Minding Appearances in
Female Academic Culture
Susan Kaiser, Joan Chandler, and Tania Hammidi
‘So, in the words of Immanuel Kant, an enlightened philosopher, a woman who thinks might as well wear a beard.’ (Ruddick, 1996)
‘In the world of academe, where the life of the mind prevails, does it really matter if a scholar wears Gucci, gabardine, or grunge?’ (Schneider, 1998)
The idea that the world of clothing and fashion is distinct from the life of the mind has a long and deeply gendered history in modern western culture. It is not surprising that Kant found it so difficult to envision women as thinking beings; the dominant ‘disconnect’ between the mind and the body (see Bordo, 1993) has placed women in the position of ‘choosing’ between thinking and appearing. This false, oppositional choice has persevered with tenacity, in part because it reifies dominant gendered power relations. Viewed from this lens, academic women embody and represent a contradiction in terms: a complex melding of female culture's attention to fashion with the life of the mind.
Popular articles in publications ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education (Schneider, 1998) to Vogue (Showalter, 1997) have alluded to the contradictory position of appearance style in academic life, especially for women. Yet little scholarly attention has been paid, ironically, to this issue. We focus here on the contradictions academic women experience as they navigate and negotiate among intellectual, professional, fashion, feminine, and feminist discourses. We recognize that men, as well as women, negotiate some of these discourses. For example, academic men may distance themselves from a slick business look (e.g. a three-piece suit), but still strive to look professional as well as intellectual. They have a ‘uniform’ that helps them to negotiate intellectual and professional discourses, consisting of such appearance symbols as a beard, a tweed coat with suede elbow patches, khaki slacks,