How Philosophers Dress

How Philosophers Dress


“Academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work,” says Jonathan Wolff (UCL) in his column in The Guardian. Maybe. Or perhaps it is the pay? Or perhaps academics don’t dress particularly badly? Or perhaps local norms override profession-wide ones? Or gender norms? Wolff adds: “a colleague told me it probably takes her as long to decide what to wear to project her ‘I don’t care’ look, as it does others who dress to impress. This, possibly, does mark a gender split. Men can just put on the same clothes every day until the trousers run away on their own in protest when you try to pick them up off the floor.”

Are there disciplinary norms? In philosophy, at least for men, there seems to be some correlation between professional esteem and dressing as if you don’t care, either going the t-shirt route, like a rock star:

chalmers t shirt

or, like Superman, having a kind of uniform you wear all the time:

parfit uniform

or, of course, choosing the ubiquitous blue button-down:

blue shirt philosophers

I am less qualified to comment on the situation for women, except to say that, as usual, it seems more complicated. I would be happy for readers to fill in the gap on that, and raise any other philosophy and clothing related concerns, in the comments.

(Since people have asked, the sandal pictured above is available here.)

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Clayton
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

“Continentals dress themselves to the nines whereas it is hard to find nine analytics who can dress themselves.”

Isn’t this half true at best? Maybe I haven’t seen many continentals, but I’ve never seen continentals dress well. (I’m assuming that if x dresses x to the nines, x dresses well. If my ‘logical positivism’ is showing (that’s code for saying things that analytics say, right?), let me know.

p.s., I’m not trying to be mean. I’m open to the possibility that I haven’t seen that many continental philosophers. The ones that I’ve seen dress badly in ways that aren’t the ways that we dress badly.Report

Michelle
Michelle
6 years ago

I think, often, it is a display of privilege. Or, at least, it’s a product of privilege. When you’re a tenured professor, you occupy such a position of esteem and respect that you don’t have to dress nicely to be taken seriously. Wearing ratty or weird clothing is a way of indicating where one is on the social ladder in academia. This is why I think female academics tend to dress nicer than their male colleagues (at least, this is a pattern I have observed): they do not have the same level of privilege and thus need to use professional-looking attire as a cue to those they interact with that they’re worthy of respect.

I wish I could get away with wearing a ratty T-shirt and jeans. But I’m a young, female, non-tenured philosopher, so I don’t feel like that option is open to me in professional settings.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

csi-jenkins.tumblr.com/post/96901164235/warningReport

anon p
anon p
6 years ago

“In philosophy, at least for men, there seems to be some correlation between professional esteem and dressing as if you don’t care….”
Presumably, you mean “white men” — as suggested by all of the photos. Some men, even tenured, could not comfortably get away with showing up for a talk wearing raggedy jeans, tennis shoes, and a hoodie: they’d risk being stopped and questioned by campus police…and also might be taken less seriously by quite a few of their fellow philosophers.Report

Joshua A. Miller
6 years ago

In my first job, there was a professor who wore t-shirts, birkenstocks, and cutoff jeans. I showed up in a (crappy) suit, and he laughed at me, quoted Diogenes, and generally tried to persuade me that the whole point to being a philosopher was not caring how you dress. He taught our Asian philosophy courses, and I kind of think he had the right of it.

Michelle’s point is also welcome: it’s a kind of privilege to dress how you like: a tenured privilege and often a male privilege. But the weird thing is that we dress well so that we can project privilege, make students feel like they’re paying to be in the company of a well-paid professional that cares about appearances. And I sort of think maybe we should resist that, for Cynical reasons. I don’t know what that looks like for women, but for men I think there should be a lot more denim and Doc Martens.

Also a third of us are adjuncts, apparently, so we maybe should dress in such a way that doesn’t create a financial burden on the people just making ends meet.Report

Anonymous and Contingent
Anonymous and Contingent
6 years ago

As philosophers, we should strive for accuracy. So I should note that most of those men in blue shirts are _not_ wearing button-downs.Report

anonladygrad
anonladygrad
6 years ago

I think the remark by Wolff above represents a strangely persistent undercurrent of mind-body dualism; that being concerned with the mind, one abdicates or abjures pleasures and concern with the body. It’s a persistent trope that I wish would just die already. It puts women and people of color into an impossible double-bind. We must dress well in order to be taken seriously and be seen as authoritative, but when we dress well it is often inferred that we are frivolous or otherwise not as intelligent (somehow ‘distracted’ by our bodies or trying to ‘distract’ others with our bodies). While it’s clear that this is an invalid inference from Wolff’s statement, that doesn’t mean that people do not make it. The process of dressing becomes political simply by virtue of who does the dressing.
I’m a young, white woman who dresses well–frequently my clothing is a topic of discussion amongst senior people I meet, at informal and formal department or conference gatherings. I’m not entirely sure how it happens…but someone always wants to talk about my clothing or style. (I’d also like to note that my clothing is not unprofessional, and wouldn’t even gather a second glance if I were, say, an art historian.) Sometimes even to the detriment of discussing the work of the person who I approached to discuss their work!Report

Category enforcer
Category enforcer
6 years ago

In virtue of being a snappily dressed dandy (in general, and in a friendly, not haughty, manner), dapper Dennett simply doesn’t belong on this page.Report

Packaging Philosophers
Packaging Philosophers
6 years ago

I gotta agree with many here — the packaging of the philosopher in terms of body type, attractiveness, and wrapper matters dramatically as soon as the philosopher fails to present as a white male. My guess is that we’d see a much higher correlation between a Hot or Not poll and job market outcomes for not-white males than for white males.Report

Christy Mag Uidhir
Christy Mag Uidhir
6 years ago

The vast majority of philosophers along with the vast majority of academics (and for that matter, the vast majority of those in the vast majority of professions) do not wear T-shirts and jeans in professional settings (school, conferences, etc.). Most colleges, like most businesses, have an official or unofficial dress code for its employees that prohibit or discourage wearing super-casual attire such as T-shirts, shorts, jeans, flip-flops, ball caps (or have visible tattoos or body modification). When the gender-distinction pops up here as it often does it’s usually in terms of either enforcement or strictness of code (e.g., sexist Deans tut-tutting about women faculty wearing slacks or tennis shoes, agenda-having Chairs exploiting antiquated codes the faculty senate can’t be bothered to excise from the faculty handbook in order to harass junior colleagues). While there’s all sorts of social pressures and considerations of privilege involved in how we view dress (our own or that of others), the idea that somehow philosophers in any significant number exemplify Goodwill chic so as literally to wear their privilege (if not their psychological profile) on their faded and tattered cotton Hanes short-sleeves I can’t help but find a bit silly.Report

Kenny
Reply to  Christy Mag Uidhir
6 years ago

Is it really the case that the “vast majority” of philosophers (and other academics for that matter) do not wear T-shirts and jeans in professional settings? I always thought I was not terribly unusual in pretty much always wearing T-shirt and jeans or shorts (depending on the weather). But then again, my formative years as an academic were spent hanging around mathematicians. And I suppose it’s true that at the new faculty orientation at Texas A&M I was able to instantly pick out the mathematicians by their dress.Report

Chalmers Groupy
Chalmers Groupy
6 years ago

I’ll never forget the shock and awe I experienced when I first saw the trim, clean-cut, chic David Chalmers. I miss the 90’s grunge look. The Zombie blues just don’t have the same effect without it.Report

djc
djc
Reply to  Chalmers Groupy
6 years ago

trim and clean-cut — maybe. chic — never.Report

Caramel
Caramel
6 years ago

I’m the only person of color (dark caramel) in my department, and also one of the best dressed. This is not a coincidence. In the first couple of weeks of the semester, I used to get asked by students whether I have a PhD. Many seemed well meaning and just curious. Some of the questioners were students of color. (I’m tenure-track with a PhD from a prestigious department). I’ve asked my colleagues in philosophy whether this ever happens to them. It never does. Not even to the young ones. I started wearing a blazer and dress shirt to every class. I rarely get asked this anymore. Causation or mere correlation? I honestly don’t know. But I’m sticking with the blazer.
Recently I’ve started noticing on campus that African American and Latino professors tend to be more formally dressed than average. Maybe they caught on to the same thing I did. I wish someone had told me earlier.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

On why academics dress badly (and drive ugly cars), see Stanley Fish, “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos”.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

Some of us wear suits. The stereotype of slovenly-dressed philosophers is just that, another stereotype. In a time when students are wearing pajamas to class and facebooking once they get there, dressing up can help connote seriousness and common purpose.Report

EnyFuleKno
EnyFuleKno
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

Surely this is the problem though. The idea that there’s any correspondence between dressing up and teaching well, or rather between adopting a certain form of dress and taking teaching more seriously, lack any evidence. Why would we want to “connote” something to our students that’s a load of old bollocks? If students believe in that connection, then they believe an unjustified belief. Surely as academics we ought not to pander to it? For people who activate certain implicit biases, pandering isn’t what’s at stake here. But for those who have the cultural capital to expend on it, surely it’s better to teach in whatever you feel like wearing and to teach well: that seems like the way to slay the false student-perceived link between “snappy dresser” and “serious teacher.” And slaying that link is something that, in the long run, helps those instructors who lack that cultural capital, activate those implicit biases, and suffer for doing so.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  EnyFuleKno
6 years ago

So I should dress like a slob in order to help improve the cultural capital (whatever that means) of other profs who dress like slobs? I’m not following. I never said that dressing well implied I was a _better_ teacher, I said that it implies I’m taking being with my students in a professional capacity seriously, which it does, just as wearing pajamas implies not taking the activity seriously.Report

Joshua A. Miller
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

What we need is an error theory of fashion.Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

Worth reading: Karen Hanson (1990). Dressing Down Dressing Up — The Philosophic Fear of Fashion. Hypatia 5 (2):107 – 121.Report

Amy Lara
Amy Lara
6 years ago

Generalizations about how “academics” dress are fraught. Generalizations about what “academics'” motivations are in the way they dress? I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole. The only generalizations I would feel comfortable making are utterly banal: I’ve noticed that academics on the west coast of the U.S. tend to dress somewhat less formally than those on the east coast of the U.S. I’ve seen a larger range of bright colors in the wardrobes of male academics in the southeast U.S. than in the wardrobes of male academics in other regions in the U.S. I’ve noticed a correlation between hours of classroom time logged and the wearing of comfortable shoes. Duh. Not exactly click-bait.Report

Marilynn Johnson
6 years ago

Many examples of how female philosophers dress over at the SWIP-Analytic past events page: http://swipanalytic.org/past-events/. Not a blue button-down to be found!Report

annonnnn
annonnnn
6 years ago

What should one make of the idea that not conforming to fashion is an example of privilage? Does this mean that people who dress ‘badly’ are flaunting their privalage? Or are they taking themselves down a notch? Presumably a white male dressed smart would exhibit more privilege in another sense.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  annonnnn
6 years ago

I think the lesson is this: Social privilege is not something that you choose, and it’s often not something that you can simply choose to give up. The point in identifying something as a product of social privilege then is not to point blame or suggest that you do something else – it’s to give you a bit of self-knowledge. If your ability to dress down is a product of social privilege, then it would be a mistake to regard it as instead a sign of philosophical virtue (e.g. cares only for truth, not appearances), and it would similarly be a mistake to infer that a concern with appearance on the part of those who lack the same forms of privilege reflects a corresponding philosophical vice on their part.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I want those sandals.Report

John Schwenkler
6 years ago

I wear a t-shirt, jeans, and tennis sneakers most every day. It is certainly a result of (white, male, tenure-track) privilege that I can get away with this, and this troubles me somewhat. But it is also comfortable, inexpensive, and goes well with ketchup stains and cycling to work. And dressing nicely in expensive clothes is a product of privilege in its own way, of course.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Are there no aestheticians in the audience to examine the all-too-easy way we throw around phrases like “dressing badly” and “dressing well”? Which aesthetic criteria are being assumed and why? Or, failing that, are there no pedantic conceptual analysts to break down the various, sometimes contradictory senses at work: dressing informally, as distinct from dressing sloppily or haphazardly, as distinct from dressing out of sync with current fashion trends, etc.

These issues make the questions much more complicated. For example, it is indeed true that those who are not white men are in a double bind between dressing up and dressing down, in the sense of formality and neatness. But it is also true that a preoccupation with dressing well, *when* “well” means in accordance with the arbitrary seasonal dictates of the fashion-culture industry (with its iron laws of planned obsolescence and endless authoritarian reincarnation of past trends), is indeed a sign of superficiality at best, a fascist personality at worst.

And while it’s true that metaphysical dualism is false, it is still the reigning cultural practice: we *do* as a matter of practice often see ourselves and others as minds in distinction from bodies; we are as a culture systematically trained to be “distracted” by and obsessed with our bodies as machines under our culture, and to use them to distract others. Read, if you dare, a self-help book on presenting yourself in job interviews, or on dating and love life, or on how to win friends and influence people, or read any contemporary book on fitness and health and sexuality–it’s a nightmare of cartesianism, but it’s how most people really think and, consequently, act.Report

Luke
Luke
6 years ago

I am wearing a blue button down right now! But I am also wearing very fashionable pants and shoes (in my estimation), so I have to cut it with a top that’s a little more jejune.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

To Caramel: thanks for that. It’s nice to know it happens to others, too. I’d add: at conferences, unless I dress up, other faculty members always assume I’m a grad student.

As a “caramel,” I’ve found that if I dress up too much, students take me less seriously because it looks like I’m trying too hard, so I’ve had to find a balance between formal and casual.

On the blue button shirt: it’s worth noting that it’s not just a white man style choice, it has a class component. I think it’s an upper middle-class white man uniform. The part of the country I come from has a working class and a low to middle class, with very little else above that. Men don’t wear the baby blue dress shirt there. Those in office jobs dress formally, sometimes in suits, or blazers, or just dress shirts and ties. But the blue button shirt doesn’t exist.

Indeed, the entire discussion has a class component, when we pretend that dressing badly in either sense–informally or unstylishly–is so unusual. It’s unusual only among the highly educated, only among the solidly middle to upper middle classes. Go to the suburban office parks in any midsize city. Go to your local car dealership or furniture showroom. Go to the workplaces of the majority of the population. You’ll find khakis and golf shirts, short sleeve dress shirts, ties without blazers, and lots of clothing out of season and, god forbid, decade. It’s only when isolated in a world of privilege that philosophers’ clothing can even stand out.Report

StephenG
StephenG
6 years ago

In my mind’s eye I pictured tweed jackets, well worn corduroy with arm patches worn over faded Levis – and lots of pipe smokers. I’m crushed.Report

Manyul Im
6 years ago

You know what? If you’re an academic who is not condescending, uncharitable, dismissive, or otherwise rude — what? when have I ever? — I don’t really care what you’re wearing; I like you.Report

Pat
Pat
6 years ago

I always found this quote from Rebecca Goldstein’s novel “The Mind-Boby Problem” rather funny:

The (Other) Himmel’s Theory of Academic Types

Observers of the academic scene may be aware that there are distinct personality types associated with distinct disciplines. The types can be ordered along the line of a single parameter: the degree of concern demonstrated over the presentation of self, or “outward focus.”
One of the more interesting facts about academic types is that very few fall within the middle range of outward focus (with engineers, geologists, and other very applied scientists perhaps being the exceptions). The majority of academic types are clustered at the two extremes.
At the low end, with outward focus asymptotically approaching zero, we find pure mathematicians, closely followed by the theoretical physicists (the more theoretical the physicist, the more closely he follows). At the other end, with the degree of outward focus asymptotically approaching infinity, we find sociologists and professors of literature.
The author’s special interests demand that she consider the location of the philosophers, which turns out to be complicated. Philosophy‘s own ambivalent position between the humanities and the sciences has resulted in a corresponding schizophrenia in the personality type. There are, in fact, two distinct philosophy types, both extreme. Some philosophers approach the pure mathematician‘s end of the spectrum, while oth- ers (probably the majority) rival the members of English departments in their obsessive concern over the impression they make on others.
That philosophy‘s ambivalence can result in a split in the philosophy type suggest that the variation in outward focus is itself a function of the nature of the given discipline; and closer examination shows this to be the case. The greater the certainty of one‘s results, the less the concern with other‘s opinion of oneself.
Thus at the end of the spectrum occupied by sociologists and professors of litterature, where there is uncertainty as to how to discover the facts, the nature of the facts to be discovered, and whether indeed there are any facts at all, all attention is focused on one‘s peers, whose regard is the sole criterion for professional success. Great pains are taken in the development of the impressive persona, with excessive attention given to distinguished appearance and faultless sentence structure.
At the other end, where, as the mathematicians themselves are fond of pointing out, “ a proof is a proof”, no concern need be given to making oneself acceptable to others; and as a rule none whatsoever is given.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

Paul Fussell’s book Class describes the principle of layering: the higher you go in social class, the more people wear multiple layers of clothing, e.g. (near the top) a scarf on top of a blazer on top of a sweater on top of a shirt or blouse vs. (near the bottom) just a t-shirt. One of his examples of super-high social class was, for men, wearing two button-down shirts, one on top of the other. I couldn’t believe this ever happened, and then I saw someone doing it. Who? Yep, John Rawls, one blue button-down on top of another. Take that, difference principle!Report

EnyFuleKno
EnyFuleKno
6 years ago

AJS – “I said that it implies I’m taking being with my students in a professional capacity seriously, which it does,”
I just don’t buy this claim, which you seem to think is self-evident. Is there any reason at all to think that say, a male professor who wears a shirt and tie to class takes teaching more seriously than one who doesn’t? Is there any reason to accept the weaker claim, that a professor who gets his shirt and tie on at least shows that he’s not UNserious, unlike those in the ranks of the tieless from whom all the unserious are drawn?
All it shows is that they buy into a silly equation between clothes worn and teaching seriousness, where the relevant clothes have no practical benefits for teaching (does a runner who runs in shorts take running more seriously than one who runs in jeans. Probably. I don’t think there’s any analogous clothing/seriousness pairing when it comes to classroom teaching.). The same goes for students. Many of my best students come to class in clothes you’d call “slobbish.” Others come wearing suits. The latter don’t, on average, seem to take studying any more seriously.

Given what seems to me the obvious lack of evidence that dressing up corresponds to academic or pedagogical seriousness, we come to the kind of implicit bias/cultural capital issues I mentioned, and which posters below discuss at length in the first person. Young women, people of colour, et cetera get taken less seriously by students. This IS a matter of empirical record. One thing that many have found reduces this is dressing up in clothes that “signify” professorial seriousness. Students then take them almost as seriously as they ought to have to begin with. Presumably your claims about how YOUR dressing up implies YOUR seriousness proceed from the same facts: students think that the degree of a professor’s dressing up for class corresponds to the seriousness with which they are about to be taught, so a professor who dresses up signals to those students “That’s right people, I’m serious.”
My point is that students who believe this believe a silly belief. We ought not to perpetuate silly beliefs. Therefore, we ought not, when “we” are professors who aren’t subject to the kinds of bias that make dressing up a practical necessity, to perpetuate the silly belief that dressing up corresponds to pedagogical seriousness by referring to colleagues who don’t dress up as “slobs” and treating them as unserious in the absence of any knowledge about their teaching.
Seems basic.Report

anaonladygrad2
anaonladygrad2
6 years ago

Spot on! Thank you.

Another female junior academic.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

You keep not getting my point. I didn’t say that dressing up means you take teaching more seriously, I said that dressing up connotes seriousness – in other words, I was talking not about the instructor’s values, but about the students’ perceptions. It’s less “I’m serious” and more “can we all be serious? we’re supposed to be engaged in a joint project here.” If I don’t act like I’m taking it seriously, why should they? Since their disposition is to wear pajamas and text each other during class, it might be helpful to set a tone through one’s own projected commitments.Report

Joshua A. Miller
6 years ago

Is it possible for us to act as if our students should take us seriously while simultaneously dressing against their expectations?

That is: why can’t we act like teaching and learning matters, and fashion doesn’t? We might even say so explicitly: “I’ve noticed you wear pajamas and text during class. As far as I’m concerned, pajamas are okay! But no texting.”Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

I _am_ dressing against their expectations! They expect philosophers to dress according to the stereotypes suggested by the OP.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
6 years ago

Nobody so far has mentioned Rebecca Goldstein’s amusing and (in my experience) broadly accurate remarks about academic attire in her novel The Mind Body Problem. Another philosopher who has written interestingly about fashion is Samantha Brennan in ‘Fashion and Sexual Identity, or Why Recognition Matters’.Report

LoverOfWisdom
LoverOfWisdom
6 years ago

I believe they dress the way they do to feel like everyone else.
Knowledge is power and being well educated in certain field such as Philosophy, I’d say they are very much powerful but they are humbled by the same knowlege which leads to an external and often time internal calmness. (Not worried for material things).Report