Suit v Hemp
At a committee meeting a couple of months ago, a colleague from History declared that the men in the department were going to be wearing ties to try to boost student feedback, because “students really respond positively to that.” I laughed, thinking that he was joking. He looked at me and said earnestly, “No, I’m serious. Wearing a tie is a way of saying to students that we respect them.”
I gaped and said, “In my discipline, it’s a way of saying to students, ‘I’m not a real anthropologist.'”
Now I have to take that back and apologize to my fine colleague in the Anthropology Department, Greg Downey, who generally wears suits to teach his classes and is in fact a real anthropologist. But Greg is definitely the exception rather than the rule; in all my history as a student and now teacher of anthropology, he’s the only person I know who regularly wears suits and ties when he doesn’t have a meeting with the dean.
The fashion aesthetic of anthropologists was part of my original attraction to the discipline. I first started out college at Parsons School of Design in New York, where my fellow fashion design students all wore ridiculously trendy clothes — designer, when they could afford it (or buy it cheap at a sample sale), and homemade when they couldn’t. I still vividly remember the lederhosen that a classmate made out of fake fur one Christmas. (No kidding. Pre-Bruno.) It was all fabulous, and it intimidated me and exhausted me trying to keep up, and I started fantasizing about becoming an anthropologist so I could wear dumpy hemp clothing and ethnic jewelry.
I’m living the dream! (Minus the hemp, but I’ve got dumpy and ethnic jewelry down pat.)
Of course, now that I’m an anthropologist, I realize that we have our own sartorial code and fashion police, as Tom Strong wrote about so comically in his satirical analysis of AAA annual meetings on Savage Minds a couple years back. When I meet another anthropologist who works in the Middle East, I instantly gauge her jewelry: antique silver from Morocco or Yemen? If she’s wearing El-Ain Gallery then I know she works in Egypt, and if she’s a grad student, I wonder if she had to prostitute herself to be able to afford it. (I would.)
That’s why I thought my historian colleague’s comment was so funny, because the notion that students only respond positively to a suit and tie seems to completely ignore the range of complex signals that we send to students with our clothes. An anthropologist who is wearing three shirts and a cardigan on only one arm, which he keeps tugging up to cover the hole in the elbow of the outer shirt, and a pair of glasses that he continually pushes up with his knuckles just before they slide of the end of his nose (fellow Princeton graduates know EXACTLY who I’m talking about), is saying, “I am a THINKER. I do not waste precious synaptic pathways contemplating my fashion choices in the morning.” An anthropologist who works in Egypt and wears Azza Fahmy jewelry signals her connoisseurship of a reflexively self-conscious neo-Orientalist aesthetic, but she is also saying “I don’t buy that cheap shit from the Khan el-Khalili — I’m a local, I know where to get quality stuff in this town.” An anthropologist who wears a suit and tie signals neither absent-minded professor-ness (which means your colleagues look at you that much harder when you “forget” to attend a committee meeting) nor exotic authenticity.
There aren’t many disciplines that aim to signal local authenticity with their dress, but there are plenty who are happy to signal their devotion to scholarly pursuits by distancing themselves from mainstream corporate fashion sense, so we anthropologists don’t look that much different than philosophers, except maybe for the ethnic jewelry and scarves. But I notice that there are certain disciplines that are much more likely to wear ties than others: economists and political scientists, for one. Is it because these disciplines are closer than most to centers of financial and political power so wearing suit and tie is actually how they signal their local exotic authenticity?