Monday Feature: Scholarly fasion

Ingrid Skjong

Professor John Manning’s thick gold bracelets jangled as he adjusted a brightly tasseled satchel slung from his shoulder. He smoothed his colorful sweater with fingers laden with chunky rings and crossed one shiny black clog over the other.
A typical professor’s attire?
Hardly.
In the hallowed halls of academia, where a thirst for knowledge often overrides a passion for fashion, Manning’s eclectic style breaks the mold.
“You walk a very, very thin line between good taste and vulgarity,” Manning, a professor of literacy education, said. “And I walk that line very tenderly.”
Traditionally, “fashionable” has not been a term frequently attributed to professors. Recently deemed the country’s worst-dressed middle-class occupational group by a curator at the New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, academia is fraught with stereotypical images of wrinkled white shirts and outdated suits.
The impact a professor’s clothing has on students varies between departments. To some it means very little. But in certain disciplines, students make comments on evaluation forms about the way their professors dress.
Pri Shah, a professor of organizational behavior in the Carlson School of Management, has received such student fashion critiques. But she stressed that fashion ideals at Carlson are geared toward projecting a model appearance for students rather than impressing them.
“Here, if you’re in class, people are very professionally dressed.” Shah said. “It’s the nature of the business.”
Students seem to agree.
“If teachers dress more like the business world, you’re more likely to take them seriously,” said Amy Turner, a sophomore Carlson student.
James Wetherbe, a professor of information technology in Carlson, turned his penchant for the business-like bow tie into his signature look.
Wetherbe’s 50-tie collection ranges from classic polka-dots to whimsically bright colors. While he admits the ties do fit the professor stereotype a bit, he likes how they distinguish him from the rest of the crowd.
“I used to be a rock musician,” Wetherbe said. “My bow tie is all that’s left in terms of my rebellion.”

The Elton John of campus

In the education department, mention of Manning’s interesting attire brings smiles and knowing chuckles.
Manning, who shatters the professorial fashion stereotype with his creatively choreographed ensembles, jokingly referred to himself as the Elton John of the University.
He quietly explained that his current style simply evolved as one of his many fashion “phases.”
“It tends to be eclectic,” Manning said. “I would not say, although others would, that it’s flamboyant.”
Over his 33 years at the University, Manning’s look has run the gamut from Brooks Brothers suits and ties to denim and Native American jewelry. Always conscious of clothes and appearance, he has a private tailor and carefully assembles his outfits every evening.
Despite his outrageous fashion sense, Manning considers himself a very organized, structured person — a paradox to his appearance.
“I’m a very demanding teacher,” he said. “What you see is not what you get.”
A nationally respected figure in literacy education, Manning’s passion for his work makes his clothing secondary to his colleagues and students.
“We know what his reputation is as a reading educator,” said elementary education graduate student Michelle Sawyer. “So it doesn’t make any difference.”
Although seasoned professors are more apt to put less emphasis on contemporary fashion trends, some younger professionals consciously attempt to stay on the cutting edge.
Andrew Lynch, a teaching assistant and fifth-year graduate student in the Spanish and Portuguese department, hesitated only briefly for a sip of coffee before elaborating on the source of professorial fashion woes.
“It’s a profession without a socially accepted dress code,” Lynch said. “The precarious spot academes are in is that we don’t have a dress code, but there’s an unwritten one.”
Loquacious and neatly dressed in jeans, a brown turtleneck and a dapper belted coat, Lynch said friends describe him as “conservative with a flair.” He has a particular interest in shoes, and owns about 20 pairs similar to his favorite chunky-heeled, silver-zippered boots.
Lynch said he likes to have fun with clothes, and feels as though his choices definitely have an effect on his classes.
“I’ve noticed that nine days out of 10, I look good,” he said. “But if I teach a class when I’m not dressed up, there’s a different dynamic in the classroom.”
Lynch carefully suggested that in academic professions, where quality work often speaks for itself, a little experimentation with fashion should be embraced.
“Professors should take advantage of the liberty we have with dress,” he said.

Fewer liberties in science

In the somewhat conservative realm of the sciences, fashion liberties are few and far between. While a bow tie might occasionally be spotted, platform shoes are a rarity.
“This is a factual discipline,” physics professor John Broadhurst said. To his students and colleagues, knowledge and teaching ability rise above fashion and style.
Looking the part of the distinguished professor in a crisp white shirt, sweater vest and black tie, Broadhurst leaned back in his chair and shared the reasoning behind his clothing selections.
“I look at the thermometer and make sure that I’m decent. Those are the two factors,” he said in his distinctly British accent.
Astronomy Professor Terry Jones, who said all he needs in terms of fashion is a mock turtleneck and a pair of pants, echoed Broadhurst’s sentiments.
“It’s a profession that has an esoteric quality. Astronomers just don’t care. If anything, I want (students) to have an image of an astronomer as just a regular guy.”
Trying not to look like a “regular guy” is a dilemma with which many women professors struggle. Projecting a sense of style while preserving professional respect can be a difficult balance to strike.
As a Berkley undergraduate in the 1970s, sociology Professor Jennifer Pierce remembered one South American instructor who raised more than a few eyebrows with her choice of attire.
Pierce described the woman’s ultra-feminine tight red suit, towering stiletto heels and heavy make-up as a complete contrast to other woman professors of the day — an affront to the often desexualized female professional.
“I was totally fascinated, but I couldn’t figure out why she dressed like this,” Pierce said. “She just did not fit what an American academic should look like.”
And how should the typical American academic look? Dowdy, Pierce said.
Described by colleagues as the best-dressed in her department, Pierce successfully avoided the frumpy look with her self-professed “California style.”
Simple combinations of black turtle necks, a favorite brown leather blazer and interesting accessories give her students ample material for their evaluations.
“I’ve had students write things like, they really like this jacket that I wore and where did I get it,” Pierce said with a laugh.

No runway models

At the mention of the word fashion, Design, Housing and Apparel lecturer Elizabeth Bye cringed and mockingly held her fingers up in an X.
“That’s almost considered the ‘F’ word,” Bye said. “We fight hard to dispel that ‘fashion frivolity’ look.”
A glamorous fantasy of runway shows and supermodels is how many people envision the fashion world. Fashion is actually a challenging industry involving more than drawing pretty pictures, Bye said.
Although faculty do keep up on trends for their classes and are well-dressed, many do not consider themselves fashion followers.
Business professors are not asked to display perfectly balanced checkbooks, said Kim Johnson, an assistant professor of retail merchandising. Yet people generally assume design professors are clotheshorses, she added.
“You can have a great deal of knowledge but not necessarily apply it to yourself,” Johnson said.
A professor’s fashion savvy can be a motivator in the classroom; however, most students are not terribly concerned with having an instructor look as though they stepped from the pages of Vogue or GQ.
Freshman advertising major Joel Dickinson is one willing to tolerate a professor with a less then stellar sense of style.
“As long as someone is knowledgeable about what they’re teaching, they could come in the nude and I wouldn’t care.”