What not to wear: academic edition



It can be really tricky figuring out what to wear as an academic, or a post-grad research student.

We are attempting to balance the competing demands of a profession that requires us to look knowledgeable and trustworthy (aka ‘read my work, I know what I’m talking about!’) as well as approachable to our students. This has to be achieved with outfits comfortable enough for the long stretches of time in which we sit typing, stand lecturing, or hurry from Building A on one side of campus to Annex K on the other, all whilst exuding a calm, capable vibe.

No wonder the Thesis Whisperer’s last post on ‘What Not To Wear: Academic Edition’ evoked so many personal (and often relieved) responses. Yet I wonder if underpinning this consideration in the minds of some is a nagging sense that the question of what to wear as an academic shouldn’t matter. If we must be judged at all, shouldn’t it be on the merits of our work and teaching rather than our outfits?

I have written on the importance of appearances before, and firmly believe that aesthetics (and consequently, our dress) are fundamental to humans; part of how we make sense of each other in our social worlds and also a source of pleasure. Dress is important because whether you like it or not, we read other people visually according to how they present themselves. To participate in this social activity does not make us superficial, even though such evaluations operate on a surface level, and so it is worth considering what messages our dress as academics convey about us.

I am generally not one to dictate to people what they should wear. Part of what makes fashion a compelling area of study for me is the different ways that people engage with it and find ways to visually articulate a sense of their own individuality through clothing. That said, I would always advocate a thoughtful approach to dressing for the demands of your work and finding ways to meet those demands whilst still enjoying what you wear.

For example, last year I attended my first conference cocktail party and I had a momentary mental blank as to how I should dress. Not only did I want to put on something I liked that was appropriate for the occasion, I didn’t know a single person there. So I decided to wear one of my favourite dresses, a vibrant blue and pea green vintage wool number, reasoning that, even if I looked like an anomaly, at least it would be a talking point so I could meet people- and it worked! I met a number of lovely academics that night, most of whom approached me to ask about the provenance of my dress.

Aside from potentially acting as a talking point, what else can we ask of our clothes? I think in general the ideal is for our academic dress to communicate authority, knowledge and professionalism. How you do that is up to you, though there are some great recommendations of stores and looks (and examples of that perennial academic staple, elbow patches) in the comments section of the last post and Thesis Whisperer’s Pinterest board. For the time being, here are a few suggestions that may prove useful:

Well-cut clothes in good quality fabrics are a great place to start.

This may seem like stating the obvious, but a jacket with a seam that sits right on top of the shoulder or trousers that skim straight through the leg are both flattering and indicate that you know what you’re doing. A menswear shop that sells suits, a good department store or a quality vintage shop should be able to help you out.

When packing for conferences, choose clothes that are low-maintenance and won’t crush.

Stay away from linen, delicate silks and chiffon unless your room has an iron – it’s one less thing you need to worry about (especially if you’re like me and are always convinced that your PowerPoint presentation is going to glitch at the crucial moment!). Leather, fake leather or fabric shoes in classic shapes – a pump, a brogue, a loafer, a ballet flat – are preferable to white sports shoes every time (unless you are doing sports psychology or something, in which case carry on.)

If you look young, don’t ‘dress young’

Or else you may risk being mistaken for a student by colleagues who don’t know you. This happened to me when I recently went to collect work for marking and was taken for one of the students of the course I teach. Embarrassing for all involved, though I blame my oversized jumper not the mortified admin assistant.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that ‘clever’ is synonymous with ‘unkempt’

As if to indicate that you spend too much time thinking about your research to bother about your clothes. You got dressed too, didn’t you? It’s as easy to reach for something without holes, that is properly hemmed, clean, stain and pill-free as it is to reach for the threadbare velvet jacket from your student days at the Sorbonne so just… don’t.

And lastly, but most importantly, wear outfits that make you feel great.

If you can find clothes that make you feel confident and bright when you put them on, that’s half the work done right there. If they contribute to a look that’s polished, authoritative and comfortable, that’s the ball game. And if you can have fun with what you wear– swap your black opaque tights for patterned ones, dress an Edwardian blouse with a high-waisted skirt or pair a pink blazer with your navy trousers– so much the better.

Some of my favourite lecturers were the ones who wore red suspenders and spotted socks with their sensible shoes; it adds an element of fun and visual interest to the classroom, which is wonderful. Being serious does not exclude a sense of fun, after all. And furthermore, being an academic is such an individual pursuit ­– our ideas are our own, and often our work can contribute so much to our sense of self. Why not carry a sense of that self into our dress as well?