Confusion, that is what the Swiss history professor Jacob Burckhardt, caused. The reason for the constant perplexity was that in his simple attire Burckhardt did not look at all what a nineteenth-century professor was expected to look like. Scientists take pride in claiming it is their work that matters, not their looks, but a recent study shows that appearances influence the reception of science news. As Ana I. Gheorghiu, Mitchell J. Callan, and William J. Skylark demonstrate, the impressions facial-appearances create have an effect on how scientists are perceived. The study suggests that scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive spark more public interest in their work. Yet, the impact of attractiveness decreases when the competence for conducting high-quality research is being evaluated. In short, “those who appear competent and moral but who are relatively unattractive and apparently unsociable create a stronger impression of doing high-quality research.” The research affirms that – just like in the nineteenth century – there are strong stereotypical assumptions about the correlation between credible science and scientists’ looks. Putting aside the worn-out metaphor of a dusty historian, how was a historian expected to look in order to appear convincing, credible, and immediately recognizable as a representative of his profession? Was there such a thing as a dress code specifically fashioned for historians?
Historians’ looks were constantly monitored and evaluated in public and in private. The depictions are minute comprising pretty much everything from clothing to haircuts, beards, and facial appearances. It was equally common to describe in detail historians’ posture, voice, and habitual manners. What is interesting in these reports is that they often imply a link between appearance and scholarliness attempting to search for clues that betray visible signs of learning, intelligence, and competence. Nevertheless, there was not a unified understanding about the style that would have made a proper historian and it is rather doubtful that this was even what the writers were looking after. Rather, they expected an outfit that corresponded with middle-class respectability and then attached to the markers of class membership new meanings that derived from the stereotypical expectations about scholarly research and a researcher.
Edward Augustus Freeman embarked on a long American tour in the early 1880s and was astonished about the intense interest expressed towards his habits, looks, and opinions while the press and public almost completely ignored his scholarly accomplishments. Dodge City Times described how Freeman had “a great deal of personal magnetism” and how the “rhythmic richness of his voice flows along in agreeable cadences.” Moreover, Freeman looked “a hale, vigorous and large-hearted Englishman, of medium height, broad-shouldered and full chested, with a high head”. The writer was relieved to conclude that there was “nothing of the book-worm” about Freeman. There were no references to Freeman’s dress-code in this short piece that enlightened the Kansas readership about the famous English professor. Elsewhere, though, the stereotypical image of a shabby dress of a book-worm was exploited. According to the New Haven Evening Register, a crucial indication of Freeman’s scholarly profession was his outfit. Freeman was one of those who changed the “course of human thought” and “Being such he had apparently no time to give to the conventionalities of dress, for there was a bagginess about the trousers which indicated the work-a-day of a man of might.” Although Freeman wore a costume suitable for his middle-class status, overlooking the baggy pant-knees was a marker of his scholarly habitus – and of the long hours seated by his desk. The sentiment that a genuine spirit of scholarliness was unmoved by material considerations such as the condition of trousers, was widely spread.
The Oxford Professor Frederick York Powell surprised many with his wardrobe. In 1901, Mrs. Tremlow was amazed by the fact that York Powell was dressed up like he was a sea captain, not a professor of history. A cap and blue naval dress together with York Powell’s encaptivating presence guaranteed that Mrs. Tremlow was moved by the professor’s grand appearance. The same cannot be said about Charles Oman. He was highly critical about York Powell and even decades later continued to refer to him as an alarming example of a historian who had devoted his entire life for reading while failing to produce anything worth mentioning. This, Oman underlined, had made him unfit for academia and his looks had only added to this mismatch. Oman recounted how York Powell had been “A burly, bearded, athletic man,” how he had always worn “a blue serge jacket, a low collar with a wisp of black tie,” and how he had gone around with “a briar pipe.” Thanks to all this, York Powell had looked “rather like the captain of a coasting steamer” and not like someone with an academic position. Oman’s contempt for this breach of scholarly respectability was deep.
Although there was not a particular fashion code for historians, there were nonetheless assumptions about historians’ appearances. Historians were expected to represent both their middle-class status and scholarly profession through their dress and manners. Audiences studied historians’ dress, looks, composure, and conduct, searching for clues to their scholarliness, intellectual competence, and general social standing. A deviation from the fashion code attracted much curiosity and suspicion just as Frederick York Powell did.
Writing about sartorial markers or physical appearance should not be dismissed as insignificant or irrelevant for the sciences. As the already mentioned recent study illustrates, the stereotypical images of scientists continue to flourish, and what is more important, scientists’ looks inform audiences’ decisions about and interest in scientific research. The widely shared presumption is that attractive scientists receive more attention while less attractive looking ones produce world-class science. The writers emphasize the risks that these hidden biases involve. As the pressure to communicate with the public through expanding modes of media – from live shows to Youtube videos – increases, the looks may gain more and more importance and even have ramifications on one’s career. Thus, it is crucial to recognize our biases deriving from appearance because they may have a direct bearing on decisions about whose research is considered worthy of funding and whose research is considered worthy of publicity. It would be unbearable if looks became decisive for who is given the airtime and who produces valuable research.
P.S. There are two upcoming opportunities to hear me talk more about nineteenth-century historians’ self-fashioning through various mediums: on Thursday 19 October in Turku at the Historiantutkimuksen päivät and on Friday 3 November in Denver at the North American Conference of British Studies.
Dodge City Times (Kansas) 24 November 1881.
Elton, Oliver, Frederick York Powell: A Life and a Selection from his Letters and Occasional Writings, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1906).
The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, ed. Alexander Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001).
Oman, Charles, On the Writing of History (London: Methuen, 1939).
Conlin Jonathan, “The Consolations of Amero-Teutonism: E. A. Freeman’s Tour of the United States, 1881-2” in Making History: Edward Augustus Freeman and Victorian Cultural Politics, eds. G. A. Bremner and Jonathan Conlin (London: Proceedings of the British Academy, 2015), 101-118.
Gheorghiu Ana I & Mitchell J. Callam, William J. Skylark, “Facial appearance affects science communication”, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114:23 (June 6, 2017): 5970-5975.