We like to think that universities are places for freedom of expression, not only of ideas but also of how to dress. Compared with many other workplaces, we have a lot of choice. Some people who work in shops, hospitals or on public transport must wear a uniform. There are rigidly imposed and internalised clothing norms amongst those who work in financial services. But are we really so free to choose?
I have met (usually) male academics who claim that it would be irresponsible, even amoral, to pay too much attention to fashion, perhaps fearing that it would detract from the serious intellectual image they want to project. And certainly every day that I am at the university I see colleagues who live by this credo. Nonetheless, you don’t need to follow fashion to be able to distinguish lawyers or economists from physicists or anthropologists.
But we don’t often talk about these taken-for-granted dress codes, and may even deny their importance. So imagine my surprise when reading the recent article in the New York Times by Ava Kofman about the life and work of Bruno Latour. Kaufman focused on Latour’s insights about climate catastrophe, the nature of science, and the future of science and technology studies (STS – strong in Maastricht). She also informed us about what he was wearing on the various occasions they met: ‘purple turtleneck sweater’, ‘striking suit (straw-colored tie, blue waistcoat)’, ‘paired his usual aqua Lacoste messenger bag and burgundy slacks with a brown suede jacket, pumpkin scarf and flat tweed cap’.
Women in public life are constantly judged by what they wear. But outside of the fashion and entertainment news, I have never seen such care devoted to describing a man’s clothing. Is it because Latour is French? Or a philosopher? Maybe Kaufman thought his wild colour palette challenges our ideas of how French philosophers should dress. Her article confirms my view that whatever we put on in the morning, every clothing choice is a statement about how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen by others. How this works differently for women and men is for another occasion.
Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences