On academic chic

I have been writing in public spaces all over the campus where I’m teaching this semester. And I have felt totally overdressed.  Academic fashion is a delicate balance–how do you look professional enough to command authority in front of a classroom of students OR a room full of colleagues or <gasp> both?!  If you go too formal, the students don’t identify with you.  If you’re too casual, the students may not take you seriously.  If your style is too crazy (or perhaps audacious), your colleagues may not identify with you OR not take you seriously.  Because I never know who I will run into, I am trying to make a good impression every day, but that means I usually feel a little out of place no matter where I go.

As a graduate student on a largely rural university campus, dressing for a teaching day in the last few years was a serious struggle. What do you wear when you have to walk at least a mile or so (in the rain, snow or mud), hike up three flights of stairs, appear professional for up to two hours of the day, and then sit in a lonely, icy office?  I have mostly rocked plain dress pants, turtlenecks and Dansko clogs for the past six winters.

Since September, I’ve pushed my outer limits of personal style by really putting myself together every day.  I’ve been at a new (and smaller) institution, I have an easier commute, and I’m trying to have fun with my closet.   That means high heels on cobblestone streets (not easy on the ankles) and power-clashing (for that ironic youthful look).  But there are still times when I feel overdressed or underdressed for the day’s events.

We can argue all day if what I wear matters, but sociologists would say that presentation of self matters, especially for young female academics (and scholars of color).  I haven’t seen my male colleagues stress too much about their attire.  On those days when they had to look professional for an observation or a presentation, maybe they dressed it up. But on the whole, male graduate student and faculty colleagues of mine don’t seem to worry about their clothes.  In fact, even on television, male academics throw on a blazer with elbow patches and call it a day.

And incidentally, students definitely notice.  Students can rate their professors on any of several websites.  Those ratings include the quality of their teaching as well as their “hotness.”  The last time I checked, “hotness” was not a job qualification.  A grad student colleague of mine told me that her students once dogged her fashion on her teaching evaluations.  One day last semester, I was complaining about my fashion choices to my teaching assistant who remarked that I was “doing a great job” in the fashion department.  In addition to staying current in my field, apparently now I need to keep up with this month’s InStyle.

Conventional wisdom about employment says dress for the job you want.  Dressing up, I feel professional, competent and even confident.  I just have to decide if I want to blend in enough at the Library coffee shop to overhear undergraduate students openly complaining about other professors.

No matter what I choose, it’s not likely to matter in the short term.  A superstorm just walloped the northeast with over two feet of snow, so whatever I rock in the coming weeks, it’s going to have to go with snow boots.

About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in academia, culture, fashion, grad school, personal, teaching, women. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to On academic chic

  1. Jennifer Polk says:

    The male/female, younger/older, PhD/not things are … lots to ponder and all true! As for weather-appropriate clothing, this is tricky. I tend to bike year-round—though not through falling snow—and I haven’t figured out a good system. Sometimes, I change when I get where I’m going. But usually this is too much trouble and means I have to carry so much stuff. On days where I want to impress, I’ve taken transit to get where I’m going… paying a premium to arrive later, stomach-churned, and in heels and a dress. Sigh.

    • rglw says:

      There no good solutions but the biking to work does have its trade-offs. I am impressed!

      • Jennifer Polk says:

        haha, thanks. It’s not all that impressive! I don’t have a car, transit is available but expensive and annoying for several reasons, and biking = freedom!

  2. suzqz says:

    One of my professors talked about women professors being evaluated on their clothing choices and shoes and said that he’s never, in twenty plus years of teaching, had what he wears mentioned on an evaluation. It’s crazy.

    Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about the what-to-wear conundrum too– when I was working toward my first undergrad degree in my early to mid-twenties I dressed very casually, sweatpants were no big deal. But now I’m a non-traditional aged undergrad in my early to mid-thirties–what’s appropriate for me to wear?? If I dress too formally I won’t fit in with my classmates and walking from my house to class and all over campus in between will be uncomfortable at best, but if I dress too informally I’m sure it will contribute to a negative image of me as old and annoying. I now wear make up every day. I attempt to look casually “put together.” I had no idea, when I was 22, that I’d end up putting so much thought into this!

    • rglw says:

      I teach several “non-traditional” (who decided 18 was “traditional” anyway!) students–mostly women–and I see them struggle with the same issue. They love “fitting in” and being mistaken for 18 or 19 but they also don’t want to look unprofessional. It’s a tough balance but I think casually put together is a good strategy!

  3. I think you under-estimate the challenges of male academic dressing. I’ve now got 5 different tweed jackets (two with patches on the elbows). Choosing which one to wear in the morning is a pretty tough choice.

  4. As you might imagine, I have so much to say on this subject. We’ll have to talk.

    I desperately want my daughter to grow up in a world in which she can have the same disregard for clothing as me and many of my male colleagues and friends.
    I will say that after fifteen years of teaching and public speaking, your appearance is the last thing to worry about in terms of commanding authority in a classroom of students or a room full of colleagues.


    As I am sure you are aware, the amount of time that you think people spend evaluating your appearance is a minuscule fraction of the time actually spent.

    • I don’t know rglw in person, but the students (and everyone else) are surely judging her appearance. And it’s making a difference. Clothing is one part of one’s appearance. It is something to consider. You gotta look like yourself, but you also gotta look like a professor who deserves and demands respect and attention. Most people have to work at figuring out how to achieve this. In academia, white men have an easier time of it; women have to work harder.

      • rglw says:

        I have to agree with Jennifer here, Matt. It’s even harder for women on the younger side because you have to seem authoritative and put together. Look at HIllary Clinton–she’s a professional woman and the press is all over her, commenting on her hair, what color suit she wears to meet with other world leaders. And she’s been in her business far longer than 15 years. It’s a thing. And I hope our daughters won’t have to deal with this in their professional lives but I also hoped I wouldn’t have to.

  5. Elysha says:

    I feel like leggings are probably not appropriate for college professors which, as you know, means I couldn’t be one.

  6. Pingback: Surviving (and thriving) at the annual academic meeting | rogue cheerios

  7. Love this post! I constantly worry about if I’m overdressed or “too fashionable” looking when I teach, attend conferences, or meet with colleagues in my English department. Thanks so much for sharing! I actually have a unique “academic fashion” blog that talks about mommyhood, being a fashion-lover, in addition to being an academic. We’re all trying to figure this stuff out together, right?! Feel free to stop by if you have a second – http://academiquechic.com/ 😀

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