Back to School in Style

By Jeff Mallinson

The death of summer brings the birth of a new academic year. There’s a strange sort of freshness to fall, especially as young men and women don new, crisp outfits, move back on to campus, and get ready for a new year of scholarly exploration. The style one selects, whether we like it or not, tends to serve as a form of communication. It says to peers and profs: here’s what I stand for. Looking sharp to attract a romantic partner? Looking to say you are serious about your degree? Wanting to express your individual spirit? You are a book with a cover, and whether we like it or not, people tend to judge a book by the cover, at least at first. For this reason, on our recent Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, I “interview” Dan, the Man about Town to learn about style options, from head to toe.

This topic can be controversial. Many bristle when some call others to class up their look, as a previous post on The Jagged Word demonstrated. Sometimes, discussion about modesty can sound like “slut shaming” or contributions to rape culture. Sometimes, under the guise of freedom and progressive values, we tolerate styles that objectify women. Sure, ladies, you have the right to wear revealing clothing, just like you have the right to wear corsets. But are you doing this freely, or are you allowing yourself to be objectified? Sure, gents, you have the right to look sharp, but I’d rather see you making due with thrift store finds if it means you have enough money to buy your textbooks. My point is we can’t ignore the subject just because concrete answers are difficult to find.


In a sense, the post you are currently reading is like a mirror image of a mirror. Dan writes about fashion and culture. I write about the show. This week’s show is about Dan’s blog. This blog post is about this week’s show about Dan’s blog. Infinite reflection. Mind blowing, right? Here’s a bit of our banter

Me: “Does any of this really matter?”

Dan: “My contention is that it matters what you wear, and if you think it doesn’t or if you think you’re above it or beyond it or below it, or you can’t afford it, you are deluding yourself.”

Me: “But isn’t this really a question only for people of privilege? Are you saying you can be a gentleman without being rich?”

On the show, Dan says this isn’t just for the wealthy; rather, he provides several examples of ways to look good without breaking the bank. Moreover, but he responds that one need not even choose a gentleman’s look in the first place.

Dan: “Whether you are putting on jeans and a t-shirt, or whether you choose the formal or informal wear of any continent on which you find yourself living, you are identifying yourself as part of a group. These might all be social constructions, but you are still saying, I’m team A or team B. It’s not saying you are hostile to the other teams.”

Me: “Really?

Dan: “Yeah, if I was hostile towards people who didn’t share my sense of style, I was going to say, we wouldn’t hang out.”


That’s true. I am not opposed to a suit and tie, and used to don that sort of look when I was an academic dean. But I tend to find myself closer to the look of the Dude from The Big Lebowski, whereas Dan tends toward a hip appropriation of the Mr. Chips aesthetic. I suppose this makes sense. Dan just became an associate dean, and I’m trying to stay out of too many administrative entanglements. Our respective wardrobes convey this.

So what should you wear this year, dear scholars? What should you add to your wardrobe as you do your fall shopping? Listen to this week’s show to get some practical tips and theoretical reflections, but whatever you do, perhaps you can borrow some insights from Anthony Bourdain, whose recent book I’ve been reading, on vacation. Bourdain says that, after the economic trouble of 2008, the culinary world got rocked. It’s not that people didn’t care about fine cuisine anymore. Rather, they rejected the B.S. Even those with cash felt icky, knowing so many folks had lost their jobs and retirement portfolios, paying premium prices for over-hyped liquor, or for plates of mediocre pasta at super-expensive restaurants, where people go to be seen. Bourdain notes that the younger generation remains interested in quality. Fewer dining nights and fewer dollars spent on fads, coupled with greater attention to high quality. The gourmet food truck and asian food court are examples of what this shift in the culinary world has experienced. Perhaps we can do something similar when we shop for clothing. Fewer items, greater quality. Less attention to flashy names, and more attention to the craftsmanship of what we wear, from our hats to our shoes.


In all things, remember that the various choices we make communicate non-verbally. It’s fine if what you have to say is different from what others have to say, but the main lesson I learned from Dan is that you are saying something. Pause at least for a moment, and ask yourself what you think your wardrobe says about you, your aspirations, and your commitments. Then, say what you mean and mean what you say, young scholars. May this be a vibrant year for you!

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Sipping coffee number three, back in a real office, trying to break out of the jet-lag tractor beam of sleep, still between chapters of Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.