Sartorial Observer: Professor Fashion

Professor of Art Elizabeth McGowan was flattered and a little bit amused to think that students might consider her fashionable. Her background in ancient Greek art has contributed to her interest in dress and clothing. “When you study ancient art you spend a lot of time looking at drapery and clothing. Clothing in the ancient world is the great signifier. It can refer to social status, status concerning what point you’ve reached in your life, whether you’re a maiden or a matron; someone on the fringes or a fully enfranchised participant in society. In general, one can learn a lot from the way an artist chooses to clothe his subject in art from all periods,” McGowan said.

As a college student, McGowan often wore vintage clothing and some of that preference has stayed with her. “I like to look back at classic periods in the 20th century,” McGowan said. She finds particularly beautiful a photograph taken by Irving Penn for Vogue in 1950. The photo, “Woman with Roses on Her Arm,” shows Swedish model, Lisa Fonssagrives, in a black dress with a delicate and beautiful silhouette, accompanied by black gloves and chandelier earrings.

According to McGowan, students and professors in the art department, including her, tend to wear a lot of black. “The artists may wear black at times because they work with materials like charcoal or pen and ink,” McGowan said. “but moreso, I think that [studio art and art history professors] are very aware of how objects fill space and so the line and silhouette are often important. Black enhances that,” she suggested as an explanation for the department’s style choice.

And for the style conscious at Williams? “My advice is to invest in one article of clothing that is classic and that you’ll end up wearing it for years and years. I always have a black jacket.” McGowan said. Her typical look, she says, sometimes gives off a misleading impression. “I usually wear a black suit of some sort when I travel and I always wear a scarf. Some years ago I was stopped by a sleepy traveler on a long haul flight and asked for a glass of water, because flight attendants often wear dark jackets and scarves. That’s really the only time it’s been problematic,” McGowan said.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jimmy Blair was another name nominated for exceptional professor style. When asked how he describes his style, Blair replied “I don’t really have a style, per se. Let’s see, I guess ‘California business attire,’ which is jeans and sneakers and some form of comfortable shirt.” While not originally from California, the state’s casual and laid-back style still influences his own as a result of living in the Bay Area for ten years.

Of this identification with “California business attire”, Blair joked that while there may be California businessmen in the more formal business suits and ties, he hasn’t seen them anywhere. This emphasis on casual dress permeates all corners of Blair’s wardrobe. “I just like to wear things that are comfortable,” he says, and identifies his v-neck T-shirts and Patagonia fleece pullover as signature pieces. While the fleece captures his laid-back style in its practicality, however, it also makes a statement in the bright orange color. “Orange is my favorite color,” he said. “It’s an athletic cut, so it makes me look like an orange ninja when I have it on. It has thumbholes to pull over your hands. I mean it’s not ‘fashionable’ at all, but I like to wear it because it’s comfortable at home.”

When asked about his favorite outfit, Blair said that he returned to his roots. “My mom is from the Philippines, and I went back there and got a suit made. I don’t wear it that often because there isn’t really a need but when I go to weddings or formal events I like to wear that to look sharp.”

Obviously, though, flying to the other side of the world for a suit is not always the most convenient option. Blair said that he likes to shop “Online, because I live in Williamstown.”

Summing up Blair’s style perfectly – the focus on comfort and practicality, and the simultaneous injection of fun and cheeky colors — is his self-confessed wardrobe essential. “A great pair of socks,” he said. “Striped socks, multicolored socks.”