Unwritten Sumptuary Laws

If one dresses too formally at my college – or most colleges – one might be mistaken for an administrator, which is a clear violation of the unwritten sumptuary laws. One might be given inappropriate deference by the unknowing. And I did find more students holding doors for me and calling me “sir” as if I were a person of importance.

Such gestures embarrassed me a little, but they also made me feel more confident and capable. I began to think I could exert some pressure on my institution to raise the bar of formality a little by raising it a lot for myself.

In the process, I probably irritated some of my colleagues, a few of whom are aggressively informal on principle: denim, work boots, sandals – anything goes but formality. The situation is not unique to my home institution. Professors (in the humanities, at least) don’t make much money relative to other professionals, so we press our sour grapes into the sweeter wine of smugness: “We are too important to pay attention to such trivial, privileged matters as clothing.”

Thomas H. Benton, aka William Pannapacker


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