Dr Bertha Jacobs receives NRF rating

Posted on June 14, 2024

Dr Bertha Jacobs, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, is among the latest cohort of UP academics who were recently allocated a National Research Foundation (NRF) rating in recognition of their contribution in their fields of study and the high-quality research outputs they produce.

“I’ve been at UP for 25 years this year,” she says. “My teaching has spanned clothing retail management, merchandising (buying, planning and sourcing), fashion forecasting, the social psychology of clothing and aesthetics. My research areas build mostly on my undergraduate teaching, and include clothing retail and merchandising, experiential retailing and customer experiences, sustainable clothing practices, socio-cultural aspects of clothing, graduate skills and employability.”

What is now a clear-cut career path based on a keen childhood interest in all things fashion, didn’t start off that way. She had a few detours in finding her way into clothing retail and merchandising.

“I wasn’t drawn to clothing and retail as a career initially,” Dr Jacobs says. “When I started studying at UP in 1991, I was enrolled for architecture. Within the first week, I changed to a BSc in Mining and Geology. After six months of studying towards the BSc, I was incredibly unhappy. I didn’t enjoy the subjects and was more confused about what to study. As a last resort, I went for aptitude tests at Student Services.”

One of the options suggested as a great fit for her was home economics, and the rest was history.

“They were right! The social science, design and clothing modules were my favourites. This made sense because my favourite school subject was art, which had all the elements of design and history. One of my favourite modules still is Aesthetics, which is about store design, visual merchandising and consumers’ experiences of retail environments.”

While studying, Dr Jacobs also worked in a small-scale factory that manufactured children’s clothing. After graduating, she worked as a clothing store manager for three and a half years. During that time, the academic bug didn’t relent, so she returned to UP to continue her studies a year after graduating while she carried on working.  

“I learned so much about buying behaviour, retailing and merchandising,” she recalls. “But I realised I wanted to learn more and possibly teach. So I returned to UP a year after graduating in 1997 to enrol in an honours degree in Clothing Management and, after that, a diploma in tertiary education. My master’s followed in 2000 where I examined professional women’s adoption of online clothing shopping – something that wasn’t as popular as it is today.

“Fashion is a wonderful industry because it’s ever-changing and never stays the same. There’s a lot of psychology behind clothing because we express ourselves through our clothes and appearances – someone once said clothing is our chosen skin. It’s what we choose to put on ourselves and how we communicate to the world who we are, how we want to express our identity. It also informs how people form their perceptions of us.

“Clothing behaviour is fascinating because it is deeply personal. Consumer decisions are influenced by many internal and external factors, including culture, social expectations, store image, friends and, nowadays, sustainability. This highlights that clothing choices are about more than just making purchases. It is a big field with many research possibilities.”

In 2014, Dr Jacobs enrolled for a PhD in apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University in the US, following a 10-year wait.

“I felt like they were at the forefront of our field,” she says. “For a long time, they only offered a hybrid PhD in Hospitality Management. I kept enquiring about the possibility of a hybrid PhD in Clothing And Merchandising. Eventually, in 2014, they offered a hybrid PhD for working professionals. I applied immediately and was in the first cohort in apparel merchandising and design at Iowa State University. My PhD was one of the best experiences of my life. Ames, Iowa, is still one of my happy places.”

As her academic career progressed over the years, Dr Jacobs says what she finds most fulfilling continues to evolve.

“In the first 10 to 15 years, I’d say teaching was what I enjoyed the most. I enjoy students and the group dynamics. Students’ views on things are fresh, and they have an unrestrained way of thinking. They’re very idealistic; they see things differently and are very creative. I learn a great deal from them. It’s also very satisfying to see them grow and develop throughout the years, tracking their careers in the industry, and seeing them come into their own.”

“At first, the research aspect of my work was difficult, but now it has become one of the things I enjoy. The NRF rating is a recognition and acknowledgement by peers that I’m an established researcher in clothing retail and merchandising, and that I am on the right track. I find that very fulfilling and rewarding. It reassures me that the gruelling process you go through with each postgraduate student’s study and every research publication was worthwhile.”      

- Author Nontobeko Mtshali

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