Their attire would add sophistication and decorum to the academic atmosphere. By wearing overly casual outfits (read: jeans that are older than the students), professors may risk losing deference from their students.
For our beloved Cornell professors, Ithaca lacks sufficient shopping options. Shopping online is impractical since one must try clothes on to ensure a good fit. Despite the variety of chain stores in Ithaca, it is nearly impossible to find clothes that are formal, fashionable, well priced and of good quality. The opening of a J. Crew or Banana Republic would do wonders (hint, hint). The opening of a legitimate department store, like Nordstrom or Bloomingdales, would be outright miraculous.
Despite the above fashion maladies that afflict our professors, there are a number of very well-dressed professors. Your fashion sense does not go unnoticed; trust me. Students do discuss what their professors wear, especially if they are particularly stylish. It is satisfying when professors do fit, or recreate, the quintessential image of a well-dressed professor.
Intellect and appearance do not have to be mutually exclusive. Fashion itself is a field of study. College campuses are as much residential and casual as they are places of employment. The former may explain why so many students show up to class in their pajamas. However, the latter indicates that some level of proper dress is expected. Perhaps students would be motivated to get dressed for class if their professors did the same.