Dressing Like A Professor

A good friend of mine tells me about a seminar in which an uncomfortable, even heated, exchange arose over “dressing like a professor.”

For my part, I used to dress informally when teaching. In short order, I realized that:

  • I look younger than many of my students;
  • I am younger than many of my students;
  • Many of my students don’t respect the au-tho-ri-tah of some kid in jeans. Even in jeans and a sweater. Even in sunglasses.

So, pretty early on, I learned that I have to “suit up.”

Except for my tennies. And except for examination days, when according to custom so long-standing as to amount to superstition on my part, I make a point of dressing down.

Besides, in the immortal words of Joey “the lips” Fagan, “All the Motown brothers wore suits. You play better in your suit.”

Of course—the devil is always in the details—there are still the finer points, especially for women (after all, why should this be an area where professional women don’t live in a perpetual double-bind)? Must a prof be dowdy? Is it possible to be too hip? Or even too (gasp) “feminine” (that is, shaped vaguely like a human female)?

So, for your part: what does it mean for you to “dress like a professor”? To what extent may a professor “embrace her/his inner fashionista (or fashionisto)”?

[Dressing Like A Professor was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/03. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

10 Responses

  1. Interesting post. Higher education and fashion rarely go together. Many profs. walk around looking like a hot mess, not having a clue what is or is not professional attire. Some blame this on an intense focus in esoteric topics (Meaning they look like a hot mess, because they are too busy with their research to care about something as trite as their appearance).

    However, the academy is not the only segment of today’s American work force that suffers from not knowing the differences between business, business casual, and casual.

    I thinks profs. should either suit up, or at the very least actually follow the definition of business casual (jacket, tie and dress slacks).

    Just my $.02

  2. I used to make sure I wore a tie in the early days for the very reason that I looked like one of the students. Now that I have a bit more salt ‘n’ peppa in my hair, I’ve ditched the tie, but still do not wear jeans when I am teaching. I also ditched the tie because I have sensitive skin when I shave my neck and break out too easily. So it is either mountain man in a tie, or nicely trimmed beard with an open collar.

    Don’t think I will ever downgrade to jeans for a normal class, but at times will wear a golf shirt for summer courses.

    One of my older students actually criticized me for being too stuffy wearing a tie all the time.

    As long as I look different from the students, I think I’m ok.

    I can’t wait to pull off the suit with a bolo tie and dress black Birkenstock’s that one of our professors pulled off so swimmingly! A little self-conscious about the toenails, though ….

  3. Around here (here being regional Australia) the academic staff (faculty) dress down more than the administrative staff. You can tell when an academic has an important meeting because s/he is wearing a suit. The admin staff wear suits and the men wear ties most of the time. If it’s really hot, the men will still wear their ties, but shed their jackets.

    One of my female academic colleagues commented on the fact that female admin staff all tend to wear high heels and more “corporate” looking clothes. Female academics tend to wear flat shoes and more casual clothes, but what we would call “smart casual” rather than jeans and t-shirts. Jeans maybe, but with smart (but flat) shoes and a button up blouse with a collar.

    I suspect that academics don’t wear high heels very often because standing to teach for an hour in high heels is seriously painful, whereas high heels are not a problem when sitting behind a desk for most of your day.

  4. It is expected at the seminary that we wear a tie which I supremely detest. I’m all about looking professional and such but I wish I didn’t have to wear a strangler.

    Also, I took Classical Greek from a MacArthur fellow and on the first day of class he wore Birkenstocks, ratty jeans, and a Bob Dylan t-shirt and I respected (and still do) the heck out of him because he knew his stuff. I think respect is earned rather than forced through boundary and status markers like clothing…

  5. @ Dave — Walter Brueggemann (my teacher in seminary) solved the toenail problem by wearing socks with his Birks!

  6. OK, so I confess – there is an agenda behind the way I dress in the classroom. I think most people (in and out of the classroom) suspect the Hebrew Bible is mostly irrelevant to our lives today. And the people who study it for a living are not ‘like us’ (ie, they work in caves and do not bother with worldly concerns like fashion) and they don’t care about the things we care about.
    I try to dress like a bit of a fashionista to shake up these assumptions – be it at a cocktail party or in the classroom. I want to suggest, using nonverbal clues, that the Bible does not simply belong to fundamentalism or to academia.
    Maybe that’s lofty — even silly – but hey, it works for me! And I gotta be me 🙂

  7. @Dave – does this mean that there are no women faculty at your seminary?

    At my last university, a Head of the School of Business announced that all the academic staff (aka faculty in the US) would wear ties, so that they would look professional. One of the younger women hit the local op shop/thrift store that afternoon and arrived on campus the next day in a short skirt, fishnet panythose and a particularly unprofessional-looking blouse, with a tie tied in a bow mid-thigh (she had no classes to teach that day). The older women either tied theirs around their foreheads like 60s-style headbands, or got black ones and tied them around their upper arms. Lots of the men chose one of the latter two options, too. The point was made and they then returned to their normal dress standard, which included wearing business suits on days when their students made presentations in class and were expected to wear suits for the occasion.

    • That’s awesome.

      Judy, your comment ends up being more like what I initially wanted my post to be about. The autobiographical element of my post tends to highlight the axis between “casual” and “professional.” But what really drove me to write on dress at all was the axis between “professional-dowdy” and “professional-flattering.”

      Certainly in my (limited, seminary) experience, a man who dresses *attractively* and even *sexily* (fitted clothes, e.g.) seems to be regarded as an asset, where a women who dresses attractively risks being regarded as a potential “distraction” (to the poor heteronorm male students who presumably must be indulged a regrettable but forgivable lack of self-discipline and professionalism).

  8. Coming to this awfully late, but I think dress differs hugely by discipline. I dress relatively “corporate” (high heels, makeup, bits and pieces of suits–the skirt or the trousers–with funky big, bright, or odd accessories to liven it up). Most of my colleagues in the English department dress somewhere on the same spectrum, though we’re a young faculty, and that may make a difference. (The creative writers are the most casual, regardless of age.)

    I’m someone who likes to dress up, and I did work a corporate job for a few years between college and grad school, so I suppose it’s part of my sense of how a person dresses for work. But I also feel that looking like a professional does important work in the classroom–conveying that what we’re doing is serious, that I have specialized training, and that I respect my students and my subject.

    (And yeah, I do get comments on my appearance/attractiveness on evaluations — but women are going to get those regardless, and I think being more toward the professional rather than the casual side means a woman is more likely to be *respected* than if she’s wearing casual clothes than nevertheless indicate the, er, shape of her figure.)

    • There may be a difference in country. My initial comments about the way women faculty dress goes across the whole campus, regardless of discipline. Very few female academics wear high heels except on very special occasions, regardless of discipline or age. High heels normally mean you are doing admin rather than teaching or research. Makeup, jewellry and other accessories are different matters and much more variable.

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