Blogging as a loose-fitting garment

Some good news this week with the publication of a collection Reimagining the Academy edited by Ali Black and Rachael Dwyer. I am looking forward to reading the whole, with its focus on kindness, connection and an ethics of care. The editors describe the focus of the book as “the building of a kinder values-driven academy” which sounds like a palate cleanser!

With Catherine Manathunga, I have a chapter on remaking academic garments. It was written in response to a call to reimagine academia “like [the pleasure of wearing] a loose-fitting garment—finding liberating and enabling ways to wear an academic life.” We describe the ways in which we have let out the seams of academic life, lifted its hems, changed its colour, its shape and texture.

We share some of the work of others which shows that bodies, clothing and makeup in academia are worthy of intellectual attention in relation to ethics, performance, power, and identity politics. See, for example, Thesis Whisperer, Tenure, She Wrote, The Professor Is In’s Makeup Monday, Stylish Academic, and Women, Wardrobes and Leadership.

And in scholarship, Fran Kelly (2018) thoughtfully articulates an ‘academic life, in textiles’, sharing 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, fitted waist and full skirt) and promotion to senior lecturer (a blue woven shirt with threads of black and white). In an autoethnographic account as a Ghanaian-Cameroonian-American Black woman, Krys Osei (2019) shares “freedom rooted in the act of allowing myself as a young Black girl to exist out loud and boldly. With the handy assistance of glitter, sequins, and rhinestones, I was able to be without the imminent threat of behavioural discipline that followed me at school” (p. 734). Finally, Briony Lipton (2020) links women academics’ professional dress to career progression, noting the gendered, classed, raced and heteronormative impact of dress as “aesthetic labour” (p. 2).  

In the chapter, I articulate some of reasons I started this blog. I started blogging once I had secure work, when I had time and space and energy to write. I had been an avid blog reader for many years, and was searching for a blog that explored difficult questions about slow academia in relation to the politics of higher education, university governance, academic roles and identities, and academic activism. Activism, particularly in relation to the operations of the higher education sector and the organisation itself, has been nourishing to me. Much of it is ordinary work: participating in scholarship, academic governance, teaching and union activities, what Gill (2009) calls “small-scale micro-negotiations of power in the academy” (p. 231).

Several years on, blogging has provided an opportunity to think through writing and reflect-in-action (Schön, 1987). Thomson and Kamler (2010) call it ‘writing along the way’—“writing that is intended to sort out what we think, why, and what the implications of a line of thought might be” (p. 149). Blogging is incredibly freeing for an academic writer, constrained by the conventions, requirements and expectations of research and publishing. (All too often, I have to delete a sentence to appease a reviewer; I’ve learnt to hold words loosely, and let them go without regret). In a blog post, words follow my whims, and I can write about dystopian fiction, porridge, trees, and family outings. The pleasures of writing the quotidian run deep. Most of all, blogging has provided a means to resist a particular style of academia: idealised academic superheroes, quantified measures of productivity, contagious anxiety, a finite game.

Calling myself a slow academic is a way of wearing academia like a loose-fitting garment.

This is evident my working from home set-up last week (how good are these comfy black and gold polka dot flats from Rollie!)

Wearing academic life

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).

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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.

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What are you wearing today?