Fashion and Academia: What Do We Expect to See?

Caroline Williams returns to her column with another brilliant piece exploring fashion and identity. This time, she takes a look at the modern academic, what we expect to see, and how style intersects with this role.


My column has taken a back seat for the past few months as I have settled into my new life as a history post-graduate and spent my days deep in research. Yet, with the burgeoning days of summer and the increasingly longer days, I return to the Label fold. Article ideas are bubbling around in my head and I will undoubtedly get to them all in time but, for now, I wish to address a subject that is niche, whilst simultaneously being constantly in the public domain. Our newsfeeds and magazine headlines are constantly advising us on ‘what to wear’, depending on the occasion or season. I ask the question: what does one wear in academic life?  

The stereotypical images we see of the academic are of a middle-aged to elderly white man, dressed in brown corduroy trousers and off-white shirt that clearly needs washing. He has unpolished shoes, thinning hair and slightly dirty thin rimmed spectacles. He slouches over an old worn desk, surrounded by piles of books and journals, a pot of tea at his elbow and an inkwell placed in easy reach. He lives in the shadowy darkness, never seeming to sleep, only emerging from his office to teach his one class a week where he mumbles words and keeps his eyes on the notecards in front of him. At night he drinks a glass of whiskey at his desk while a wood-burning fire crackles behind him. His life is a solitary, dark one steeped in theories and philosophies.

While our aged professor may certainly exist, he is more stereotypical of a particular breed of 1950s Oxbridge professor. Brown corduroy can look wonderful on some people, I even see someone at church who pulls it off excellently, but brown is perhaps not the most flattering shade. In our world of unqualified politicians and amateur this, that and everything, academics are often ridiculed, passed off as antiquated or told they know nothing about “the real world.” Well, let me enlighten those people: academics are the past, present and future and we owe so much to those affiliated to the world’s great universities.

Academics are vibrant, experts are knowledgeable and they have driven everything from political revolutions to scientific discoveries. The world of fashion is no different with detailed research on fashion history being carried out at top institutions, dedicated fashion schools train the next generation of designers and economic and business majors run the business side of fashion empires. But what about academics’ fashion sense?

I live in a small postgraduate community of around fifty people and there are so many looks on offer. From patterned dresses with chic cardigans, to fifties style dresses to my own Kelly and Hepburn interpretations, the girls truly exhibit wonderful choices. The men also put a great deal of effort into their wardrobes, showing off colourful trouser and shirt combinations and cashmere jumpers when it gets chilly. And there isn’t a piece of brown clothing in sight!

We may live in wood-panelled rooms and dine in a medieval stone vault but there is nothing antiquated about our fashion choice. Formal dinners feature elegant and colourful gowns and tuxedos, warm days present us with a plethora of embroidered shirts and beautiful suede shoes and winter highlighted everything from vintage waxed jackets to colourful tweeds to fur-trimmed coats.

I have always prided myself on having a large varied wardrobe that is both timeless and eco-friendly. In this academic community I have found people able to seriously give me a run for my money. One lovely Polish girl is always beautifully turned out, colour coordinated yet simple and elegant. A girl who is the kindest person I know has the most excellent jumper collection, which she invariably pairs with black jeans. It is a simple uniform yet portrays a cosy confidence. Our resident mathematical genius has the one of the best arrays of shirts I have seen, which he pairs with ties some days or wears unbuttoned at the collar if it is a warmer day. Who said that mathematicians can have no fashion sense?

The first time I ever connected excellent academia with fashion was in my second year at university. Upon entering the office of a new historiography tutor, I noticed a postcard version of one of my favourite photographs of Audrey Hepburn. She stands in profile, clad in a pale pink dress and surrounded by pink roses. My tutor was equally fashionable, often dressed in black but with a chic pixie haircut and understated yet powerful makeup. She inspired me not only historically but also fashionably and before long we realised we shared a love of Audrey Hepburn. I credit her with my deep fascination with historical theory but primarily with my appreciation of fashion within an academic setting.

When I first arrived at university I tried to downplay my love of formal clothing, dressing in jeans and blouses or one of the new t-shirts I had bought for the occasion. Before a fortnight was out I was thoroughly bored and slowly began to revert back to my careful consideration of stylish yet understated fashion. Over the years I have been referred to as “fancy girl”, “overdressed” and “the best-dressed cyclist in town.” And I love it! Today, for example, I have no appointments yet I delighted in choosing a forest-green velvet pencil skirt with a chiffon, wing-sleeved cream blouse which I have paired with a thick black belt, pearl jewellery and cream wedge heels. There is no particular occasion and I intend to sit in a library for most of the day, yet why wear the brown corduroy when there is so much fun to be had.

Women have been driving fashion in academia for over a century. At Cambridge in the late nineteenth century, female scholars adapted their long skirts to be suitable for cycling. I like to think I am their successor after cycling in coats and heels in my first two years at university. Fashion in every era has been tightly associated with societal change; likewise with academia. It seems only natural that they should come into contact, with academia driving societal change and society driving fashion. Pursuing an academic career gives us the freedom to explore everything the world has to offer and to exclude fashion from this seems wrong.

I am sitting at an old wooden desk surrounded by wooden panelling with a cup of coffee but the difference between the 1950s Oxbridge stereotype and I is that I am wearing pearls and want to look fabulous while I pursue my dreams. No one would be stereotyped for their fashion choices and this importantly includes those in academia.