03 August 2009
Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion?
Once upon a time (in 1997), feminist literary critic and Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing "[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues." The magazine editors gave it the cleverly alliterative title, "The Professor Wore Prada." For this admission, Showalter was pilloried by grad students and colleagues alike on the Modern Language Association's electronic discussion list. They contemptuously remarked that surely, she must have "'better things to do' than to write for these magazines"-- all while insisting "that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty." Ten years later, in a New York Times article about why people love to hate fashion, Showalter seemed to be alluding to the previous mind-over-malls dust-up when she tells fashion journalist Guy Trebay, "Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is 'very much denigrated.'"
Does academia still hate fashion?
Today, there are national and international academic journals, monographs, essay collections, academic courses, and conferences devoted to the critical interrogation of diverse spheres and articles of fashion, their cultural and social politics, their histories, the psychology of fashion and adornment, as well as their many entangled circuits of consumption, exchange, and production. Along with these institutionalized sites of fashion and consumerism scholarship, there is an informal and smaller sphere of fashion discourse happening in style blogs by, for, and about academics. "Geek chic" style blogs comprise a tiny subset of a massive field of online fashion reportage that began around 2001 with Look Online's Daily Fashion Report and She She Me (both remain active blogs).
Do a Google search for "fashion blog" (as I just did) and you'll get 2.8 million hits; try "style blog" and the number is more modest--a mere 847,000 hits. Google "academic fashion blog" and you'll get 3 hits.* In fact, there are many more than three academic fashion/style blogs. Among some of the blogs I recently discovered are Academic Chic (a how-to style blog with a range of hilarious style occasion topics including Research Casual, Lab Friendly, and Night without Grading); Fashion for Nerds (a personal style blog created by "a biologist and fashion lover"); The Glamorous Grad Student (a how-to blog on "balanc[ing] a grad school stipend with a desire for magic in my life and wardrobe"); and Clothed Much (another personal style blog by a self-identified LDS and "poor married college student"). And while threadbared is primarily an academic fashion blog (by "two clotheshorse academics who write and teach the politics of fashion and beauty"), every once in a blog post there are theory-free (but not thought-free!) style posts about our outright, barefaced, swoony love for, say, open-toe ankle wedge booties and red '80s knee-high Wonder Woman boots.
And yet despite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I'm not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts. The very serious discussions happening in fashion scholarship generally do not include the author's love for fashion. Showalter's mistake was that she admitted to loving fashion and lipstick not as objects of critique, but as objects of consumption. On the other hand, academic fashion and style bloggers explain that their interest in fashion and personal style do not get in the way of their academic pursuits. The Academic Chic bloggers affirm "this won't be our dissertation." Likewise, I've been guilty of feeling guilty about the few style posts that pop up on threadbared. Surely, these fun diversions take us away from the mini-essays and annotated lists of relevant links, books, films, and theories I think threadbared should be about.
That fashion scholarship and fashion/style blogging seem to be mostly circling each other rather than interfacing is not so much the failure of academics as it is the evidence of the persistence of the beauty/brains division in academia in particular and society at large. It is this tired Cartesian divorce of mind from body that produces "the academic uniform" which, as Showalter explains, "basically is intended to make you look like you're not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid." For women academics, especially, the uniform is at once more confining and more roomy. Consider the fashion advice the Chronicle of Higher Education's columnist Ms. Mentor offers to junior scholars: "In academe, jackets and loose-fitting clothes convey authority, tight-fitting duds do not." Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) has this recommendation for junior female scholars attending a conference:
Presentation of self is vital in academia, and it is still possible to dress for success—or for failure. [She then cites Susan Faludi’s meditation on the “dress for success” ideology before continuing.] The best clothes for a professional woman to wear to a big-time academic conference are dresses or skirts that no one will notice or remember: not too tight, not too short, not too colorful. Ms. Mentor sympathizes with a not-uncommon urge to be acutely fashionable or flamboyant, but she advises young women in particular to resist that urge. It is difficult for many academic men, who do the hiring and judging, to take young women seriously. It is impossible if the young women are not dressed in a mature, even slightly frumpy manner.
Such decidedly Reagan-Bush I era advice assumes first, that “junior” scholar means “young” scholar; second, that all female-born or -identifying scholars are feminine-presenting; and third, that authority is a masculine quality that women might acquire if they present themselves as “frumpy” (the sartorial code for conveying one’s disinterest in adornment).** If you doubt the gendered and sexist configuration of Cartesian dualism, consider the unfortunate joke about “putting Descartes before de whores.”
Before threadbared, Mimi and I enjoyed fashion and shopping (we've already written and will no doubt write more about the problems and possibilities of our favored modes of consumption). Since threadbared, there have been more real and virtual shopping trips, closet swapping, and private fashion shows. It was during our recent self-imposed writing boot camp that Mimi showed off to me the most glamorous diaphanous pale green vintage gown (a thrift store find that she’ll wear this Fall to opening night at the Opera of Chicago with her girlfriend, who will cut an equally dashing figure in her black tuxedo). But my very favorite academic fashion memory is still the shopping excursion of Summer 2008—which began as a hugely productive meeting with surely the most well-dressed academic book editor in the business and ended with us rambling through the shops in Soho talking about (and trying on) clothes and book projects. The blog and the joint (and future) book projects are fed by our love for fashion, shopping, and self-adornment -- and vice-versa.
Academics who blog about fashion and style can help lead a Social Media Revolution in fashion reportage as well as in academia by making cultural discourse a public, quotidian, and near-instantaneous activity. Rather than online lectures about fashion and style, academic fashion/style blogs are “social listening” tools (I love that term!) that collect and publicize an array of ideas about one of the most influential arms of the global culture industry, that help to transform the archaic ideas we have about “legitimate” modes of publishing and scholarly publications that “count” for tenure and promotions, and in so doing, help to reconceptualize pleasure as an active and productive element of one’s labor rather than a retreat from it. As Walter Benjamin writes, the decay of the aura of traditional (handmade) art brought on by the technologies of mechanical reproduction is not such a bad thing: "What is lost in the withering of semblance [Schein], or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play [Spiel-Raum]."
* One of these hits is for a Scotland-based blog called Oranges and Apples in which the blogger cites threadbared as her “favourite academic fashion blog”!
** In the updated 2008 edition of the book, Ms. Mentor's previous position about sartorial academic respectability is noticeably more mellow though she still advocates "geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious."