It'll suit you better if you wise up and dress down

17th June 2005 at 01:00
"You used to wear a suit." My husband's remark over that morning's porridge drew the frosty response: "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" A hasty "nothing" was followed by the irrelevant explanation: "It's not a suit."

It's true I used to wear suits. I used to carry a briefcase. Things have changed. I've changed.

Mostly, you don't notice change because it happens right under your nose.

But the conversation over porridge had been prompted by the need to write a brief biography to accompany my contribution to a collection of essays on contemporary Scottish poetry.

The essay was requested about 10 years ago, by a lecturer from an Italian university. Yes, I know that sounds odd, and I did wonder if it was some kind of scam - you never know what a few thousand words of my erudite criticism might be worth on the black market.

I researched my contact and his university department on the internet, learning a smattering of Italian along the way. Everything checked out. I should do it, I thought. These things are always done on a shoestring, for love, not money, for the good of future students, etc, etc. You know the sinking feeling as you commit to the task - it's the same feeling you get when the Scottish Qualifications Authority asks if you would please write a unit.

I wrote the piece, which became known as the "Italian Job", and sent it off. The wheels grind slowly, apparently, in Universita di Macerata's Facolta di Lettere e Filosofia, and years passed, punctuated with small highlights. Proof copies appeared, along with occasional e-mails assuring me of the quality of the paper, the softness of the leather binding and the magnificence of my contribution.

Last week came the request for a biography to accompany the "Italian Job".

That's when I hit a block. Do I write the biography for the person I was when the piece was written, or the person I am now? The difference is significant, and was summarised pretty neatly by my husband's remark over porridge: "You used to wear a suit."

My career has shifted. My interests have changed. I am no longer consumed by self-referentiality in the postwar American novel. I do spend lots of time trying to protect my once-perfect grasp of punctuation from the overwhelming misuse of the apostrophe in students' work (that's plural students, of course) and maintaining my ability to distinguish between there and their.

When I choose something to wear, I ask: "Is it warm or is it comfortable?"

Who needs the false authority of a uniform, I ask my 10 years older self.

Besides, I have learnt that wearing a suit damages your performance.

Research conducted in Harvard and the University of California showed that statistics students who wore more formal clothes got the worst results in exams. It's smart to dress casually.

I must discuss these findings with my own students. Dress on our campus is serious business. Sparkly, stringy disco wear is the uniform for girls, albeit chilly in a Scottish summer and suicidal in the winter. For the guys, it's baggy trousers which require constant hitching to stop them succumbing to gravity.

If our American researchers are right, all this formal adherence to a dress code interferes with their assessment results. What's wrong with a pair of comfy torn jeans and one of these nice warm hoody tops? It works for me: I can still distinguish a possessive from a demonstrative adverb. So come on.

Wise up and dress down.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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