John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

It’s All in the Shirt

John N. Gardner

There is nothing like the first full day of vacation to put some things in perspective for you—specifically, what’s happened to the gender expectations for a dress code—and very specifically, men who don’t tuck their shirts in.

I have been reflecting on this for a long time, and I am getting more and more disturbed about this: men dressing like slobs in comparison to well dressed women in their intentional company. I am seeing this everywhere around me in the States. My wife says I should not be troubled by this and that “it’s only a fashion statement.” What kind of a fashion statement? The women are wearing cocktail dresses, semi-formal evening wear, with make up, jewelry, high heeled shoes, the works. And the guy is in jeans and has his shirt out.

When I see this I also hear a voice, that of my deceased mother: “John, tuck your shirt in.” Or my also deceased father: “John, tuck your shirt in.”

I ate dinner tonight with my wife in a fairly small and intimate, but very upscale restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand. It was on a Friday night, date night. At first one couple came in: woman all decked out, guy in jeans and shirt out. No jacket. OK, this is an anomaly. Then another couple comes in: same thing. I am just beginning to feel out of place. And then two couples come in and sit down right next to us. I really can’t ignore this. Both women look elegant. Both men: jeans, shirts out, no jackets.

And yours truly, well he obviously is a man of the mid twentieth century. Why would so many higher educators in my country still be seeking advice from me on anything—and certainly not fashion? What am I wearing: dress slacks with cuffs, shirt tucked in, and a navy double breasted blazer with brass buttons. I must have looked like one of their former British colonial overlords.

Why am I thinking so much about men and their shirts out? Because on some level for me it is connecting to the patterns I see on campus, where women make more of an effort. Women not only are looking more successful, for the most part they are more successful. Men want to let it all hang out. And it’s not a pretty sight. Men want to be free of many social constraints, this one (shirts tucked in) admittedly a minor one that should hardly chafe. And many men are not making very good choices with the more important options they have with their uses of freedom, the ones that matter far more than whether the shirt is in or out.

Anyway, it might be worth a try to address this. Consider it a pilot. Urge your male students to tuck their shirts in and see if their academic performance doesn’t improve. Certainly this “modest experiment,” to quote Jonathan Swift, couldn’t make matters worse. And if men were to start wearing their shirts in again I wouldn’t feel so out of it.

Really, the problem has to be with me. If only I could just bring myself to untuck my shirt and let it all hang out. Maybe this would help my aging image and even more higher educators would be asking me for advice on how to help college students be more successful, especially young men, probably with their shirts out.

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