DeLong on the Signaling Effects of Professorial Clothing

Brad DeLong could probably make the NYT style section worth reading.

Here's part of a fun sartorial essay of his, somewhat mistitled Cosma Shalizi Criticizes One of the Sartorial Geniuses of Our Age. It's a hoot.

A professor's clothes—supposed to lie somewhere on the spectrum between total nudity and the purple-red dress of a Byzantine emperor—need to serve four purposes:

  1. To make the appropriate people envy, in an appropriate way, the professor's (actual or counterfactual) spouse.
  2. To make the professor comfortable.
  3. To make the students more willing and eager to learn.
  4. To take a particular stand on the great debate between the courtier Lord Chesterfield on the one hand and the intellectual Samuel Johnson on the other, summed up in Johnson's remark that Chesterfield's fashion-centered advice to his illegitimate son taught the boy “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.”

I will pass over (1) as requiring a knowledge of evolutionary biology and a working aesthetic sense—which disqualifies me on both counts. I will pass over (2) as requiring a knowledge of biological thermodynamics which I do not have, save to observe that the traditional tweedy professor male academic clothes are, from a thermodynamic point of view, appropriate only for some British or New England campus without effective central heating. But I will say:

With respect to (3):

  • I have found that wearing my doctoral robe to class is counterproductive. It
    • is hot pink, and
    • leads my students to think that I may be crazy, or
    • am making fun of them, unless
      • the class is on the medieval university, or the middle ages more generally—then wearing the doctoral robe can be very effective at focusing the class
  • I have found that running shorts and a t-shirt is also counterproductive. The students think that:
    • I was too self-absorbed to figure out it was time to leave the gym, or
    • I am too self-absorbed and eager to get to the gym

But does this mean Brad thinks I shouldn't wear a bow tie to class? And why is he wearing a tie on his blog photo?

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