By Vanessa Holden
It is almost that time of year again; the AHA annual meeting is upon us. From across North America and the world, professional historians, teachers, graduate students, archivists, and lay people have gathered in Atlanta. And it is hard to deny that we historians have a look.
While a casual Google search for “history professor” will turn up top image results that depict tweed, elbow patches, bowties, gray beards, and, almost exclusively, white male examples, the profession hasn’t looked that monolithic in decades. In fact, for many historians who aren’t members of the profession’s archetypal demographic, getting dressed for work is anything but a utilitarian practice. Often for women, those who are gender nonconforming, people of color, and those with disabilities, getting dressed comes with layered political and social meaning. The following categories are meant to be playful, but they also highlight the ways that some of us take on established norms without saying a word every time we leave our conference hotel rooms. While we can expect some historical wardrobe standards and classics at this winter’s meeting, I forecast that some historians will playfully gesture to days past (thumbing their nose at the old patriarchy) and some new declarations of the fierce and fashionable.
These historians are established. They have tenure. They have book(s) featured in the Exhibit Hall. They sit on committees. The adjective that best describes this most prevalent set: comfortable. The masculine dresser will undoubtedly wear slightly oversized trousers with light wrinkles from multiple days of wear, a solid button down shirt, a lamb’s wool V-neck sweater or a blazer in a solid color, black or brown trouser socks (though white athletic socks aren’t out of the question), and black or brown slip-on shoes like loafers, New Balance sneakers in a solid color, or boat shoes. The feminine dresser also has a recognizable aesthetic. They’re wearing a draped top that gestures towards Eileen Fisher’s fashions, leggings or black trousers, and sensible shoes. This look has carried many an academic through an entire career of AHA meetings.
The Job Candidate
The best adjective to describe the Job Candidate’s style: nervous. It doesn’t matter if the Job Candidate has been to the AHA annual meeting before or if this conference will host his or her first set of interviews, nervousness is tough not to wear on one’s sleeve. Oddly, the style for the Job Candidate hasn’t changed in the history of the profession. The off-the-rack, rarely worn, stiff interview suit remains the standard for interview wear. Pro-tip: wear your suit at least twice before showing up to interview. Do the same with your shoes. Most dress shoes can be cruel if not properly broken in and many a candidate has hobbled to an interview as a result.
Grad school is over! That dissertation is locked away, and to top it all off, they’ve done it: they have tenure-track jobs. Which means, “Hello, grown-up conference-wear!” One rule applies to all dressers in this crew: They are wearing at least one item that cost no less than half of their rent in graduate school. That watch, that purse/bag, that necklace, those shoes, you ask? Repeat after me: TREAT. YO. SELF. The feminine dresser in this set typically wears a sheath dress or a pencil skirt in a solid color, a twinset or blazer, opaque tights, and sensible heels that can go from classroom to conference panel. Their masculine counterpart wears a slightly better-fitting version of the Classic’s wardrobe: straight-leg trousers in denim or chino, a button-down shirt in a hip fabric like chambray or gingham, and business casual shoes or boots.
Department Diva/Department Don
Every department has one or even two of these put-together colleagues. They’re of a certain age. They show up fashionably late to faculty meetings (because they can). Their shoes are well cobbled and sometimes have red bottoms. They smell good and they excel at accessorizing. Think zany, trendy, large-framed specs. Think fur hats passed down from mid-century aunties. Think leather gloves in plumb or teal or aubergine. Gray hair? Try gray crown of glory. They wear upscale basics and on-trend pieces that the Up-and-Comers aspire to.
Dandies and Femmes
Dandies and femmes are among the Classics, the Up-and-Comers, and the Divas and Dons. They don’t always ascribe to gender norms. Rather than conforming to the notion that taking pleasure in one’s clothing denotes less serious academic engagement, they have fun with conference fashion. Some play with hyper-gendered clothing and others gesture towards the androgynous with aplomb. Some gesture to the masculine styles of the very demographic they’re replacing—nothing says “I’ve been in the archive complicating my understanding” like facial hair and large spectacles. The Femmes are rejecting the dowdy required uniform of old. If they’re in a sheath dress, it is in a daring pop of color and belted to perfection. If they’re in heels (they often are), the adjective “sensible” belongs nowhere near them.
Vanessa Holden is an assistant professor of American and African American history at Michigan State University. Her research interests include enslaved women and resistance. She is also the co-organizer of the Queering Slavery Working group with Jessica Johnson (MSU). When she isn’t writing and teaching, she has been known to shop for wingtips and dandy socks.