Investigating Yale’s most fashionable professors

When Jonathan Spence, a professor of history, heard the news that the Yale Daily News had selected him as one of Yale’s most fashionable professors, he was so shocked that he could only offer the following response:

“It will take me years to digest that shattering information. The only explanation I can give for that lustrous vote of sartorial confidence is that I try to clean my shoes at least once a month.”

Well, there’s fashion tip number one for the rest of us. Spence, along with most of his fellow professors, was stunned to learn that students are not only taking notice of the content of the information coming from their professors’ mouths, but also of their stylish attire.

Michael Trask, Professor of English, has a bit more of a hunch than Spence as to why he was recognized. “Given that I don’t consider myself very fashion-conscious, I can assume that by naming me ‘very fashionable’ your committee, howsoever constituted, is simply noting that I am gay. This is a time-honored confusion!” Trask said.

At any rate, Trask says that the only time he really thinks about clothes is when he thinks about how much they cost. “If it costs more than 10 dollars, it had better be encrusted with rare stones that I can pry off and hock; otherwise I won’t touch it.” He points out that the only exception to this rule is if he finds an item that has been so drastically reduced from its original price that he just can’t pass it up, like the Ermenigildo Zegna blazer he picked up at Marshall’s for $50 marked down from $1,300. “It doesn’t fit, but I have the best tailor in Southern New England. The secret to having clothes fit nicely is to buy them really, really cheap and get them tailored to your body.”

Glenda Gilmore, a history professor, who also emphasizes the importance of finding great deals, makes sure that most of the items in her wardrobe contain lots of color. In fact, she once showed up to a reception clad in orange and purple and found that she was the only one not wearing black. But when she bought a pair of shoes in New England and wore them to a conference back home in the South, one of her colleagues exclaimed, “Girl, you’re wearing those Yankee boots!”

While Gilmore has found that fashions change with location, Ruth Yeazell, an English professor, believes that the change in fashion between seasons is ultimately what gauges her level of style. “Since I attribute it all to my leather pants and patent leather boots, I fear that the coming of spring — not to mention global warming — means that I am not long for these exalted ranks!”

Two professors in the political science department who made the list, Keith Darden and Jim Vreeland, are quite the opposites in terms of their fashion self-awareness. Darden claims that he never gives a second thought to his clothes, and because he is a relatively new parent, he considers himself lucky to make it out of the house with his shoes tied and his clothes unstained. Darden notes that Vreeland, however, takes his clothes very seriously. “He is the only one in the department that could remotely be considered a genuine fashion phenomenon.” Vreeland does seem to fit the bill.

“Yes, my style is deliberate,” he says. “Indeed for me all fashion is strategic. When I need to, I dress to impress. Truthfully, if it were up to me, we’d all wear jeans and t-shirts everyday. In fact, if you happen to catch me on a weekend or during the week when I don’t have any classes or meetings, you’re likely to find me in baggy Gap jeans, Adidas sneakers, and a Champion sweatshirt.”

So what about on a Friday evening faculty dinner at Pika Tapas? “All of the other faculty were wearing the usual casual attire, but Vreeland came in an Armani suit,” Darden remembers. Vreeland responds, “Prof. Darden has a great sense of humor and exaggerated a bit. Just to get the facts straight — the suit was DKNY, with a Kenneth Cole shirt, and a Banana Republic tie.”

Vreeland says he buys many of his clothes at some of New York City’s most notable department stores. But where do the rest of these chic instructors go to stock their wardrobes? Trask is a big fan of the TJ Maxxes that “abound like mold spores over greater New Haven.” Gilmore shares Trask’s affinity for TJ Maxx, and in addition she prefers Syms and National Wholesale Liquidators. “If it’s a steal, go for it,” she says.

While Kariann Yokota doesn’t claim to be a fashion expert herself, she is somewhat of an expert on fashion’s effects. She actually teaches a material culture course here that deals with the issue of people using material objects to convey social messages. She says she devotes part of her first class to talking about what her students are wearing and how that gives off certain signals. She also asks whether they could have pegged her as the professor when she walked in just by how she was dressed. “I’ve noticed that there is a certain degree of discomfort in talking about fashion. Because I teach this course, I am much more aware of the messages clothes can send out.”

It’s clear that students are forced to notice their professors’ styles as a result of staring directly at them for an extended period of time twice a week — one student of Yokota’s stressed that “she always accessorizes very well” and another pointed out that “her clothes are not only nice, but also up to date with the standards of professional style.” But what about the opposite? Do professors notice what today’s generation of students are wearing, and if so, do they have a preference?

“I generally admire the way my students dress — especially when they come to class looking a bit slumpy,” Trask says. “That’s how students ought to look.” He adds that T-shirts, jeans, and even sweatpants are OK by him. “I hate the formal get up some students try to approximate; it usually makes me think they’re longing for their prep school days or gearing up for a recruitment drive at Goldman Sachs and not thinking about, say, Gertrude Stein, which is what actually interests me.”

Meanwhile, Vreeland is completely indifferent toward how his students dress. “Some students who make important contributions in class discussions wear sweats and a baseball cap. I have no problem with this at all. I like seeing a diversity of style in my classes. I think students should dress however they feel.”

Gilmore couldn’t agree more. “People should wear what makes them happy — it contributes to the intellectual life of the college. I think it’s great.”

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