Conference Chic, or, How to Dress Like an Anthropologist

By Carole McGranahan with Kate Fischer, Rachel Fleming, Willi Lempert, and Marnie Thomson

Wondering what to wear to the AAAs? We’ve got you covered. For women: throw a few scarves in your suitcase, a suitable range of black clothes, a kick-ass pair of shoes or boots, and some anthropological “flair,” and you should be good to go. Men need to pack their nice jeans, a good buttoned shirt, and the pièce de résistance: a stylish jacket. Unless you’re an archaeologist. Then all you need are jeans.

Anthropologists around the world are packing for the annual American Anthropological Association meetings (“the AAAs”) being held this year in balmy Chicago from November 20-24. What, you might wonder, are they packing? What look do anthropologists go for at the AAAs where thousands of anthropologists gather each year? We’ve turned to our social media networks to find out, posting this question on Twitter and on multiple Facebook accounts to learn just what fashion choices anthropologists are making this week.

We’ve identified six categories of anthropological fashion and/or fashion concern:

  • Wearing one’s fieldsite, or, the “anthropological” flair requirement.
  • Looking professional, but not too formal or business-y.
  • Capitalism, consumerism, & fashion for the critical anthropologist.
  • Stages of one’s career: from grad student to job market to professor.
  • Differences across the subdisciplines.
  • Scarves. (Yes, scarves get their own category.)

Here’s what our friends and colleagues had to say about all of these:

ANTHROPOLOGICAL FLAIR

I dress like my people even though they don’t dress like this. This is the anthropological fashion credo as witnessed by Ken Wissoker, Duke University Press editorial director, and veteran of more academic conferences than he can count.

Academics, according to Ken, have different disciplinary standards when it comes to conference fashion. Artists and art historians have the edge over the rest of us with their “ability to align colors and patterns far above the average scholar.” But, he cautions, a hip and spectacular wardrobe does not necessarily indicate interesting scholarship. Given the longstanding anthropological tendency to “wear something signifying their fieldsite” and the “change in what sort of ethnographic locations are worth thinking about,” Ken predicts things are about to get more interesting in anthropology—in both fashion and scholarship.

How do we signify our fieldsites? “Anthropological pieces of flair!” one female postdoc exclaimed on Facebook. Her response was echoed again and again. As she explains it, “You’re required to have at least one piece of flair, but the more pieces the better. The catch is that you can’t actually go all out in ‘ethnic wear.’ Just pieces of flair.”

Carefully curated markers of where one does research were frequently mentioned: “I don’t want to be a walking stereotype of what other people think anthros look like (wearing black with huge ethnic jewelry) but I want it to have some anthro-flavor—whatever that is.”

Jewelry is a big part of the “flair” category, and for many anthropologists, carries deep meaning. As one grad student explained, “When giving papers, I always wear this power necklace I made” that brings together different symbols from my fieldsites. Having clothes and jewelry from our fieldsites on our body while we are presenting our research is a tangible form of memory, and for some, power.

DRESSING UP FOR ANTHROPOLOGISTS

The AAAs: the one time each year where anthropologists can get dressed up in front of each other without being made fun of. Instead, as one tenured male professor shared, it’s fun to dress up for the AAAs.

Anthropologists, one now-tenured female professor was told as a grad student in the 1990s, always have good shoes. This reputation continues today, at least among anthropologists as we talk about ourselves to ourselves. As one male professor offered, “To my eyes, for the ladies, it is all about the boots/shoes. The guys, it is all about the jacket.” Finding the right jacket is key as one anthropologist lamented: “I never feel like my clothes fit the bill. I either feel overdressed (black pants and dress shirt) or underdressed (jeans and dress shirt). I am missing the perfect jacket that distinguishes those jeans and dress shirts enough to elevate me from slacker to professional.”

Despite the overwhelming response that a jacket was the “It” item among male anthropologists, there were some dissenters. One professor stated that he “leans ‘teaching casual’: jeans or cords and a collared shirt with no coffee stains. No blazer, no tie.”

No tie. It seems redundant to even mention that.

Color also matters. Black. Shades of the earth. Bright colors. These are what we think of when we think of anthropology. Some anthropologists’ wardrobes reside in just one color family, others traverse the rainbow. Yet, there are still rules, as one male professor who does research in Central America offers:

“One thing I learned flying in from the tropics for several years was that my bright colored shirts were definitely not the norm. Blacks and browns dominate (reflecting Grandma’s admonition to not wear bright colors after Labor Day … Summer’s over). As well, I would say that bourgeois, urban intellectual rules the roost. Nice enough to distinguish, not so nice that you look like a suit.”

But color rules are cultural. One American teaching in Europe wrote that “Last year I dressed as a “Danish” anthropologist: that meant jeans, t-shirt, bright shoes, sport coat all in the style of the type of hipster outside a gallery in Chelsea or Williamsburg.”

What it means to “dress up” is, of course, not singular. One European correspondent advocated the acquisition of classic pieces, including suits although perhaps worn as separates (as well as a tending to the physical self): “Be fit, then the secret is in the classics. Invest in high quality shirts. White and light blue. English derby shoes. A Zegna suit. A pair of nice dark denim jeans (i.e., Diesel) and a quality shirt. Also a good quality peacoat shines everywhere. A grey cashmere scarf lasts a lifetime.”

The classic look trends more male than female in anthropology. As one female grad student put it: “I do think there is pressure to look professional (as in, you have to demonstrate that you want to be there and that you respect everyone else enough to not wear jeans and a t-shirt on Thursday) but you can’t look like you put too much money or effort into it. Hence the trend towards “ethnic flair” – it comes from a place that is important to you and is a little different from what’s mass produced at most US clothing stores.”

“There is a way in which disheveled chic is the perfect style for anthropologists. It can match any situation.”

CAPITALIST CRITIQUE: WHAT’S A STYLISH ANTHROPOLOGIST TO DO?

You don’t have to be a Marxist to have issues with fashion. Here are two anthropological takes on this:

“I do think that we struggle probably more than most disciplines with the contradictions of capitalism – it is nearly impossible to put together a professional looking outfit that isn’t causing some kind of damage, somewhere, whether it’s to the environment or to workers. Maybe you could do it for a day (especially if you were wearing clothes that you got somewhere else) but for five days I wouldn’t know how to do it. Hence the shabby chic – because you bought secondhand, so at least the damage is already done, or because you’re broke, or because you don’t want to look like you spent a ton of money on your clothes even if you did. There’s a very real financial pressure. But there’s also a social pressure to downplay how much money you spend on material objects, whether it be your phone or your clothes or your bag. For example, the only people I know who are proud of not owning smartphones are anthropologists – it’s like a badge that you’re not buying into conspicuous consumption.” (female grad student)

“The question you might want to ask is: do anthropologists know the conditions under which their clothes were produced? Go to the MLA or ASA meeting and you will see serious high-end brand names, extreme fashion consciousness, and clothes pretensions all around. That this really doesn’t happen at AAA to any really noticeable degree is one of the more refreshing aspects of these gargantuan gathering of the tribes. Besides most of us are already dropping $1200 or so to attend, not including registration and membership fees. Perhaps I will walk around the meetings and query people if they know where their clothes were made and how much they spend on them. Do you think they would throw me out?” (male tenured professor)

No, we don’t. Most anthropologists are on this, we think; we have our students do projects on consumption and conditions of production and discuss it in our classes, but how far are our collective critiques going? Here are two more grad student perspectives:

“There are subtle clues about class and region. People pretend to want to hide upper class, but want others to notice their expensive shoes and other articles.”

“I feel like I am a radical. I go to figure out how to challenge and change the system. I feel like I need to look a certain way to fit in. And then I feel like they do change the way I am a little bit, they assimilate me.”

FASHION OVER THE COURSE OF ONE’S CAREER: Grad Students

How do you dress like an anthropologist when you don’t have any money? Shop second-hand stores and/or buy your clothes in the field are the most common strategies.

“Being a poor graduate student, almost everything I wear is second hand. … I was reflecting recently that I think it has been a lack of money for new, high-end brand clothes that has allowed me to develop a sense of personalized style because having a wardrobe full of odds and ends from different eras and designers means that you develop a sense for creative combination.”

“The trick is to look like you are wearing different clothes everyday, while actually wearing much of the same.”

Grad students attending the meetings for the first time might be interested to learn that the AAA actually has a dress code! What? A dress code? Who knew?

“Is there a dress code?
The AAA Annual Meeting is a professional academic conference. Business casual attire is strongly recommended, particularly for those presenting research during the meeting.”

But, should you wear business casual? Some say yes, depending on what your goals are at the conference and who you’re going to be meeting with. Others say, “Business Casual? I’m not sure what that is, but I don’t think its anthropological.”

Many students go for the Teaching Casual look. What you wear to teach often works well at the AAAs. As one grad student explains it, she wears her teaching clothes and then steps it up the day she is presenting her paper: “The day I present I usually dress up a little more—pants that have to be dry cleaned, possibly heels—partly because people have to stare at me for an hour and a half and dressing up in my power heels makes me feel more confident. By Sunday I have definitely switched to jeans. If I could wear my Merrell mocs the entire time, I would do it. I’ve given up on trying to wear impressive shoes and go for comfort instead.”

In the field, many of us wear clothes different from those we wear at home. In India, skirts are worn at longer lengths than is common in the USA, and in Cuba, skirts are much shorter than those worn in the States. In other fieldsites, anthropologists need to budget for clothes into their dissertation research grants as Gina Athena Ulysse did when she was a grad student doing research in Jamaica in the 1990s. She had to dress properly and learned quickly that her grad school wardrobe did not suit the professional researcher image she needed in the field. Instead, as she discusses in her book Downtown Ladies, she had to “cross-dress across class.” This disjuncture between how one dresses “at home” versus in “the field” trends both up and down, depending on one’s research and fieldsite. A male anthropologist also spoke about his need to trend up in the field:

“I’m a post-fieldwork student going [to the AAAs] for the first time to “network” and hopefully find an outside reader for my dissertation. As an anthropologist, I’m hyper-aware of the ways in which sartorial choices are gendered, raced and classed. Coming from a position of relative privilege, I’m trying to look professional while maintaining some deference to Mary Douglas’ observation that academics belong to the “shaggy professions.” The two things I want to avoid are 1) looking like an avatar of white male privilege who is oblivious to the ways in which the clothing of certain kinds of people is highly policed while others can wear whatever suits their notions of comfort and individuality, and 2) looking like a very lost Mormon missionary. To me, that implies khakis, collared shirts, leather shoes, and sweaters–all clean and neat but not pressed. Ironically enough, this is a step down in formality from much of my fieldwork, where I would not dream of showing up at an office in the Arab world in anything less than a pressed shirt and trousers (perhaps even a suit) and freshly shined shoes.”

FASHION OVER THE COURSE OF ONE’S CAREER: Being on the Job Market

What to wear to your job interview? This is the million dollar question: will your outfit make or break your interview? Here’s our advice: wear something you feel great in, look great in, and in which people would look at you and say, “Yes, s/he is an anthropology professor.”

Don’t lowball it. Wear something nice. That said, do not dress in a corporate style. Retain an anthropological sensibility but shoot for one rung higher than the outfit you would wear when you present your paper. If you are too casual, they will notice, potentially think you are not that interested in the job, and possibly be annoyed. If you are too professional, they might think you are nervous and/or not well advised on job interview attire. Which side would you want to err on?

(For more on what to wear—or not—to your job interviews, check out the fabulous information from anthropologist-turned-academic consultant Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In.)

FASHION OVER THE COURSE OF ONE’S CAREER: Postdocs and Professors

Post-PhD—and especially post-tenure—fashion starts to involve more comfort. It’s all about looking good, looking your rank, and being comfortable.

From correspondents:

“I shoot for “nicer than everyday” outfits; not formal but not informal. My go-to conference outfit is usually a nice shirt, skirt, tights, and boots/nice shoes. With all that said, my #1 outfit requirement in comfort. If it ain’t comfortable, I don’t wear it. Period.” (female postdoc)

“My conference-wear is pretty commensurate with my teaching-wear: Presentable enough not to be mistaken for a grad student; not so formal as a corporate type” (female professor, untenured)

“Its going to be 20 degrees over there [in Chicago]. It’s all about comfort in my happy gear splashes of colorful sweaters. Leggings abound and the same darn black boots. Hoodies galore, gotta keep me ears warm in the Windy City.” (female professor, tenured)

“I’m going to wear cowboy boots. Because I’m 45 and sure enough of myself to wear what I like.” (female professor, tenured)

ARCHAEOLOGISTS

“I try to dress well enough so that no one will guess I’m an archaeologist.” (female archaeology professor)

Archaeologists are the most challenged in discerning between a fieldsite and a meeting site. According to our archaeology informants, archaeologists do spruce up some for the AAAs as compared to the SAAs. Yet, as one archaeologist put it, “While making your way through crowds of anthropologists may feel like a jungle, it is actually not necessary to wear hiking boots and Royal Robbins pants to successfully navigate the crowds. This bit of wisdom has not been widely circulated among some colleagues.”

Then again, as one archaeology grad student confessed, “Part of choosing to be an archaeologist is a commitment to not being fashionable. We do our best to uphold this historical standard.”

SCARVES

The only place that scarves are more popular than at an anthropology conference was at an airline hostess convention in the 1970s.

Scarves received more commentary than any other fashion item. Here are some gems:

“I refer to the AAAs as The Scarf Show. It seems like everyone wears scarves, wraps, and the like. Very chic, very anthro.”

“Yes, some form of ethnic scarf is a requisite for the ladies (and many of the men).”

“There is a difference between functional scarves and silky scarves that float around every which way.”

“Scarf culture is attached to coast elite academic culture.”

“I just don’t understand the scarf obsession. I want to want to wear scarves, but I [really] just want to wear jeans.”

“I’m also ambivalent about the scarf–they’re so cliché for anthropologists, but they are warm and pretty and useful and I have a lot of them, so… it will be a game time decision.”

“I have a collection of probably not so PC “hand made” cotton and wool scarves—made in India, bought in Rome, a few from Tibet. The wannabe hipster male needs a scarf!”

“The unisex pan-ethnic scarf is a must.”

“As a biocultural anthropologist is it appropriate for me to wear scarves?”

“This conversation proves (yet again) that I am the only anthropologist who does not wear/own any scarves.”

“Only cultural anthropologists maybe. Biological anthropologists are not as scarf and ethnic jewelry focused.”

And, a final paean to archaeologists: “NB: Dear Archaeology Male, a bolo tie is not a scarf. Sartorially yours, Archaeology Female.”

AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL COUNTERPOINT TO ALL THIS FRIVOLITY

In conclusion, we turn now to anthropologist of fashion Carla Jones for some insights into our disciplinary clothing fetishes:

“I suppose it is unsurprising that anthropologists are invested in what we wear at AAA, after all this is our social community. Who better than we understand that social meaning is generated through symbols? Who else understands our specific cues and clues? We are the ones who have worked so hard to explain the importance of culture, ritual and human bonds to those outside our field.

What is surprising is that we somehow persuade ourselves that because we analyze symbols, we see through them. Nowhere is this more apparent that anthropologists’ ambivalence towards their own clothing. We deny that clothing matters even as we know it does. Why else insist on wearing jeans, the ur-garment of working classes, even as we expect those jeans to be a respectable (i.e., expensive) make that most working class people couldn’t afford? Why else eschew clothing that accountants might wear, unless we appear like capitalist tools or lacking individual genius? Why else expect accessories to do all our stylish heavy lifting, conveying cosmopolitaneity, political consciousness, and personal good taste at once? Such familiar, modernist anxieties lurk under our carefully chosen scarves and jackets, worrying that by acknowledging the importance of surfaces we are therefore superficial, which must mean we aren’t intelligent. The bigger the earrings, the smaller the brain, so we seem to think. Georg Simmel was on to something when he claimed that adornment is the bridge between the general and the intimate. He argued that fashion concentrates an individual personality into a “radiance…as if in a focal point, (which) allows the mere having of the person to become a visible quality of its being,” and it does this not in spite of the fact that style is about surface but because it is. When we get dressed, we aren’t just differentiating ourselves among finely shaded distinctions of cultural capital, or protecting ourselves with the use-value of garments against the freezing Chicago winds, we are being human.

I suppose it would be easy to say that all our curated outfits at AAA are tentative borrowings of others’ ethnic or class identities or worrisome avoidances of other identities. Another, more charitable, interpretation would be that they are so many security blankets, mediating our ambivalence between surface and depth. No wonder the stakes seem so high!”

AND REMEMBER…

One nickname for Chicago is The City of Big Shoulders which brings us to our final piece of fashion advice: When in Rome…. Or as a grad student put it: “Oh. And shoulder pads. Always accessories and shoulder pads—80s armor for the academic battle field.”

Another, of course, is The Windy City. This does not refer only to its politicians and it is not an exaggeration. Plan your hair and jacket options accordingly. Hold on to your scarves.

28 thoughts on “Conference Chic, or, How to Dress Like an Anthropologist

  1. Fashion as social signaling to a group of anthropologists is my idea of a lose-lose. Almost all anthropologists take pride in their powers of observation, but they also tend to perceive via preexisting concepts and categories. So dressing to impress amounts to shooting for the modal. Dressing without putting a great deal of thought into things is uninspiring to me, but putting thought into how to dress modally is depressing to me.

  2. Reblogged this on Swift, like Shadows and commented:
    I knew there was a reason I liked scarves so much. How dare this discipline invade my closet, now I have an entire rack full of scarves and am starting to wear them two at a time.

  3. Scarves could simply be an indicator of the season in which AAAs are held, not necessarily a fashion statement. It would be interesting to see if other anthro conferences held in warmer seasons would include scarves as a fashion accessory as opposed to a “necessity.” More importantly, I think we need pictures as examples. : )

  4. Love this! Especially the entire section devoted to scarves– they are definitely a necessity! I wish I had seen this a couple of years ago before I went to my first AAA :)

  5. We’re talking indoor scarves here as well as warm ones for cold weather. So while there might be fewer scarves during a summer conference, there would still be lots of them!

    We ended up having more material than we could use in the post—-such a classic fieldwork lament!—-but there were two items we also could’ve discussed if we had more time: bags and eyeglasses. Eyeglasses, especially, I think.

  6. you didn’t even talk about the spread of styles across racial locations in the conference – the ABA business meeting is like the most brilliant and inspiring fashion show i have ever been to. i plan my outfit for the ABA business meeting first, then my presenting outfit, and allow everything else to fall in place around it. before my first AAA, a black grad student a few years ahead of me pulled me aside to make sure i had an outfit ready for the business mtg.

  7. Interesting observations! I wonder how many archaeologists you missed in the crowd. I suspect that jeans are good predictors of archeologists, but not archaeologists. For me, I get to wear jeans all the time in normal life–in the field, when teaching or working in the lab, sometimes in the classroom. Conference time is time to clean up and play dress up. You should visit the SHA sometime!

  8. Interestingly–though not surprisingly given anthro’s ‘white public space’ problem–‘dressing like an anthropologist’ didn’t keep (Savage Minds contributer) Dana-ain Davis from being asked to re-fill the coffee (i.e. mistaken as being ‘the help’, not an anthropologist) on a panel for which she was the chair. Raising the very issue of ‘racial locations’ brought up by Disgruntled Negress–and, again unsurprisingly, not engaged (by SM authors).

    And I’m wondering: does a non-white (non-American) anthropologist dressed in classic New England WASP attire count as wearing ‘ethnic wear’? Yes, the term was placed in care quotes, but how much was it unpacked, including in relation to Peggy McIntosh’s unpacking the knapsack of White privilege, that interrogates the question of ongoing colonial legacies and hierarchies in anthropology and how they affect who is and isn’t seen as a Real Anthropologist, whose fashion is seen as worth thinking (critically) about (also guess that job committees aren’t going to look favorably on a candidate who decides to wear the ‘ethic wear/flair’ of his/her urban Black working-class field site to the meetings, or that many other anthropologists would respond favorably either… ), and who is assumed–by other anthropologists!–to be ‘the help’ just there to refill the coffee.

    Yes, glad that anthropology is such a committed antiracist space.

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