Recently Andrew West, writing in his ‘The Contrarian’ blog on the Sydney Morning Herald site, decried the declining standard of dress, and in particular the fact that no one does ‘formal’ anymore.
The very concept of ‘formal’ is of course a moveable feast. Clothing depends on context. Each subculture has its own costume code subtly written to exclude the outsider. Sometimes this is formal, often it may not be. In Legally Blonde Reese Witherspoon’s character constantly signals her outsider status in the Harvard Law School by dressing in expensive designer clothes when the code is academic drab or pre-washed twinsets.
For me, one of the pleasures of working in an art school is that the dress code is casual. Art schools have always been concentrated at the bohemian edge of intellectual life; there is almost an expectation that clothing will be more relaxed than elsewhere.
When I first started teaching it was quite common to see students with green or purple hair and piercings in interesting places. One of my students wore a badge saying ‘Are you an art student, or did you just get dressed in the dark?’. Now the high cost of tertiary study has sent those bohemians to another land. In their place, the modern student is more likely to either have the high-stress neatness of those living at the fiscal edge, or to wear clothes of such great price that they could never be afforded on a mere academic’s salary.
In the classroom context, dressing casually in clothes that are chosen for interest rather than fashion eases potential tension between the rich and the poor. It gives the message that what is said in class is more important than dressing like the latest collection in Vogue; that clothes may be worn for aesthetic impact or comfort. It also calls into question that very notion of ‘dressing for success’
Even the very words ‘dress for success’ sound suspect. They conjure up images of earnest young men suddenly sprouting white shirts, embossed ties and dark suits on their way to the boss’s office. They imply that those who wear shoes that destroy their feet, and clothes that need drycleaning, are somehow to be regarded as leaders. This story is of course bought by politicians, who go on the election trail dressed for television, their clothes both acting as armour and preventing them from looking credible.
Whenever I see men dressed in suits on hot sticky days, or women shivering in the cold with their legs covered only by translucent tights, I think of CS Lewis, whose mythical world of Narnia was a place where good clothes ‘not only felt nice, but looked nice and smelt nice and made nice sounds when you moved as well’. Why can’t our best clothes also be our most comfortable?
It is possible to dress without caring for the opinion of others, but it does require a certain degree of self confidence.
Henry Fuseli (Switzerland, b.1741, d.1825)
In 1979 I was working as a curator for the National Trust in Sydney. Because of a space crisis at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Trust was host to a magnificent exhibition of recently discovered watercolours by the 18th century Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli, one of the great metaphysical artists of all time. The works were small, delicate, stunningly beautiful and incredibly fragile. Fuseli quotes classical imagery, but with such a twist that no one could call his work ‘safe’.
There were concerns about security. The National Trust was not over-endowed with specialist staff. Elizabeth, who sold the tickets and catalogues, was a well-meaning lady from the lower North Shore, who was deeply concerned about her appearance. She always wore her hair perfectly coifed, not a curl out of place. Her face was heavily powdered, her dress immaculate. She was also deeply anxious about the art which she understood to be valuable.
One day when I was in my office, I received an hysterical phone call from Elizabeth. A tramp was in the gallery. He was a desperate and dangerous man. He had paid his money, but she could see that he was up to no good. She felt personally threatened by his presence. I had to get him out and away.
I went down and looked at the almost deserted exhibition space and then spent the next 20 minutes or so attempting to convince her that it was not appropriate to order this, or indeed any, visitor out of an art exhibition.
I could understand her fear. He was wearing old clothes, but would he have looked any less fearful in tweeds? That face, as craggy and forbidding as any Old Testament prophet, needed no special clothes to create its authority. The old, dun-coloured coat, shapeless in form, acted almost as a base for his head to emerge and engage with the art.
Patrick White was sure enough of his place in the world to dress for comfort on a cold Sydney day. And while it takes a certain degree of self-confidence, maybe that isn’t a bad attitude.
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