Academic style

Google ‘academic style’ and chances are you’ll get academic writing style and not academic sartorial style. How is a woman to know how to dress like an academic?

Deciding what to wear for work as an academic is supposed to be exciting. The academic identity exudes authority and expertise, and so it should seem obvious that sartorially, we should choose clothing that reflect, and whenever necessary, amplify those qualities.

But being a female academic is more complicated. Because as women, we are judged by how we look so much despite being in a job that trades on our intellectual faculties. It is so easy to make a misstep: we can be too dressy, too matronly, too frivolous, too decorative. Yes, we as women can be our own worst critic. I am also guilty for thinking that my female colleague looks like a Carmelite monk.

Pantsuits are quite unusual in academia. There is a deliberate emphasis on looking casual but smart. Chunky, exotic jewellery may be necessary for female anthropologists. Whatever female academics choose to wear at work, the balance between authority and approachability can be challenging to achieve. It’s mainly because the feminine image of authority is quite rare and lacking in diversity.

I turn to the British historian Lucy Worsley for inspiration. Her chic hairstyle and ever so smart dresses enhances my perception of her enthusiasm and expertise. She is the embodiment of the ‘nice work’ that academia is thought to represent. But hers is a style I can only aspire. After all, she wears bright and flattering coats and dresses because they’re good for television (well, she says so herself) and she is a self-professed lover of fashion. I can only dream to wear cute dresses and sexy shoes to work everyday.

The historian Lucy Worsley. I would like to think that academics can dress like this on a normal day at work.

The place where I work values modesty as an organising principle. There are signs to remind that the campus space is a morally conservative space. Bodies that pass through this space must conform to a regime that goes beyond sartorial control. If anything, the dress code is part of a bigger disciplinary programme to manufacture a certain type of citizen. The characteristics of the citizen in question is well rehearsed in the long-running lamentations about the multiple failures of the Malaysian educational system.

It is worth remembering that the university is not a hermetically-sealed bubble however much you may argue it is. Considering the campus’s relation to the wider cultural context and general attitude to style in Kuala Lumpur, we are not known to be particularly stylish people or a nation celebrated for its sophistication and style. My campus is not in London or Paris and it shows.

All this pondering and writing about ‘academic attire’ belies my rather diffident attitude about style. And here’s a confession: I have yet to update my wardrobe which currently consists of graduate student clothes and tatty blouses from my teenage years. I am hugely reluctant to shop and prefer spending my money on food and drink. My reluctance stems from a stubborn frugality and the flawed conviction that the mind is enough to create an impression.

Dear Reader, I will eventually make that leap into the mysterious world of clothes that befits the new academic once I have figured out the right kind of blouse, skirt, shirt, and trousers I am allowed to wear at work.

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