The prompt for my recent Making ShiFt Happen panel discussion with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope was:
Reimagining academia … Like [the pleasure of wearing] a loose-fitting garment – finding liberating and enabling ways to wear an academic life
During the session I spoke of my maternal grandmother, a dress-maker who created garments for my mother and her sisters from a sketch or an image in a magazine. Her grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters do not share her skill, but many of us alter our shop-bought clothing in one way or another. And we have an abiding interest in clothing design, fabrics, accessories and the indefinable elements of style. I was thinking of these associations when I considered how women wear academia and shape it to fit comfortably.
I am very slowly reading from the pile of books on my desk (although I keep adding more so it never diminishes). This week I read Frances Kelly’s chapter ‘The lecturer’s new clothes: an academic life, in textiles’ from Lived Experiences of Women in Academia. (I also started Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser, which I gave to my mother for Christmas along with a cork tote bag).
In her chapter, Fran mentions blogs that discuss academic dress, including Thesis Whisper and Tenure, She Wrote. Others add to this: The Professor Is In now hosts Makeup Monday, Stylish Academic takes fashion seriously, and Pat Thomson (of Patter) co-blogs with Amanda Heffernan at Women, Wardrobes and Leadership which looks at the clothing choices of school leaders. In common, these blogs see fashion as worthy of intellectual attention (ethics, performance, power, identity politics) and often have an explicit feminist focus.
Fran sums up the importance of clothing in academic contexts as an object of research and a representation of an ‘academic’ identity:
Clothes demand greater scholarly attention precisely because they are personally meaningful and of such significance in the social and public world; they exist on the borders of the inner and outer dimensions of experience.
In the chapter, which is a pleasure to read, Fran shares four vignettes of garments that represent points of transition in her academic life—being a PhD candidate (a neo-Victorian skirt), becoming a mother (a brown apron), teaching (a long dress with sleeves, a fitted waist and a full skirt) and promotion to senior lecturer (a blue woven shirt with threads of black and white). In the final vignette, she writes:
Blue is a good colour to work in, in the university: it is associated with truth and knowledge, with heaven. It is also blue-collar, denim overalls … I was raised by two teachers at the end of the social-democratic decades in Aotearoa; I want to be connected to my academic work, my teaching, research , the committees vital to academic citizenship and the democratic university …
Fran writes of her Senior Lecturer wardrobe: “Definitely no florals”. Mine is the opposite. Today I am wearing a dress that always makes me think of a childhood neighbour, Mrs Canning. It’s a blue floral linen shift with pockets. It somehow evokes my memories of the aprons Mrs Canning wore, and her delicious lamingtons. It feels both utilitarian (linen, pockets) and frivolous (bright floral). This reminder of domestic life sits comfortably as I attend events that mark International Women’s Day and my university’s gender equity week.
What are you wearing today?