I am a fairly new associate professor – I say this because presumably now that I have tenure I could show up in La Senza flannels if I chose, but more importantly, because I feel a certain mid-career obligation to dress for work, whether that means the classroom or a Senate meeting. I confess my personal style is more conservative than fashion-forward – I don’t have a lot of daring when it comes to dressing (e.g., I’m unlikely to mix and match patterns), and my professional persona tends toward the feminine (heels) and classic (tulip skirts). Plus, I’m the coordinator of a multidisciplinary program, and as a junior administrator I feel a degree of responsibility (and a tigress-like protectionism) toward my program to project a certain competence.
I guess all of this is my way of saying that it isn’t much of a surprise that I am -- more often than I would like – appalled by what my colleagues choose to wear, particularly when representing themselves at conferences: the meetings of our professional associations.
I go to conferences a couple of times a year. I like this part of my job, a lot, and consider it a professional perk, rather than an obligation. Last summer I was at the first World Congress of Environmental History, held in Copenhagen. The women from the European organization looked polished and professional: low heels, scarves and shawls, suits of different shapes, enough flair to suggest that continental je ne sais quoi. The Canadian women? At a reception (!) one senior historian was wearing black jeans and white sneakers, another khakis and hiking boots. What, were you thinking the hors d’oeuvres would be served at the end of a ropes course? I’m sure the hiking boots didn’t erode the quality of her paper, but I felt embarrassed on behalf of the Canadian contingent. Really, we’re not right out of the bush; we have telephones in Canada and everything now.
I know it’s unfair: men can travel for three days with a laptop satchel carrying their extra shirt and a toothbrush, whereas I can’t go for three days with less than three pairs of shoes (dress heels, casual flats, and sneakers for a morning walk). And no doubt it’s perpetuating a stereotype to make a fuss; wouldn’t one expect a young woman to care about such things? But on the other hand, perhaps it’s less a gender thing than an age thing. At a conference I was at last week, the young male Ph.D. students looked casual but put-together: argyle sweaters, collared shirts, polished shoes. Well done. Their supervisors looked rumpled and – well, like stereotypical academics. (Incidentally, it’s the younger scholars – not yet protected by tenure, or even employment – who also tend to respect panel time limits.)
But I don’t want to be thought of as a stereotypical academic. (A good, ambitious, accomplished academic, yes.) Are we trying to suggest that we’re too smart to care? That we’re too enmeshed in our research to be burdened by worldly things? However superficial it may be, I unconsciously allot more respect to someone I meet who is dressed as though they respect the venue, the project, and the company. I wholeheartedly believe that what I do – teaching and research – is important, and so just as I dress for the classroom, to indicate respect for the environment, I will dress for a conference as well.
The funny thing is that it’s not hard, or even burdensome. A well-cut suit jacket, even a leather jacket, or a wrap. Tailored pants or a skirt (or for more than two days, both). A sheath dress if you’re lucky (?) enough to attend a conference somewhere warm (like Toronto in 2006, when Congress coincided with a wildcat TTC strike and humidex warnings). A pair of polished, office-appropriate shoes, whether heels or flats. A flash of colour or a signature piece of jewelry as an accent (at this conference last week a colleague wore azure jewelry against an orange jacket – lovely). An overcoat that signals office, not Mountain Co-op.
I shudder to see, among colleagues of either gender:
- shapeless pieces, like big sweaters, or too-casual tops, like sweatshirts (yes, even the “classy” ones with half-zippered collars).
- sports jackets that match neither the tie nor the shirt they’re worn with.
- jeans. For God’s sake. Or men’s go-to favourite, khakis, that have lost all shape.
- ornate dangly earrings that brush your shoulder – even if you’re “artsy.”
- sandals, orthotics, or any shoes that could also be worn to the farmers’ market.
- apart from truly classic shapes, like a sheath dress, anything that’s older than the youngest person in the room (and that could easily mean 1990).
- Claire Campbell