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Suit v Hemp

21 July, 2009
Photo by grizzlybrice. Copyright Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Photo by grizzlybrice. Copyright Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

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?

–L.L. Wynn

5 Comments leave one →
  1. gregdowney permalink
    22 July, 2009 10:11 am

    Hi Lisa —
    As the lone suit-wearing anthropologist in your past, I thought I would chime in on this topic as I’ve thought long and hard about it. For the record, I don’t always wear a suit when I teach; I typically put on a tie and sport coat when lecturing to a reasonably large group, but, if I’m just doing a graduate seminar on a day, I probably wouldn’t bother.

    When I was at Columbia, my colleague Maria Farland used to talk wistfully about her days as a park ranger, when she had a polyester uniform, the kind that comes out of the dryer already creased and practically folded, so that she never had to think about what to wear. Until Macquarie gets its act together and comes up with a similar lecturers’ uniform, I suppose I’ll keep putting on the tie from time to time.

    So why the hell do I bother at all?

    First, I think costuming for a performance matters. Put on your game uniform, your good jersey, and — for me at least — my mind frame changes. Lectures, to me, are performances; they are intense, requiring me to be switched on, and I come at the students pretty full on, with emotional intensity, multimedia, and the like. I see face-to-face contact time with large groups of people as an incredible opportunity, and I think it helps me to mark that I’m going into that heightened communicative state. This may sound strange to fellow anthropologists, but I’m from performance studies, have played music and danced publicly, and probably would have been a televangelist or late-night TV salesman had I not been saved by secular anthropologist Richard Handler (that’s only partially exaggeration).

    Second, I think other people read us by our uniforms, and I like to screw with their expectations. When they say, ‘send in the anthropologist from central casting,’ I don’t think they’re expecting cuff links, a coat and tie. Ironically, some forms of counter-cultural dress in academe are probably hegemonic in anthropology, certainly in recent generations. A lot of the anthropologists I admired in grad school were very old school, and maybe it’s a bit of a tribute to them.

    Third, I’m a professional as well as an intellectual. I’m always griping, like my colleagues, when people outside our profession don’t take anthropologists seriously. If I have to wear a conical hat and cloak, or bubble-wrap and chocolate pudding pasties for non-anthropologists to take me seriously, maybe that’s too much to ask. But I can do my ‘suit and tie drag’ and, in some cases, this seems to help be take seriously. Especially as I teach economic anthropology and bang out endlessly about helping our students to become more professionally polished, maybe I should walk the walk at least once a week. Obviously, in the field, I live out of a duffle bag and walk a different walk.

    Fourth, when I started teaching, I found many young students were confused about authority structures. I’m not the most chummy and approachable lecturer, but that’s my intention. When I was teaching as a grad student at Chicago, and then as a post-doc at Columbia, I found students bringing personal problems to me, addressing me in ways that left me uncomfortable, and genuinely confused about what our relationship was (for example, treating me in ways that made it impossible for me to write them a good letter of reference later on). I still have that problem with some of the graduate students, who seem to think that a lecturer is part service-provider or ‘anthropology store clerk’ and part case worker.

    For these students (and for me), I looked for ways to make my role clearer. I don’t want to hear about their personal problems unless they actually affect their academic work. I don’t want them to think of me as their buddy, at least not if that gets them confused about who’s doing the marking and who needs to adhere to deadlines and be held accountable. I feel like I have to pretend I’m an adult with many of my students in order to get them to treat our relationship as something other than a weird kind of friendship (you know what I mean, the emails that start, ‘hey, greg, whassup?…’) Perhaps the fact that I need to wear funny clothes to assert this is a sign of my own failure to make clear boundaries. Obviously, it wouldn’t work with everyone…

    Finally, I also think that anthropologists need to use their skills at blending in with the natives when they try to navigate university hierarchies. I suspect that — and maybe this is only my own self-perception — the admin and deans think of us as more like them when we dress like them. Although we may have to lock horns from time to time over policies that don’t work well for anthropologists, I’d like them to suspect or assume that, deep down, I’m one of them, even if I’m not. I suspect my colleagues may think I have pretensions to becoming some sort of dean over time; I can’t imagine anything less agreeable to my office-avoidant lifestyle. But in suit and tie drag, they just don’t know.

    I could cite other reasons, but the bottom line is that I don’t really think wearing a tie is a huge sacrifice, and if it gets me things I want, especially overcoming obstacles to putting over an anthropological argument or dealing with administration or helping me to short circuit my social failings with students, then it’s a small price to pay. It’s clearly not for everyone, and I suspect that, if the whole department did it, the students would be weirded out. But for me at least, since I can’t wear chunky ethnic jewelry (just doesn’t fly for me), and my day-to-day wear on the farm is completely unacceptable for the office, a coat and tie is as goofy as anything else I could put on.

    I’d love to know if anyone else does it, but please don’t think I’m trying to tell anyone else how I think they should dress. If you all start doing the same, I won’t have nearly the shock value I need to make the outfit work for me.

  2. 22 July, 2009 10:45 am

    Hi Greg! Thanks for that long and thoughtful reflection on what signals our sartorial choices send.

    The more I think about this, the more I think I wasn’t fair to my History Dept colleague. I had sort of assumed in a blase fashion that he wasn’t thinking through the different signals that you can send with different kinds of clothing. But perhaps what he was really saying is that he WAS aware of these signals, and he was also aware that the students weren’t *getting* those signals in the same way that we hoped they were. We might think we’re signaling local authenticity, while they think we’re signaling that we don’t have any sense of how to dress for the real world, which just confirms their opinions about the value of an anthropology degree. I might think (not all that consciously) that when I wear my jeans and a Yemeni silver necklace to lecture that I’m saying, “I’m an anthropologist who works in the Middle East, and I don’t work in the corporate world, so I can wear jeans to lecture because I’m academically powerful enough that I don’t need to assert my authority by dressing up: I’m still determining your grades for this class!” Meanwhile, the students might be thinking that I’m saying, “I’m sloppy and I don’t care about students enough to dress up for lecture. Suck it up, kids: I’m still determining your grades for this class!”

    I don’t know what they’re thinking, but that’s certainly a possibility, and maybe my historian colleague has the pulse of students’ interpretation of dress styles better than I do. It would definitely require some good qualitative research to get to the bottom of that. Sounds like it would be a good research project for an honours thesis!

    It’s funny that you describe dressing up to teach and dressing down (and living out of a duffel bag) to do your fieldwork. For me, it’s been the opposite. I quickly learned in Egypt that I needed to dress up way beyond anything I had ever done before if I wanted people to take me seriously. By the time I came back from the field, I had a closet full of jackets and suits and pretty skirts and a jewelry box full of white gold. I wore lipstick on a regular basis. I brushed my hair. I only wore heels outside of the house unless I was going jogging. When I came back to Princeton after 3+ years in the field, I was a very exotic looking creature in the Graduate College. My partner comments that I looked “very grown up” then. Now my closet is still full of those suits and jackets, and every once in a while I wear the gold and diamonds, but it only took a year or two for me to revert to my pre-fieldwork sloppy look. Sometimes I feel bad for my poor partner and wear heels for old time’s sake, and my colleagues look at me a bit funny.

    Except for you, Greg — the only time you look at me funny is when I wear my muddy tennis shoes to work!

  3. costa permalink
    23 July, 2009 3:07 pm


    I must admit: when I started uni at Macquarie I thought of the casual clothing as a cultural signifier.

    I BELEIVED it illustrated “Australianness” as the laid back kind that often blurred the boundaries of public and private self.

    I found it odd that you could address lecturers by their first name, and not their academic rank “professor”, “doctor” what not, but soon I loved it. Not because I believed that the lecturer was my “bestie” but because I found it a very unassuming way to be a lecturer: no pretence.

    Back in Portugal I went to a high school were hierarchies were eminent-to the extreme that teachers didn’t access classrooms by the same stair well, they had a special one and wore their “Sunday best” everyday to school.

    I’m not here advocating not taking ‘pride’ in what you wear (I remember first year I had a history lecturer that used to walk to class barefoot and that was so distracting! I kept thinking why is he doing that?)But I question: does a tie make a lecture more interesting, better delivered…and does it make a lecturer more charismatic?

    I believe not.

    I think most student will respect a lecturer because of what they know, how they approach teaching…and trust me (no offence) but as a student you don’t want to be “besties” with a lecturer because you still want enough distance so that you can “hate them” after they mark you.

    I do remember in one of Dr. Downey’s lecture being corrected because I referred to Dr. Nyiri by Pal. It was the first time in Australia that I had been reminded not to be so informal.

    I work now in the construction industry where qualifications are put by the side of your name (which I found arrogant in a way). Where imagine is everything-nevertheless I find it hollow.

    It is my opinion: and I think it boils down to personal approach. But clothing shouldn’t be standardized (I know it would be useful for tax purpose-perhaps a Macquarie logo?) because then it loses its meaning and academics become another version of suits (not that academia isn’t going down that path of tender/funding/research/ results).

  4. 10 August, 2009 12:59 am

    This is a very interesting exchange, and it ends on a note (by Costa) that suggests at least some of our students are getting the intended message from the hemp. It is also unexpectedly poignant. I would love to hear more about Greg’s conversion at the hands of Richard Handler.


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