Lee Skallerup Bessette offers some good advice for people on the academic job market in “Dressing for Success” without blowing a lot of dough. Her advice: make sure that whatever you wear fits well and is in good condition, and she offers a lot of ideas and resources for building a professional wardrobe without a lot of money. However, she focuses a lot on “suits” for some reason, when I personally don’t think I’ve worn anything that can be called a “suit” for at least 6-7 years, and most men in my field don’t wear suits either. Beyond the conference, as some commenters note, we almost never teach in suits. The men in my department tend to wear long-sleeved shirts and ties when they teach, but most of the men professors in other departments wear jeans or khaki pants with a fleecy vest and hiking boots. (That’s the preferred look around here, anyway, but it’s probably more casual on average than other parts of the country might be.)
My advice to job candidates is to dress to fit in with the best-dressed folks at the professional conference where they’ll be interviewed. After all, you’ll be spending more time on average hanging out in the book exhibit and lobby and attending sessions than you will be spending in interviews, and you’ll want to look and feel reasonably comfortable all day long. And fitting in is what you want to convince your potential future colleagues you can do.
At the American Historical Association conference, where many History departments conduct first-round interviews, stylish but simple dresses or stylish separates are the way to go: women can safely skip the suit in favor of nice skirts or slacks with a professional blouse or sweater (or other combo on top. Scarves are a nice touch and may serve to keep you warm in the usually drafty interview “pit.”) While men may want to go the suit route out of habit, in my view the best dressed men at most history conferences are wearing good quality shirts and jackets, but not suits. (And if you’re really stylish and think you can pull it off, you can even ditch the tie, but hang out near the job register and get a handle on what other guys are doing. Keep a tie in your briefcase just in case. You might feel a bit naked if you walk into an interview and all of your male interviewers are wearing ties. I personally love the no-tie look, but you really must have a top-shelf shirt. And keep in mind that I’m a lot more fashion-forward than most historians.)
Fashion don’ts: Above all, inappropriate footwear. Heels that are too high will make your feet hurt and may lead you to trip and/or fall, which is something that works against one’s dignity and competence. Open-toed shoes are usually out of place in wintery locations. Cowboy boots are risky outside the West–be sure it’s a good look on you before you leave home.
Be sure to read the comments on Bessette’s article to get a sense of the variety of people’s opinions on this point. I’d like to second the commenter who reminds job candidates to look tidy and to clean their glasses before an interview. Dirty, smudgy glasses are a real turnoff–they do not make me want to shake your hand. (And of course, these rules go for interviewERs as much as interviewEEs!
What do the rest of you think? (Am I too latitudinarian on the tie issue? Maybe some men should weigh in on this for the benefit of interviewees, to be sure I haven’t led them astray.)