What is "professional dress" in academia?


Unless you’re a politician, suits have been kind of out for women for quite a while now (pants suits, skirt suits, wev.)  I wore them a lot in the late 1990s when I started my career–they were more in fashion then, and I hoped they would enhance my authority in the classroom.  But, I think it’s time to revisit the rules of academic fashion.  (Or rather, to discern if there are any, whatsoever.)

I was on sabbatical last year, and so spent at least the first half of each day in my pajamas most days.  I’m back in the classroom and in meetings again, and I’m wearing mostly dresses now, or skinny jeans with boots.  It’s what I want to wear, but I wonder sometimes if my students don’t know who’s showing up to teach the class:  Donna Reed or Patty Smith?  But to tell you the truth, I don’t really care what they think.  I’m confident that my students think that I’m older than dirt and dress worse than their grandmothers, so I’m beyond all that.

Do you wear jeans to work?  It’s a relatively new experiment for me, and I tend to dress them up with blouses or sweaters, jewelry, and the shoes or boots.  One of the first times I wore jeans to work a few years back, one of the adjunct faculty (someone older than me) said, somewhat sarcastically, “you’re looking pretty comfortable today, Historiann.”  That kind of piqued me.  I said, “Well, ever since I was tenured a few years ago, I figure I can wear whatever I like.”  It seemed inapprorpriate for hir to comment on my clothing–I would never dream of saying anything to anyone about hir clothes, unless I was paying a compliment.  I also seriously doubt that any of my tenured male colleagues have ever been addressed that way–and here in Colorado, many of them (and some of my tenured female colleagues) wear jeans.  (The jeans/cargo shirt/fleece or canvas vest look is fairly standard for male faculty, and many women faculty too at Baa Ram U., but there are a lot of people here who teach at the Vet school, or in Animal Science, or work in the biohazard labs, so that uniform may be only practical.)

What’s your line of professional/unprofessional?  What would a colleague have to wear (or, rather, not be wearing, as may be the case) for you to volunteer your displeasure at hir costume?  Pasties?  A leisure suit?  A bare midriff?  A “wife beater” t-shirt?  Real life stories of uncollegial rudeness and/or scandalously inappropriate clothing will be most welcome in the comments below!

UPDATED 9/9/08, EVENING:  New Kid on the Hallway has come though with the link I wanted, which was a discussion of gender and dressing for the classroom.  She wrote,

Because [women faculty] HAD to figure it out – because students respond very differently to men and women teachers. I’ve certainly known students to mock male professors’ clothing (usually when such clothing consists entirely of jackets produced in the 70s, or rotation between the same three outfits). But it’s different from when they mock women professors’ clothing. Bad dressing doesn’t seem to undermine male professors’ authority – in fact, it might enhance it: oh, look, they’re so smart they don’t care about clothes. If you’re a woman, however, and you don’t care about clothes, you’re just a mess, a slob, and unworthy of respect. And if you do care about clothes, then you’re frivolous and not serious about your work, and unworthy of respect. Or, god forbid, you’re a slut, and obviously unworthy of respect.

49 thoughts on “What is "professional dress" in academia?

  1. A guy in my former department showed up for the pre-semester retreat one year wearing jeans and the vest from a three-piece gray pinstriped suit. Just the vest, buttoned up, with nothing underneath it (nothin’ but chest hair, that is). Totally icky.

    Strangely, I had several students comment (positively) on my apparel in my spring student evaluations. A lot of them are teachers-in-training, so I think they pay a lot more attention to classroom-image issues than the average student.

    In some ways I was flattered, and in others kinda freaked out. For sure, I’m apprehensive about what the department evaluation committee will make of those remarks when they read the evals for my annual evaluation. Unfortunately, one does not get tenure for one’s dress sense.


  2. OMG, Rose–that is totally hillarious! (E-mail me privately and tell me who it was!)

    Gentlemen, Rose has inspired me to write our first unbreakable rule of professional dress in academia:

    1. Shirts are de rigeur for men, and they must have sleeves. (Sleeveless shells are fine for women, however, in warm weather.)


  3. I wear jeans to teach (and I’m untenured!) occasionally, usually toward the end of the semester. I also look youngish (at least to my older colleagues who keep thinking I’m 28 not 38) but I don’t have authority issues in the classroom where I teach. I have had them elsewhere and I didn’t wear jeans at that school. However, the jeans wearing may backfire on me as one of my colleagues is a nazi about how women should wear skirts. She is always haranging my one colleague who doesn’t wear skirts about it.

    As for inappropriate dress – I had a TA show up once to teach a class in a wife beater with her thong visibly showing above her very low pants waist. She is now a professor somewhere…


  4. Liz–your skirt Nazi colleague is out of bounds. If a male colleague did that to someone else, it could reasonably be interpreted as sexual harrassment, and I don’t think it’s any more appropriate coming from a woman, especially since your other colleague’s style and personal preferences are apparently obvious.

    Touchy question: did you say anything to your TA? Even I might have pulled her aside for a friendly intervention with that getup.


  5. I wear jeans *to* work, but only because I bike. I change into something when I get there.

    But… consider the fact that I’m under 40 and untenured. When that changes, I might go for jeans every once in a while. Then again, maybe not: I only have classroom teaching two days a week, so dressing up a bit is not such a burden.

    I like the Donna Reed/Patti Smith dichotomy. Cool. Accessorize with brownies or a guitar, as needed.


  6. I don’t do brownies, or feed my students as a general rule. I think that reinforces the “big sis” or “mommy” role that many students put us in, and I hate that. (Plus, I’m not a baker at all.) I have been known to throw leftover Halloween candy at them when they answer questions in class–but nothing homemade, ever.

    I was on a 2-day a week schedule for most of my first 10 years of teaching, but have recently moved to a 3-day schedule–which is part of the inspiration for this post. I now have to think about What To Wear 3 days a week–a 50% increase in demands on my wardrobe!


  7. I may have worn jeans about three times to teach. Oddly, on my campus such norms are department-specific: all the Literature professors wear jeans, but it’s considered a bit eyebrow-raising over in History.

    I would describe myself as a “polished eccentric” dresser, and my students often comment on my clothing (this may also have to do with the culture of my institution.) I have a few patterns for my academic dress: (1) I wear one weird piece at a time — everything else must be neutral or simple, usually black or brown; (2) Short skirts must always be worn with dark, opaque tights; (3) I like jackets, though I don’t wear them every day. I especially adore hip-length, fitted jackets with high, narrow, perfectly-set sleeves — a good sleeve gets me high; (4) I have 2-3 more conservative fallback outfits at any given moment that I use for meetings with unknown persons, especially administrators; (5) I often wear high heels, because they make me stride rather than shuffle (a tendency I have with flats).


  8. Sq.–good rules. Polished eccentric sounds like an authentic self-presentation for you. (Have you worn the ruff yet? It could really set off a plain black knit dress, no?) I wear short skirts too, but only as you say with opaque tights–I’d feel rather exposed otherwise.

    I agree with you in your points about discipline-specific dress. History tends to be more conservative (and frumpier, IMHO) than English or other literature departments. Male social scientists tend to dress down the most–ties on men are a rarity there, whereas my male departmental colleagues wear ties for the most part on teaching days. (Jackets on men here in Colorado are an eccentricity, unless they’re fleece.)

    When will we see some Burning Man pix?


  9. Flip flops are not professional. There is such a thing as a professional-looking thong sandal, if you are into such things. I’m talking rubber shower shoes, here.

    I don’t care who you are or how old you are. It’s worse when they ruin an otherwise perfectly acceptable outfit.


  10. Rubber shower shoes–that’s a no-no. But, what about women’s decorated leather or gilt flip-flop styles worn in warm weather? Is it the style that’s out for you, or is it the plastic/rubber ones only?

    Back when the flip-flop trend was just starting in 2000 or 2001, I was teaching at another university and attended a student awards ceremony. All of the young women winning awards were wearing sundresses and flip-flops (it was a warm May evening.) But, all of that smack-smack-smackety-smacking as they walked to the podium and then returned to their seats was really distracting! But, that’s the only time I thought that style of women’s shoe was inherently annoying at an ostensibly professional occasion.


  11. I very rarely wear jeans, but I think it is because I am 28 and on a good day I might look 23 (the same age as some of my students). Because of this, my evaluations always have interesting comments about how well-dressed I am. So, I asked my students in my Gender and Religion class. They conveyed that male instructors/professors always appear very casual (one male colleague lectured in a wife beater, shorts, and sandals)and that dressing up seems to be the purview of female faculty. I am not sure I buy their reasoning, but most of my students anyway seemed to think the “professional” hang-up was mine only. Why care about fashion if you are an instructor? Of course, this all could be chalked up to the fact that I am in New Mexico, where the residents pride themselves on being casual.


  12. Good points, Kelly–New Mexico is even more casual than Colorado. The sleeveless t-shirt guy thing is just bad, though. (Would it hurt to find sleeves somewhere? Even a regular T-shirt would be much better!)


  13. Whenever the temperature is above 70, I wear denim shorts and a polo for the sake of comfort. Highly ‘unprofessional’ dress, of course, for previous generations of historians! I resolved years ago that I would not go through any personality changes following the interview process and the tenure process. This is the principle reason why I did not get several jobs in the past. But then, it is one of reasons why I DID get my current job. [My ex, nearly my wife, did convince me to promise that I would get my haired dyed in the school colors if I get tenure, but I digress. . .]

    To get back on point, the big question is whether [perhaps the more pertinent question would be where] a young female academic could dress as informally as myself without any adverse impact?


  14. Profane–you’re right to assume that women have less liberty in dressing for the classroom. I think some women could pull off shorts, but it would depend: is it a summer class, when I think the dress code is looser? Is she tenured, or untenured, or an instructor?

    Men don’t have to think as much as women, in part because there’s a more recognized male professional “uniform”–shirt with a collar, tie, trousers, and (sometimes) a jacket. But also in part because of male privilege, which means that people don’t judge men solely or largely on what they wear. There was a big discussion of gender and professional dress over at New Kid on the Hallway last winter, but I couldn’t find the link to the discussion. (Maybe she can help us out?)

    (I wouldn’t recommend the Alice Cooper look described in the first comment for any male faculty member, however.)


  15. Students to tend to notice what their profs/teachers wear- we reveal aspects of our personalities with what we wear and they want to see the human side of us (I teach high school and kids are amazed to see me outside of school- they’re curious to see who I’m with, what I’m doing etc).

    Nice jeans are fine- old painting jeans- obviously not so much. I too try to make jeans look nicer by wearing a nice top. I’m far more concerned with footwear- I refuse to wear anything that is painful or uncomfortable- so the traditional heels will never happen.

    BTW Historiann- your students, at least the ones I know, are always very impressed with how stylish you are.


  16. Well, thanks Nicole.

    I had a student at my former university say to me once, “Oh Dr. Historiann, you always look so nice. You’re the best dressed professor in the History department!” I know she was sincere, but if you were familiar with the competition, you might think it was a backhanded compliment!


  17. No–that’s on the topic, but not the one I was thinking of. The one I was thinking of was a commentary on a clueless article in the Chronicle by a guy who’s whole point was, “Why does anyone worry about how to dress? I’m a guy, I just wear what I wear, duh.” New Kid and the (mostly female) commenters were all over him in NK’s post, talking about how difficult it is to thread the fashion needle when there’s no accepted “uniform” for women professors.

    I’ve left a comment over at her site asking her to find it for us. We’ll see–she’s very busy these days!


  18. As a former graduate and undergrad student, I never had high expectations of what my professors or fellow students should wear. Outfits that showed too much cleavage/leg/chest hair or if someone looks like they were wearing pajamas to class is distracting to me. Also, smelling like alcohol, BO or weed is a no-no. Jeans, dresses, short skirts, whatever, is ok, as long as you look presentable. If your going for the frumpy professor look, its your prerogative as well. I had a professor show up in a suit of chain mail wearing a sword once. Just be yourself.


  19. I’m reminded of a line in David Sedaris’ _Me Talk Pretty One Day_, in which he asks why Americans visiting France “dress like they’ve come to mow its lawns.” Seems a good rule of thumb: If you’d wear it to mow the lawn, DON’T wear it to class.


  20. Ubu–no way! Chain mail? (Well, I used to have a colleague who was way into the Society for Creative Anachronism and was a historical re-enactor who played Queen Elizabeth at the state Renaissance Faire every summer, so I guess that’s not too far off.) Was it class-related? Were the rest of you appropriately armed? (That makes my “high fashion Kevlar vest” proposal look modest, indeed.)

    I hadn’t considered the olfactory angle–thankfully, I’ve never had a professor or a colleague who smelled of alcohol, weed, or BO. No cologne offenders that I know of, either.

    And Rose: another excellent rule!


  21. This is a great thread for fall — I must admit that since I’ll be teaching a small women’s history seminar to a classroom that (right now) looks like it’s going to be all women students, I feel like I have much more liberty to wear dresses and skirts to class. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d be putting together the same outfits if I had more male students right now.

    When I first started teaching survey courses as graduate student, however, I was a blazer/jeans or sweater/slacks kind of gal — I don’t think I wore a skirt once (and the male/female ratio was probably 50/50). And my first year teaching, I always wore heels to class in order to feel in charge.

    Then again, I have a (male) colleague who distinguishes teaching days from non-teaching days by wearing a belt to class…


  22. This was a first year law school class in property where the professor dressed up like a Knight (I believe he was wearing a hodgepodge of both plate and mail, and a helm) and wearing a very large sword. The point he was trying to make was that the basics of modern property law hasn’t changed much since the middle ages, and that we had to think like medieval lords, not 20th century liberal democrats, to understand and learn the law. What is fair in the 1400s isn’t necessarily fair or equitable in the 21st century. Eg Rule against Perpetuities, Rule of Shelley’s Case, Fee Tails, etc.

    Come to think of it, I am not quite sure how I managed to understand medieval history without knowledge of how property law works. All the words are there in the history texts, but actually understanding how feudalism works and how land changes hands is beyond most graduates without training in the law.

    “….I’ve never had a professor or a colleague who smelled of alcohol, weed, or BO…”

    The legal profession has serious issues with drinking and alcoholism unfortunately…I have seen lawyers and judges show up drunk at court…and at work…I had a professor who would show up red faced and reeking of whiskey…and we all knew that we would be in for a great lecture (no joke).


  23. Thanks, Ubu, for the further freaky details! I guess I live a terribly sheltered life (thank goodness!) I get the point about abandoning the 21st century for the 14th century, but I wonder if he would have been just as emphatic in that lesson without the clanking armor and sword. (Besides–lecturing is exhausting enough when you’re not wearing chain mail!)

    And mlm–glad you’re enjoying this. I assume your casual colleague wears the belt when he’s teaching? What a faux pas to lose one’s pants in front of a class!


  24. It has been too busy here to put this hilarious litany of abuses to the tune of “Be our Guest” as reworked on the Simpsons, maybe later in the week.


  25. OK Fratguy–you’re on. Make sure that shirtless vest guy gets prominent mention, along with chain mail dude and the skirt Nazi. I wonder if you can work in a finale that includes Rose’s trenchant advice for the ages: if you’d wear it to mow the lawn, don’t wear it to class!


  26. Sorry, hysperia: a “wife-beater” is a sleeveless thin men’s undershirt, like this one.

    It is a regrettable term, but to my knowledge, there’s no other nickname or short way to describe them. As I recall, women used to wear them in the 80s and early 90s, but they haven’t been so popular recently.


  27. I thought wife beaters were also sometimes called dago-t’s – also a slur of course!
    I still remember being amazed back in the 1960s when our young hip female high school English teacher wore jeans to a weekend event once – it had not occurred to us that teachers might even own jeans! We still had a dress code, and girls were not allowed to wear pants to class. I’m sure glad those dress code days are gone – growing up in a cold climate and being forced to wear skirts all winter was simply gender-based torture. But I still almost never wear jeans when I go to campus (and absolutely never at conferences or anything where I am presenting), and I’m not even teaching any more – I don’t know who I might run into, and I just feel better if I am dressed a bit more professionally.
    Great thread, everyone has an opinion about this topic!


  28. This is something I’m thinking about a lot, going back into the classroom after working from home all those years. I’m fairly conservative about professional wear — I think it’s partly a signal to students that I take this seriously. I admit to being somewhat shocked when I saw a male colleague in to teach wearing casual shorts. (I can imagine possibly wearing tailored bermuda shorts.) I wear mostly skirts & dresses, because I like them; but when it gets cooler, I assume I’ll also wear dress pants/sweaters/jackets etc. I don’t think I’d wear jeans, but that is more about self-consciousness than style. There are dressy, well cut jeans (usually dark wash)that look perfectly professional, especially with blouses etc. I think the real thing is to look put together, and not as if you grabbed the first two things you could find in your closet.

    My footwear has suffered since the start of hte semester, just because I broke my little toe. So most shoes HURT. I don’t wear thong-style shoes to teach, though. (Not the rubber beach sandal kind, the leather expensive kind.) Dunno why — I think I was brainwashed by my grandmother (in 1968 she complained about women shopping on 5th Ave in jeans).


  29. I just returned from a conference in Scotland, and found that the standards of dress for academics, men especially, are significantly lower than in the U.S. I think I saw one man with a tie, and he wore it as part of an all black jean/vest/studded belt ensemble that looked more like what a rock star would wear.


  30. Wow, KC–one of the interesting themes in this thread is how many women academics are appalled by their male colleagues’ sense of fashion!

    And Susan–I like your concept of going for “put together,” rather than “first thing I picked up off the floor this morning.” I also can’t imagine teaching in shorts, but can see it happening in when it’s hot or when it’s regionally appropriate (tropical climate universities, etc.)

    Many of the (male) students at Baa Ram U. walk around in cargo shorts and flip flops all winter long. I think it’s kind of a macho statement, as well as possible because it’s a rare day that doesn’t get into the 40s in December and January–we don’t get winters like Minneapolis or Buffalo.


  31. Oh, and legal academia dress is interesting, because you have a much higher proportion of suits – I suspect the frequency of wearing suits is in direct relationship to how long the faculty person actually practice as a lawyer. That’s just a guess, though.


  32. NK, how fun to think like a lord. (Though one of my favorite articles ever is the Patricia Williams piece “On being the object of Property” in Signs, which asks us NOT to think like medieval lords.) And Historiann, a “fee tail” is an entail (see Pride & Prejudice), where property is held but you don’t have the right to determine who inherits — the path of inheritance is determined by the type of property.


  33. A graduate student brought this up today. He says he wears a tie to teach because it gets students to take him seriously and study.

    I dressed to teach in graduate school for reasons of authority, too. Needed it then. Now I am twice the age of an undergraduate so I have natural authority.

    In my first job, which I did not like and where I swear I was bullied, I dressed very nicely but did not dress like a banker, as the other women did. They really did, and they drove expensive cars. They said disapprovingly that I was dressing like a rock star [sic]. I couldn’t believe it. As in: skirt and sweater of the same color from Joan Vass, stockings and nice heels, my grandmother’s discreet earrings and necklace … rock star??? But that was what they thought.

    I did not wear jeans in that job but I have worn them steadily (although not constantly) since.


  34. A bit slow on the uptake, but I actually write from Historiann’s guest room! I second Squadratomagico’s observation that a university may have different codes for different departments. Here at Baa Ram U’s neighboring school, Moo Moo U, the men in English tend to be very casual, whereas in History (where Homostorian Americanist teaches) men wear ties. Until this year and the addition of a new male hire, HA was the only man who did not wear a tie.

    I wear a shirt and/or sweater and pants (almost never jeans) but for me it’s much more about dressing “well” than it is about dressing formally. There’s not so much dressing well at Moo Moo U and as I am a homo from New York, I feel the need to represent up here in northern Colorado. My outfits are always identifiably gay (though in northern colorado that generally just means that everything fits instead of being baggy) and I have interesting shoes. While I suspect that some of my older colleagues look at me askance I have decided that they just need to get over it. They are good people, on the whole, however, and I also recognize that because I am out at work, my clothing choices get accorded to my homosexuality and they know they can’t actually object to that.


  35. Ha! Except that in defining stylish dressing as a gay thing, HA, don’t you think you’re not encouraging the straight men to up their fashion sense? Have some pity on the women faculty and grad student here who have documented the (presumably straight) male fashion atrocities!


  36. I’m a male professor spending time at a German research institute, and I cannot believe how sexist and stuffy and conservative it is here. A colleague of mine at the institute, who is female and single an young and attractive, and who is from the Ukraine, recently gave a major research presentation, which was quite excellent,and she wore a short skirt (though not a miniskirt). I thought she looked rather good in it, but frankly I thought the research was the main thing to focus on. Well the only comments she got afterward from the institute director were about the length of her skirt. And other male colleagues made reference to her dressing “Eastern European”

    THis goes along with alot of the rest of the academic culture I’ve noticed in Germany, as well as other parts of Europe. It is even more sexist than the States, with the possible exception of some parts of the South. I think that if you are going to be on public display or the representative of your institution, you have an obligation to look as good as possible. If you look good in a skirt and heels, you should be allowed to wear them, wear make up, whatever, and still be given the courtesy of having questions or comments on your research, not your outfit.


  37. AiG–thanks for stopping by and commenting. Your story is terrible! Think of how that must have felt to the poor young woman–to be objectified (and with a dash of ethnic discrimination thrown into the pot.) Clearly, many of your colleagues are not comfortable with young women colleagues, but that’s their problem–they shouldn’t make it HER problem.

    And, I agree with your ethic that “if you are going to be on public display or the representative of your institution, you have an obligation to look as good as possible.”


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