As evidenced by the infamous “Prof or Hobo?” online quiz,[1] professors are not known for being particularly stylish. Whether due to a sense that matters of style are trivial or a lack of time to plan nice outfits, many professors would likely dismiss fashion as a low-level priority. However, rather than being an indication of merely aesthetic preference, I argue that fashion provides a venue for teaching students about values without ever speaking a word and that this premise suggests that female professors might actually have an advantage over their male counterparts.

When speaking about “style” in the academy, one’s mind might first jump to bibliographic styles, and in fact, bibliographic style provides a fitting analogy. Academic writing style guides (i.e. MLA, APA, Chicago) dictate several elements of a written piece, and some might argue that the same content could be repackaged with a different style guide without losing much of its intended meaning. For example, the use of a running head in APA style will hardly affect the quality of the argument in the paper it graces.

However, while these style guides could seem to serve merely aesthetic purposes, they are designed around principles that their respective disciplines value. For example, APA’s parenthetical author-date citations serve well those disciplines in which the dates of publication are vital. The highlighting of the date of publication in parenthetical citations is more than a merely aesthetic choice. Rather, the prevalence of dates peppered throughout an article implicitly suggests that the article’s author values innovation in research. On the other hand, Chicago is a better choice for disciplines in which connecting to other sources in lengthy footnotes is a valued component of scholarship. More than a mere presence at the bottom of the page, the prominence of these lengthy footnotes implicitly suggests that an author values the scholarly conversation that emerges when multiple voices are brought to bear on a particular topic. These stylistic tendencies implicitly convey a set of values that might never be explicitly stated within a written work. Thus, style conveys more than just aesthetic preferences.

Just as bibliographic style guides are shaped by the values of the disciplines they serve, the fashion choices of academia’s professorate are shaped by the values of their wearers. Style, then, becomes a visible mark of otherwise invisible values rather than a merely aesthetic afterthought. Fashion allows for the possibility of offering a nonverbal statement that one values fun over seriousness or humility over pretentiousness. For example, jeans and a t-shirt will convey a very different message about a professor’s values than a button-down shirt and suit. To be sure, as in any symbolic system, there are clear limits to the depth of a message that fashion can convey. However, just as a bibliographic style offers an aesthetic hint regarding the values of a given discipline, so too does fashion offer professors the chance to convey values without ever uttering a word.

At this point, it is necessary to observe the ways in which men’s fashion and women’s[2] fashion diverge rather radically. This is, of course, not a novel observation. Nearly 30 years ago, Deborah Tannen penned an essay for The New York Times in which she lamented the impossibility of an “unmarked woman.”[3] That is, as her essay explained, every visual choice that a woman makes (i.e. hairstyle, makeup, shoes, clothing, accessories) marks her in one way or another, whether as sexually available (or not) or modest (or not).

More recent articles on female fashion in academia have continued in this vein, bemoaning the fact that the content of a female professor’s teaching evaluations is just as likely to focus on the professor’s fashion as on her teaching.[4] Such articles lament the fact that male colleagues are not subject to the same level of scrutiny. It seems fundamentally unfair that women tend to score lower on teaching evaluations simply because they inhabit female bodies.[5] Adding insult to injury by subjecting women to the further affront of being noticed only for their fashion choices seems gratuitous.

Such laments highlight the unfairness of a grossly patriarchal system, and I want to be clear that I am not attempting to undermine such a reading. Patriarchy is real, and it is damaging to people of all genders who live within its confines. Nonetheless, I do want to suggest that perhaps the flipside of the argument from Tannen (and others) is that for female academics, there are nearly limitless options for choosing one’s method of being marked and the message that will be conveyed by that method. From hairstyle to accessories, makeup to nail polish, and clothing to shoes, female academics have at their disposal an arsenal of opportunities to choose their style.

Fashion, then, might actually present an opportunity rather than a potential pitfall for female academics. Given the vast number of ways in which a woman can be “marked” by her style, women might actually have a measure of power that is not available to their male counterparts.

Female professors have abundant opportunities to teach students nonverbally about core values. A unique bracelet might open a space for discussing fair-trade jewelry and just economic practices. A vintage dress could present a quiet case for resisting an aggressive capitalistic tendency to acquire more and newer possessions. A tighter skirt could celebrate body-positivity for women of all shapes and sizes. While some possibilities for self-expression through fashion exist for male professors as well, the multiplication of bodily adornments and accessories for women means that, in this one small corner of academia, women might have a small advantage.

To be sure, the connection between a piece of jewelry and the values of justice and equity might not be obvious. However, even if these connections are not made explicitly, they are still present. As such, stylistic details implicitly invite students to practice their critical thinking skills by reading fashion in the same way that they might apply such skills to the close reading of a literary text. Authors rarely offer an explicit articulation of the values that inform their writing, but instructors nonetheless invite students to identify and analyze those underlying values. Likewise, the donning of a particular blouse might not explicitly communicate the values of its wearer, but students might be invited to ascertain those values themselves. Even in cases where those values remain stubbornly opaque, fashion can nonetheless create an invitation for further conversation as students either inquire about a particular piece or as professors volunteer information about their fashion choices. Such explicit identification of values can move those values out of the shadows and into the light of the critical classroom conversations that are the hallmark of impactful higher education.

If, as I have argued using an analogy to bibliographic style, personal style is not merely an aesthetic choice, then female professors have access to a vast collection of resources that can empower them to teach their students through the quiet choices that they make in adorning (or not adorning) their bodies. As a silent partner in the endeavor to imbue students with the values of civil society, style (and especially women’s style) can make a statement that speaks louder than words.

By Melanie A. Howard
Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Fresno Pacific University

 

[1] Notably, all pictures in the quiz depict bearded white men. This in itself could suggest popular understandings of what “counts” as the professorial aesthetic.

[2] By “men” and “women” here, I mean cis-gendered individuals. Transgendered individuals face a whole host of concerns that are beyond the scope of this article.

[3] Deborah Tannen, “Wears Jump Suit. Sensible Shoes. Uses Husband’s Last Name,” New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1993. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/20/magazine/wears-jump-suit-sensible-shoes-uses-husbands-last-name.html

[4] Holly Genovese, “Cute Outfits and the Academic Career,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Cute-Outfitsthe-Academic/241309

[5] Colleen Flaherty, “Same Course, Different Ratings,” Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/14/study-says-students-rate-men-more-highly-women-even-when-theyre-teaching-identical. Cf. Friederike Mengel, Jan Sauermann, and Ulf Zölitz, “Gender Bias in Teaching Evaluations,” Journal of the European Economic Association (2018).