‘Never trust a man in a suit,’ my father told me when I was young, and I believed him. I grew up in the Thatcher/Reagan era, in a household that was suspicious of America. Michael Foot was the Labour leader in the second General Election I can remember, and his obituaries this year went on about the notorious occasion when he wore a donkey jacket on Remembrance Sunday. It was supposed to have been shocking, but the Queen Mother is said to have complimented him on it. There is something the British – especially anyone left leaning, but it goes a lot wider than that – value about scruffiness. It suggests a lack of pretension, an interest in the inner over the outer, the mind over the body; money spent on books not clothes. I’ve completely internalised it. I don’t even like my hair to look too tidy lest I lose my soul. I would never have dated a man with gelled hair, ironed shirt or shined shoes. It’s not about masculinity. To my mind, it’s got something to do with being honest.
In my current university department, scruffiness is an artform. Half the staff come to work in jeans and Doc Marten boots, t-shirts and holey jumpers. You don’t see a tie on anyone at all in a staff of fifty. One or two people aside from the Head of Department put on a suit once in a while for vivas and important meetings, and get amused jibes for it all day long. Of course, total scruffiness isn’t embraced by young, pushy, female academics like me. I take lots of care to look professional, put on make-up and jewellery. I think up outfits that are meant to tread the line between smart and casual, look lecturer-like but funky, approachable but authoritative. I don’t always get it right and I sometimes spend spare moments throughout the day wishing I’d worn something different. This is a sign of my immaturity and junior status. If I ever get a permanent job, I will probably go back to my undergraduate combination of jeans and a fisherman’s jumper.
But I know this would never wash in America. Here we still indulge our lefty academics; we like men with unkempt hair and beards who shuffle around conferences with their worldly goods in a carrier bag; we see them as radically unstuffy and admire our own ability to look beyond the surface. In America, academics dress up in gold buttoned blazers, which to a British eye makes them look like chartered accountants or golf club members. They have well-shined brogues, ties, cufflinks. If they are women, they wear court shoes and skirt suits in navy and khaki, big fake pearl stud earrings, proper frumpy handbags. They look rich and respectable. They look like they might be about to oppress you. And, what do you know, they know everyone’s title and pay it due deference. Clothes do mean something, and the unshined shoe means a lot to me.