Clothes maketh the man (or woman): on etiquette and fitting in

3/5/22: How was I an OT today?

At the age of 62, I have begun to turn into my mother’s daughter. If “clothes maketh the man”, then I felt made in my velvet dress coat and tulle petticoat. The absurdity of cycling in the said tulle petticoat nearly undid me, when the thing got wrapped in the back wheel. There was a stripping off on the side of the road, and men passing asking if they could help in what looked like a complicated bike fix. But there have been other wondrous outfits – the white suit of Mark Twain and the iconic one of Tom Wolfe. I don’t think that I’ll start wearing my ‘costume’ daily, but at this time in my life I choose to agree with Twain : “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society”.

The clothes you wear on the first day of work are about setting an intention and the sensing of the kind of courage that will be required. What new kind of self will I be in this job? It is about the best guess that you can make about the place that you are going into. But is also about what kind of fit there will be between you and this place. I had a sense that out of the two jobs that I was offered, there were to be completely different kinds of clothes attached. So if I was to go to Tasmania, I was definitely going to be dressed as the ‘green academic’, the casual and sensible, and ready to travel person. Whereas, I have chosen to stay in Adelaide, and to live the life of the mind. This requires a different kind of attention to be brought to the space.

The following quote is from Lord Chesterfield, dating from 1737, which were praised in their day as a complete manual of education, and despised by Samuel Johnson for teaching “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.” But like my mother he was giving advice about how to fit, and I am finally ready to listen to some advice.

“Do everything you do well. There is no one thing so trifling, but which (if it is to be done at all) ought to be done well. … For instance, dress is a very foolish thing; and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed, according to his rank and way of life; and it is so far from being a disparagement to any man’s understanding, that it is rather a proof of it, to be as well dressed as those whom he lives with: the difference in this case, between a man of sense and a fop, is, that the fop values himself upon his dress; and the man of sense laughs at it, at the same time that he knows he must not neglect it. There are a thousand foolish customs of this kind, which not being criminal must be complied with, and even cheerfully, by men of sense. Diogenes the Cynic was a wise man for despising them; but a fool for showing it. Be wiser than other people, if you can; but do not tell them so.” (Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, 2008)

And in a teaching job, there is an honoring of students in creating a sense of self in the corridors of academia. Some of these corridors are very old in a 1950s kind of way. So, I was acutely aware of the interior decoration that each office manifests. the touches that I found in stray offices tell me how people have created a cradle for their minds. There was a repeated losing of self in the rabbit warrens, and finding myself back in the office of the person who first suggested there might be a role for me here. She inhabits a small corner in this office, and as a catholic I cannot help see the kitsch ‘sacred heart’ in the corner. This was a present from her office mate, someone I met in the corridor. I remember a very slight handshake, but discovered a sense of peace and order in his office. There is a sheepskin covered chair to lie out in, and immaculate filing systems. It does not make space for students and the tiny quirky sense of humor would only be found if you knew him. She volunteered to share this office, and I can see why.

Manaakitanga is the primary virtue of the academic setting. This is the place where we welcome minds, and ask them to become part of a story that we are already in. The gentlest hostess was described by Virginia Woolf in ‘The Waves’, describing how a welcome can be made where people can come alongside each other. I arrived into a busy setting and was given a pot plant for my office. And then she proceeded to weave me gracefully into what was obviously a busy day. By including me in meetings, I could see how she works and also try to identify the ways that I might contribute eventually. By being introduced to students in a Zoom session, I was able to recognise and chat with them later in the courtyard. By becoming part of a teaching session, I was given a space to remember a book that I had once read.

My office is in a space that has been inhabited by occupational therapy teaching for 50 years. That is a lot of history to carry in walls that look a bit prisonlike. But I am enchanted by a neighbour’s office where a devil’s ivy has found its way up a wall, around a pipe and across the very high ceiling. This is the work of just three years, so I can set my first ambition for the time I am here. I will grow a devil’s ivy that looks like christmas lights.


Merle Johnson, 1927, More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain 

Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, 2008, Oxford University Press,