While I was waiting at the dentist earlier this week, I browsed through the January issue of Gloria, a lifestyle magazine, which was conveniently available in the lobby. It featured a six-page, lavishly illustrated piece about a Finnish family where both parents are historians. The chief message was that the family is exceptional in many ways, including the fact that they are highly fashionable. Historians, the journalist explained, are known for their dusty appearance, but here the father was wearing a daring and ultra-fashionable checked pants and a matching pair of shoes. The brand of the footgear was duly marked, but that now escapes my memory – apologies for the manufacturer. The text also made frequent references to the smartly cut a-lined dresses and skirts of the mother. All this fashion talk was verified with photographs that could have come out from a 2015 Ralph Lauren catalogue.
There was something very annoying in the piece. I was not that much irritated by the fact that a lifestyle magazine made such a big deal of their clothing. That’s just part of the genre. A scholar’s wardrobe has been a topic of public curiosity and discussion ever since magazines began to issue biographical sketches of contemporary celebrities in the mid-nineteenth century. When The World featured Thomas Carlyle in its popular series called “Celebrities at Home”, the first paragraph commented on Carlyle’s appearance. Apparently, the master of the Cheyne Row had received the reporter in an “ample dressing-gown of gray duffel”. No, it was not the repeated references to stylishness of the family that I found striking. I have nothing against dressing up nicely or following trends. Quite the contrary, I do not mind sampling local stores whenever I am archive-hopping abroad.
No, what really nettled me in the article was the underlying assumption that historians are de facto an unfashionable and awkwardly outmoded kind. It is frustrating that, in 2015, a magazine still thinks that it is necessary or amusing to bring up the old, worn out dust-metaphor and classify an entire profession as being careless about looks. This sort of stereotyping is just so, hmm, unfashionable, I would even say so nineteenth-century. There is really nothing novel or amusing in the dust-metaphor. The image of a dust and dirt covered historian was rooted into a public imagination already in the nineteenth century and has flourished in popular culture ever since. Georg Gissing for example refers to scholar’s austere and unkempt appearance in his novel New Grub Street (1891) when Jasper Milwain, one of the leading characters, meets Mr. Yule and his daughter whom he recognizes from the reading room of the British Museum. Milwain explains later on to his sister Maud that he “passed an old buffer and a pale-faced girl”, who were “obvious dwellers in the valley of the shadow of books.” As a response, Maud, assuming that a young scholarly girl has to have a distinctively unattractive look, wonders whether Miss Yule was truly “such a fright”.
Historians can partially blame themselves for the spread of the dust-myth. Their never-ending talk in letters, diaries, memoirs, prefaces and research reports about dust, dirt and cobwebs they encountered in the recently opened archives all over Europe helped to create an image of a dust covered scholar. In no time it became a proverb that was recognized even in the furthest corners of Europe. When Liisi Karttunen toured archives in Central Europe in 1907, her sister in the small agrarian village of Kitee, advised her to be careful so that the archives would not turn her all grey and dusty.
In reality, the metaphor was largely an unfounded myth and historians, just like everyone else, were expected to take care of their looks and dress up according to their class. A violation of a dress code was noticed. When Jacob Burckhardt, renowned for his modest lifestyle, visited a photographer in Basel, he was told to go away, because a famous professor had reserved an appointment. The photographer was astonished to find out that the professor had showed up in such a nondescript suit. Burckhardt was an exception, and usually historians wished to wear clothing that fitted their social standing. Unfortunately, the long education that brought the public respect, did not guarantee sufficient needs to keep up an impressive wardrobe. Liisi Karttunen discovered quickly that her dresses that had been perfectly fitting for social gatherings in Helsinki, appeared outdated and provincial in German, Austrian and Swiss archives and cafes. Without lavish funds, she had to be creative to refashion her existing gowns according to the latest continental fashion.
What about historians today? Is there a unified look that betrays a historian? Well, no, there really isn’t such a thing, and no, grey and dust is not the prevailing style at the history departments. Someone could argue that there is something like a smart-casual academic style that derives from the campuses of English universities, but truth told, that seems to be now the style of the young and hip in- and outside the academia.
Making claims for a specific style of historians would be making just the same stereotypes as Gloria made when labelling historians per se dusty and grey. Universities are filled with historians with different opinions about appropriate dress code, shopping and talk about clothing. Some promote environmental causes and down-shifting and others think that fashion consciousness translates into shallowness that threatens scholarly credibility. For them shopping is time badly spent, time stolen away from research.
Certainly, some will deplore a blog post that addresses sartorial matters and consider me now nothing but a foolish shopaholic. My intention has certainly not been to undermine the credibility of my discipline or my own commitment to research. All I want to say with this post is that historians are not necessarily indifferent about clothing or fashion and that we dress up according to the occasion – and our often precarious means. We even occasionally talk about shopping and fashion. For the editors of Gloria, this might come as a surprise.