What not to wear: the academic edition

As you may or may not know, I will shortly be heading off to the UK for a few weeks by invitation of Herriot Watt University, the Vitae North West hub and Bangor University. I’m very excited about the trip and I’ll tell you more about it in my next post, but it did present me with an unusual dilemma:

What exactly does one wear when giving a Keynote Lecture?

Deciding what to wear is not easy when you are an academic; we don’t have the luxury of suit-as-uniform like our counterparts in the corporate world. We often have to front classrooms full of people barely out of puberty and then go to a committee meeting. For some time now, my twin sister, and fellow academic, Anitra (@anitranot) and I have been creating our own ‘clothing taxonomy’ to deal with this complexity.

The academic clothing taxonomy is basically a series of silly wardrobe nicknames expanded beyond the classic Little Black Dress (LBD) to encompass any number of occasions. Presently it includes: “The definitive white shirt”, “The sexy librarian number”, “The meet the people dress”, “The Last Minute Tute” and “Perfect Pants”, to name but a few.

(Stay with me now – there’s a serious point coming up later I promise!)

Each of these items of clothing fit certain social and academic workplace challenges. The “definitive white shirt” goes with anything, including jeans, and makes you look put together with minimal effort. The “Meet the people dress” is the sort of outfit which takes you from classroom to drinks before an evening lecture without looking like you are trying too hard (The “Spring Show” is  the  art / design exhibition version of the same thing). The “Last Minute Tute” (LMT) was developed when Thesis Whisperer was under 3 and I needed to pull off casual and classroom ready 10 minutes after getting out of bed. It was therefore crucial that the LMT was good at hiding the inevitable toddler ‘yogurt hand’ marks.

These wardrobe Types are like Platonic Forms; @anitranot and I are always on the hunt for new and more perfect manifestations of them. We have been known to ring each other excitedly when we find a Fine Example of a Type and, since we are basically the same shape and size, sometimes we buy two – just so the other wont miss out (it’s a twin thing).

The “Sexy librarian number” (SLN) is perhaps the most elusive; it’s the kind of dress you need when presenting a paper; a dress which makes you look ‘academic’ without being frumpy and, despite the ‘sexy’ label, this dress must not be too revealing. The Keynote Dress (KND) was the older sister to the SLN. The KND needs to step it up a notch in the ‘serious academic’ stakes, but doesn’t need to be as over the top as my one and only “I’d-like-to-thank-the-academy awards night ensemble” (a fiendishly difficult dressing challenge let me tell you – luckily I have only had to do this once).

Anyway, I found the Keynote Dress unexpectedly, on my lunch break, and remarked on Twitter that I was relieved that this wardrobe challenge had been achieved. I was surprised by the number of responses by people who could relate to and were interested in the numerous challenges of academic dressing.

It seems my sister and I are not alone in the nick name thing; @trishmorgan told me about her “lucky conference blouse” (must add that to my list). As usual, PhD Comic s has been there before as @jasmine_z  pointed out. I was interested when @alisonseaman told me that her creative dress sense was too creative for the other Fine Art academics and when @deborahbrian started to talk about the ‘bloke fashion’ trend in Archeology I realised this academic dressing thing deserves some serious attention.

Does what we wear have career implications? This article from The Chronicle  sent to me by @fashademic suggests it might:

“There was just one problem with the English department’s job candidate: his pants. They were polyester, green polyester, and the members of the hiring committee considered that a serious offense. For 10 minutes they ranted about the cut, the color, the cloth. Then and only then did they move on to weightier matters”

They say you should dress for the job you aspire to, not the one you have, so should you have to dress the part to get an academic job?

If we are to believe Pierre Bourdieu, the French social theorist, the answer would be yes because we all possess ‘cultural capital’. With apologies for the gross simplification to those of you reading this who are experts in this area, cultural capital can be thought of as an asset, just like money, property, jewelry and other possessions. We accumulate it by immersion; by being in a world where you constantly watch how others dress, behave and act – and (mostly unconsciously) mimicking what you see.

An example of cultural capital at work is ‘good taste’. Who decides what ‘good taste’ is? Well, everyone and no one. It is something that arises between us and owned by no one, which is why it’s possible to have so many personal definitions at the same time. However, if Bourdieu is right, those personal definitions of good taste will start to converge when groups of people spend a lot of time living and working together. Every academic discipline will comprise different sorts of cultural capital – no group is homogenous, but there will be ‘tribes’ that share values and ways of doing things (as Becher and Trowler pointed out). PhD study is the perfect time to spend some time studying these tribes and acquiring your own store of academic cultural capital.

Acquiring academic cultural capital is much more than a matter of learning how to dress the part. Consider the problem of the literature review. In the literature review you display your knowledge of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a particular academic field. You do this by choosing and talking about the ‘right’ key authors, in the ‘right’ way. Knowing what is ‘right’  is a form of cultural capital you have acquired through reading and talking with other academics. It is difficult to acquire academic cultural capital outside of the academy.

Possessing and displaying the right cultural capital – in your writing at least – is essential for building trust and credibility with your academic colleagues, so why not clothes too? Or should they not matter? What do you think? Do you have ways of dressing which you think help you ‘fit in’ with your academic tribe? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

(Late addition: on the suggestion from ‘Ozzietassie’ in the comments below, I have started a board on my Pinterest account called ‘academic dress?‘. I can’t make it collaborative very easily, but please put links to images you want to add in the comments and I will pin them)

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90 thoughts on “What not to wear: the academic edition

  1. karenmca says:

    Am at library conference as I write. Will I be able to sleep tonight for fretting that my SLN may not have lived up to expectations?! Especially as I was a speaker!

  2. Katrina says:

    I have actually found that dressing well (and interestingly) is a good way to get senior academics to come and strike up a conversation with you, I once managed to have a nice chat with a VIP at an 18th century conference because he liked my 18th century inspired hair style. Happened again with my turban hat at another conference. Actually maybe this is a headwear thing…

  3. aahenry07 says:

    Lol! Your post stopped me in my tracks. I am so glad someone else (quite a few others actually) thought the same thoughts before me. I am a newbie to the whole PhD and academic presentation scene. I gave my first oral in February and I found I was just as stressed about what to wear as I was about how to present! Do guys have this worry? There is a lot to consider: one must look lovely as a lady should but not so lovely as to not be taken seriously as an academic but not so academic as to appear frumpy! And that’s just the half of it! There needs to be some sort of wardrobe guidance from which, at the very least, you can check you aren’t committing any fashion faux pas! In the end I went for a LBD. Probably more in the hope of not drawing too much attention to myself! I had planned to team it with some fabulous heels but in the end I was so nervous that I was convinced the air up where the heels would have placed me would have been too thin for me and coupled with the nervous cause me to drop most embarrassingly! And so I wore the flats I had travelled in! Maybe next time eh?!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I have noticed that most of us academic lady types wear flats. This works for me as a somewhat uncoordinated person, but I always love seeing other academics wearing them. I reckon you should go for it.

      I do wonder if men suffer the same agonies. Maybe some will write in and tell us?

  4. Katherine O'Flaherty says:

    Thanks for this post.

    This is a conversation I have certainly had with other friends in academics. As a graduate student I was always searching for models of how to dress. My department didn’t have many women faculty and those it did have were twice my age…lets say our senses of fashion didn’t always align. Our department didn’t hire much and it was rare that an invited lecturer was a woman or close in age to me. On the rare occasion when a woman in her 20s or 30s did show up I scrutinized her shoes, outfit, jewelry, purse etc. I also did a lot of people watching at conferences to see what academic women wore. It took me a long time to find a style that I feel comfortable with. Whatever you wear you have to own it. You have to be confident, which isn’t always easy. There is nothing worse than feeling uncomfortable in your clothes or feeling frumpy.

    I think you also have to look age appropriate and this, in an academic context, can be hard. I am closer in age to my students than many on the faculty. I don’t want to look like I am 19 nor do I want to look like I am 80. If you are on a limited budget and have few role models or mentors close at hand it can be difficult to gauge what works and what doesn’t.

    Katherine O’Flaherty

  5. Barry Peddycord says:

    Since starting the Ph.D., I’ve decided that since I’m a grown man, I get to decide what I wear, and I want to wear things that make me look academical. As such, I’ve essentially sworn off of tennis shoes, jeans, and t-shirts, opting instead for nice casual shoes, khakis, and collared shirts for my daily dress.

    I find the best motivation for me to get work done is to get up in the morning and dress professionally. It feels like it’s easier to succeed when you look the part!

    • aahenry07 says:

      I think you are right. How you dress will not only influence how you behave but it will also influence how others respond to you. I hadn’t even thought about how I would dress at uni on a day to day basis! Now I will. It’s also great to hear that guys think about these things too!

    • madameppm says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Coming from a business background into academia, I can’t work unless I am dressed for business, and my business is now largely academia. I get some comments, but I think you need to be comfortable in your own skin.

  6. ozzietassie says:

    I have found since entering academia there are 2 types of dress for females (at least in my field – medicine)
    the “I am working like a trojan and dont have to lecture/talk/have meetings” outfits, and the “I have to stand up and present something to someone about goodness knows what”.
    Lately I have been spending ALOT of time in skirts – which for anyone who knows me will be very odd.
    I found THE PERFECT skirt in RM Willams the other day – knee length, wool and pleated. It does SLN, LMT AND meet the people depending on what top/shoes I put with it. BEST money I ever spent.
    Any chance we could get a visual post on things that work for each type of outfit? (Maybe a set of boards on Pintrest?)

  7. Jayne says:

    I find that smart casual is just right for me for tutorials – somewhere between the students (short shorts) and admin staff (corporate). I do have a SLN for my first guest lecture and can’t wait to rock it, although my uni is very casual. One of the beauties of academic life is not having to get too dressed up for work!

  8. halften says:

    I found the perfect academic cardifan recently, mustard coloured with blak velvet elbow patches. Do I bought two. It has become part of my ‘academic chic’ outfit, for conferences and job interviews, with a crisp white button up shirt, green wool skirt, black stockings and brown brogues. Cardigan and shirt sleeves rolled up for a ‘let’s get down to business’ attitude.

    I had my final PhD seminar on Friday, but as it was 24 degrees and part of the casual seminar series of my school, I wore a tshirt, skirt, Mary Janes and footless rights, and the academic green woolen skirt, and I think I pulled off casual left leaning academic pretty well. Men have it much easier in my school (ag science) – there’s pretty much a uniform for them (think RM Williams catalogue).

    • ozzietassie says:

      The RM Williams catalogue is decent for academic women as well I have found. Though having a friend who gets discount helps!

  9. Winifred Beevers says:

    Always wear trousers – so much easier to wear low heels or flats with trousers. My SLN and conference number is: tailored trousers – wool or wool blend. Blouse or shirt with a proper stand up collar. Brogues and discreet socks. Elegant and stylish, works for presenting and meet n greets. Can be dressed out with costume jewellry, bright wrap and shoes with odd socks. Formal-ise with a jacket, pearl necklace, court shoes/socks that match the trousers. Same trousers and shoes can go casual by having an untucked tunic and casual hair. Basically, think woven fabrics for bottoms and most of your tops. Knits really only work (for me) as jumpers/cardigans or polo shirts. I REALLY miss Fletcher Jones!
    The whole lot with jeans takes you to a new level – great for attending presentations/lectures and for relaxed departments.

  10. M-H says:

    Oh boy, does this ring true! Even in an admin unit I have trouble hitting the spot. No-one here wears suits, not even the director (unless he’s going to a Big Committee Meeting). Neat but funky would sum most of the women up, I think. The men wear open-neck shirts with neat pants and ‘good’ shoes. But last night, packing for a conference, I had a mini-meltdown. Neat tailored pants and a good shirt; a skirt and a funky shirt to present; black mary-janes to wear with both; jeans, t-shirt and classy cardigan to travel. My problem was that everything I got out was BLACK! And I don’t wear black that often… For some reason black seems to be the ‘dress-up default’ in my wardrobe. Finally got it sorted, but I had to have a little lie-down afterward.

  11. Julia says:

    Love, love, love this post. Mostly because I know this dilemma so well. I have a pair of trousers that I always come back to – classically inspired, fine, grey. And a straight (again very conservative/classic) black skirt with air hostess heels (the answer to a need for height and balance).
    Still on the search for the perfect dress, but I do have an A-line red patterned skirt that is killer with a black top. Very ‘statement’ – love it for ‘office’ wear, but I don’t yet have the confidence to present in it. Maybe that will come…

      • madameppm says:

        So do I. It was raining yesterday, with some sleet and it nearly June! So I wore a bright pink dress, but toned it down with a grey cardigan and grey heels (can’t do flats). I don’t know if I was making a statement, but it certainly made me feel better.

  12. Anonymous says:

    For females, http://www.academichic.com/ is a fantastic resource. Unfortunately the site is no longer being updated, but it has great tips for dressing appropriately for different academic environments and occasions. It’s also got good ideas for dressing on a PhD stipend budget and travel packing tips. As well as showing what they wore, they took quite a theoretical approach as well to describe why they wore that outfit, which was interesting and very useful.

  13. Pamela Fruechting says:

    Why would academic dress be any different than other smart women? Why do we think smart women are dowdy? Look at some of the news consultants- lovely, smart, and beautifully/modestly dressed. I see it this way: academics are trying to bring new perspectives of truth to their discipline…and truth is beautiful and virtuous. Why should we dress frumpy given the beauty we are wanting to convey?

  14. Megs Tyler says:

    Hmmmmm. Something makes me think male academics aren’t so desperate to present at conferences looking like “sexy librarians”.

    Isn’t it a worry in 2012 that this is so much of an issue? Yes, a suit won’t cut it in academia most of the time (although in business colleges it is a bit different) but most women in the corporate world don’t have the luxury of simply recycling 2 or 3 off the rack suits either. I don’t think this is so much of a “unique to academia problem” as much as it is a seriously gendered problem.

    If we have to be so worried about this stuff, it really suggests that there are still *extremely* outdated notions of what it means to be professional *and* a woman circulating out there even in the supposedly enlightened halls of academe. Look a bit sexy, but not too sexy. Look serious, but not too serious. I feel like I’ve opened a copy of Cosomopolitan! Frankly it is depressing.

  15. Ben Kraal (@bjkraal) says:

    This is a great post, Inger! At the beginning you lament and detail and enjoy the great variety of options you have for presenting yourself as an academic in different contexts. My options and problems are different.

    No-one would care if I wore jeans and a t-shirt to work most days, as most days I sit in my office and read and write. As a Research Fellow I rarely have contact with undergrads, so I’m only “on show” for about an hour a week.

    At the same time, I do think that what I wear sends a message about how I treat my work, so I try to dress professionally. Where you talk about an academic clothing taxonomy and looking for a variety of platonic forms, I have an even more minimal goal: the platonic ideal of shirt and coat and pants.

    Fortunately, the platonic ideal of how to dress as a (male-presenting) academic in 2012 has already been established. The trick is that it was established by college students in the 1950s.

    Platonically Ideal dress, from the ground up:

    Shoes: Brown leather in the plainest style you can. Penny loafers are what they wore on campus in the 50s. I walk about 3kms a day and I overpronate something terrible so I need more support.

    Pants: Khaki, worn at your “natural waist”, which is higher than where your jeans sit. And a brown belt. Alternatively, and more dressily, grey wool.

    Shirt: Oxford cloth long sleeve with a button-down collar (ie the collar points button to the shirt). Oxford cloth is a thick cotton with a textured weave. Traditional options are white or blue. Proper oxfords are too hot for Brisbane summers so I tend to go for poplins.

    Jacket or coat: Most of the time I don’t need a coat but it does make everything more dressy. 1950s American college kids wore tweed which is usually a bit hot in Brisbane and has come to be associate with a sort of middle-aged fussiness. A navy blue sportscoat is classic. If you need a second coat I would look for something in a textured grey/brown, which will end up being tweed more than likely. Brisbane being Brisbane I’ve gone with blue/white seersucker more often than tweed as I still can’t find one that’s summer weight.

    Tie: Unless you’re going to a sit-down dinner with the Vice-Chancellor you probably don’t need a tie and unless you’re wearing a jacket you shouldn’t wear a tie at all, lest you look like a shop assistant in an electronics store (which you may be, but academics present differently). Ceteris paribus you want something dark and textured. No amusing duck or elephant patterns. That said, once the weather is cool enough I wear a tie (and jacket, see above!) whenever I have student contact.

    A great resource for dressing like an academic is Jesse Thorn’s Put This On. This post is a good place to start for what “basics” are. http://putthison.com/post/712103418/ And this one is great for “why dressing well matters” http://putthison.com/post/665640307/

    Now, I can’t do a What Not To Wear without talking about what I wear. This year I’m making a real effort to pare down to the most classical things that I can, which is hard as I like loud colours. Which is to say that I have a pastel-pink seersucker jacket and kelly-green pants and I wear them at the same time.

    But, today I am about as close to the platonic ideal as I can get in Brisbane in early Autumn. I’ve got my (ugly but supportive) brown bike-toed Ecco lace-ups over navy-blue socks. I’m wearing mid-grey wool-blend trousers and a brown belt. I’ve got a blue-and-white stripe button-down shirt (which feels like a very fine oxford to me). It’s finally cool enough for a jacket in Brisbane so I have a beige poplin suit coat with a white linen pocket square. I was on the panel for a final PhD presentation today and ordinarily I wouldn’t have worn the jacket.

  16. Jennifer Jones says:

    Oh dear, you *do not* want to see what I’m wearing today for work. Looking a bit like a neon zebra. I look like I’m dressed up in my mum’s work clothes if I *ever* try look formal… But I guess us lot in the creative industries department get away with looking like they are constantly going to a rave. Adds colour to a row of grey haired men in suits…

  17. Evonne Miller (@ShrinkinHeels) says:

    Now this is a topic I can contribute to! For women in academia, dressing well (I think) helps in many ways.. for me (who looks young) it helps convey authority and gives confidence. And it is a great excuse to buy something new.. .the easiest thing to wear is a little black dress, combined with some unique accessory (whether it be coloured heels or funky jewellary that people can compliment you on.. ie a conversation starter).

  18. Kathryn Daley (@Kat_Daley) says:

    Yes!! My male friend and I, who both started PhDs together, and were both very young, have had this discussion so many times. I could write a whole post on this – my gosh, the dilemmas:

    ‘The other tutors I teach with are all older, and tend to dress very casually, but I look about 18 when I dress casually and fear my students won’t take me seriously – I don’t want to look like I am trying too hard, but I do want to look like an adult: What do I wear?!’

    ‘I look 20, have very blonde hair, and don’t know anyone at the conference. The other attendees are mostly aged 50+. Most of the women dress up for the formal conference dinner, but I feel that because they are all so much older, it doesn’t seem over the top at all. I am scared that if I dress up, it will seem over the top, and won’t be taken seriously. What do I wear?!’

    ‘I have been dressing very casually for the past two years of my PhD, but as I near the end, I feel that I should start to dress more adult-like to be seen as more of a colleague than student: What do I wear?!’

    … and on and on the list goes…

      • Kathryn Daley (@Kat_Daley) says:

        haha – thanks. I remember there being A LOT of anxiety around what to wear to ethics the first time around! — ‘I am a student. But want my opinion to be given credence. I’ve never seen an academic committee, but now I am on one. I don’t know anyone. They are from different disciplines: What do I wear?!’

        … I see that much of my concern has been about wanting to be taken seriously. This might explain why young and/or early-career researchers seem to care more about what they should wear. But maybe it just says I have an insecurity complex?

  19. isabellisima says:

    I’m in a Fine Art department in the UK and we operate a fascinating double game. The unspoken rule is: the artier the clothes, the worse the work. Therefore, nothing ‘arty’ or ‘theatrical’, nothing ‘formal’ (no suits/jackets), nothing ‘fashiony’, nothing ‘perfect’. You have to signal that you work in the studio, possibly getting very very messy (of course, your practice may not involve this but the same rule applies), but that you are utterly in control of all aesthetic communications. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. And translating this into American-Academic is just mind-boggling. A hole in my cardigan will translate very differently. Right now, I’m working on an outfit for presenting a paper and a piece of work next week in Washington DC. It has taken more working on than the paper, but in my line of work, it’s critical.
    As an undergraduate I was trained to critique every tiny aspect of our visiting lecturers presentations- including their clothes. It was incredible training for understanding the visual nature of a presentation, but I can imagine my long-dispersed crit group analysing every outfit I consider!

  20. ra says:

    Relevant Hamming:

    “I came from Los Alamos and in the early days I was using a machine in New York at 590 Madison Avenue where we merely rented time. I was still dressing in western clothes, big slash pockets, a bolo and all those things. I vaguely noticed that I was not getting as good service as other people. So I set out to measure. You came in and you waited for your turn; I felt I was not getting a fair deal. I said to myself, “Why? No Vice President at IBM said, `Give Hamming a bad time’. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they’ll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven’t mistreated them.” Answer, I wasn’t dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that – I wasn’t dressing properly. I had to make the decision – was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.

    You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.

    John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.”

    • Winifred says:

      Beautifully phrased Ra!
      I work in health and I tell students coming for clinical placement (practicum) that their appearance should be neutral. That they will cease to be effective if patients are concentrating on how they appear rather than what they do.

  21. eleanor says:

    At the risk of sounding flippant after all these thoughtful comments, I like to use Packing Pro for iPhone so as to not forget important stuff when traveling to conferences. I have just spent a very happy hour relabelling my packing pro lists according to the academic clothing taxonomy. Fun times! 🙂

  22. Jess says:

    Haha, this is great! Thanks for sharing! I find this issue a total minefield and am forever spending too much time worrying about it (if only I spent as much time worrying about lectures etc). In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I sent a panicked email to a friend asking for emergency fashion advice while I was packing for a conference in Berlin. I find the ‘Perfect Funky Blazer’ to be a vital part of my academic wardrobe…it should be tidy and should be a nod to the suit, but with a little something snazzy about it. It can be thrown over virtually any top and with jeans, trousers or a skirt and you immediately look more coordinated than you feel (regularly necessary in my professional life) My current fave is black with fine purple pin-stripes and has a dragon pattern embroidered on the back…just ‘coz 🙂 I almost always get lovely comments about it when I wear it places. And I wore it to the job interview for my current job too, so it must be a lucky dragon…

  23. eleanor says:

    In all seriousness, I don’t believe that sexism is at work here. I suspect that men just don’t talk about what they wear in the way that women do. I came into my PhD from two part time teachery positions (private school and music examiner) and both of these had really prescriptive dress codes that were a contracted term of employment. One in particular specified no facial hair for men which is probably as 1950s as it is possible to get!

  24. ailsahaxell says:

    On a practical level there’s got to be an app in this…
    Or a more theoretical and Latourian take on being made in association.
    Proverbial wisdom of my Grandad was clothes maketh the man, he did predate a more enlightened and less sexist use of language…
    Or if I were to see my self as a precious vessel…and as Churchill had it- we make our cathedrals and thereafter our cathedrals make us.
    AND then there are the best laid plans that make Gods laugh- had my wardrobe all set for my conference presentation then busted my shoulder and could only get in and out of stretchy clothes.

  25. Elizabeth Boulton says:

    Agree – it is important and sends a message, I like people who look relaxed, ie the style IS them, they are authentic. Doesn’t so much matter what it is, rather the way it is worn, (within some reason of course.) I am a little over the ‘I’m a smart person” glasses… you know those frames with flat rectangular style lenses…

  26. robyn74 says:

    As someone who has taught professionalism to medical students in thongs and an AC/DC shirt (yes the one in the picture) perhaps not the best person to reply. Someone did nicely point out to me when I was a mother of a 6 month and 2 year old that perhaps my grotty t-shirts and ripped jeans did not reflect my contribution to the workplace and people may get the wrong idea. I love wearing SLNs and dressing up even if its just me in the office transcribing. puts me in the mood for work. And you never know when you’ll be asked to do a tute and don’t undergrads dress up these days…make up and high heels. What happened to the pj bottoms and flannies of the 1990s!???

  27. glenda caldwell (@Glenda_C_) says:

    I LOVE this post and all of the comments are brilliant! As I find myself in the School of Design I feel there is an added pressure to our academic attire to evoke a creative vibe. This year our school has joined the Creative Industries faculty and our School now includes two more disciplines, including Fashion Design. When we were part of the Engineering faculty, I was fine, we were the creative ones, but now the stakes have been doubled and the playing field has widened. We no longer are the “creative ones” and the competition is fierce. So far the discussion has been about dressing the part of an academic, now my question is…how do we define ourselves within our disciplines and or faculties? I imagine there is a different sort of pressure for those teaching business or law. Thankfully for me being creative is a challenge I enjoy, whether or not I manage to dress the part is to be seen…

  28. @mezk says:

    As I am nearing the date at which I will hand in my thesis I have begun to move away from the standard PhD student in the lab uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. I think this is more to do with me growing up and feeling confident enough to present myself as an individual rather than me trying to persuade people to think of me as a colleague and not a student. Making an effort also gives me a purpose and gets me into “work-mode” when I am in need of some motivation to finish the dreaded document. Finding a great pair of shoes that are lab-appropriate footwear also makes a huge difference.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I’ve noticed in this thread quite a few people linking dressing with the feeling of being a grown up. I feel the same way – still. At 41 I don’t quite feel grown up yet, but objectively I am. For me it’s accepting i have to spend a little more money that is the difficult part, after so many years of PhD austerity!

  29. Arianna says:

    Perspective from the other side: as a design student, I think you need to dress carefully for the final crit, never mind that you’ve had no sleep! ‘Tis very important that the critters know that you take what you’re doing seriously, or to put it another way, would you hand over your house to a badly dressed designer?

    Though I’ve often been amused to see that architects who design whacky buildings dress quite conservatively, actually, make that disappointed.

    Claire Colebrook writes about clothing in the introduction to “Understanding Deleuze”, she basically reckons that clothing does matter and that it is relevant, that it conveys information.

  30. Kelly Dombroski says:

    This is the SLN I want to buy:
    But jsut can’t make myself spend $300 on a dress!!

    BTW Annah S in NZ has chameleon dress of a similar price designed perfectly for conference travel for the girl who likes something a bit more out there. It’s reversable, can wrap either way so you can get up to four dresses out of one, plus it’s wrinkly and gets stored in a little bag that you can also wash it in. I always thought it was brilliant for conferences, but never been quite brave enough to buy one

    • ingermewburn says:

      I know what you mean. I struggle with myself if I have to pay more than $120 on any outfit… but whenever I have it’s been more than worth it. I have a $250 ‘meet the people’ dress which is coming up to its 9th year of service. I love the idea of reversible! Will have to check that out – thanks 🙂

  31. Jasmine (@jasmine_z) says:

    This is indeed a very interesting topic. Having worked for 4 years before coming back to do my PhD, I have found it difficult to dress in shorts and t-shirts, like how some of my peers do. Well, I still do dress in shorts and t-shirts on weekends when I am in the office.

    But, typically, on weekdays when I am in the office and have to meet my supervisors, etc, I prefer to dress decently/casually but not over the top – a simple casual work like dress, or even jeans and a nicer blouse. You never know when you are going to meet your future prospective employer! And, for me, putting that little effort in dressing up actually makes me feel better about being stuck in the office for long hours! haha.

    I think it’s important to strike a balance when it comes to what to wear as an academic/PhD student. I’ve had peers who were asked to dress up a little more in certain occasions. But, you won’t want to look like you are dressed for a fashion parade either.

  32. literateworm says:

    As a male student just finishing the first year of my English Lit degree, I never really think about what I wear. The fact that I don’t have much money kind of stops me from adding variation but my daily dress code is usually the jeans, t-shirt, open shirt on top combo. When I say daily I mean for around my flat, for class, for going out shopping, and for a night out! I’m starting to think I’m a bit boring, ha.

    Great post by the way 🙂

  33. John says:

    As a male Engineering student there aren’t really that many different options, so I would suggest that they fall on an increasing scale of smartness thus:
    1) shorts and old t-shirt (or similar)
    2) jeans and smarter t-shirt/shirt
    3) shoes, trousers + shirt
    4) as above + tie
    5) as above but full suit

    Day to day as I cycle to uni I start out as 1 and will change to 2 if I’m going to be meeting supervisors. If I’m going to work on placement with my sponsoring company it will be 3. This has been the standard at previous engineering companies I’ve worked at. I will step up to levels 4 or 5 for presentations/meetings/conferences.

    However since returning to academia from working in industry I’ve been a bit surprised by the academic attitude towards smartness. I was at a conference last month where attendees affiliation (industry/academia) could be pretty accurately guaged by whether they were in a tie or not. Some academics it seemed had only stepped up to level 2 smartness!

    I write this currently from an industry conference where I am the only academic and almost everyone is at level 4 or above (including myself)!

  34. Zainabadi says:

    Here’s what’s worked for me in every single interview I’ve had to get an academic job (I’m a laydee). A pair of grey tailored trousers and heels, with a non-matching jacket (I’ve had success with both sharp tailoring and looser cuts) and a black (non-revealing) camisole.

    The worst look is the matchy-matchy skirt suit, which looks way too corporate and try-hard for academia; but the too-casual look should also be avoided.

    For conferences and talks I have now fallen in love with LK Bennett dresses, which suit my curvy figure and sit the right side of sexy while still adding glamour. I usually wear an eye-catching scarf or statement necklace to draw the eye to my face.

    • madameppm says:

      As an LK Bennett fan (who only buys in the sales), I agree entirely. It getting the smart across, combined with a nod to fashion, which is so hard to get right

  35. Deborah Fisher says:

    I am an academic Teaching Fashion but come to it after 20 years in the fashion industry…!! Please read the post regarding first impressions from yesterdays blog I have developed as part of my virtual ethnography research into identity.

    http://myfrockrocks.blogspot.com.au/ . I would adore some of these readers and posters to participate in my research…Please!


  36. Jonathan Downie says:

    Women have it easy. Men have the real sartorial challenges. We have to pick suit colours from: pinstripes (ugly), black (boring), grey (makes you look like your dad), brown (makes you look like a walking turd), red (eh, no!) or some yellowy thing (don’t go there). Then there is the eternal tie question (single or two colour? interesting or traditional). Believe me, if we cared about dress sense, it would drive us mad. Hence why so many male profs look like toilet brushes in crumpled charity shop reject suits. 😉

  37. Kino Zhao says:

    It’s been quite awhile, but would you be able to offer some advice for “young, not-quite-academic” dress? I’m in my early 20s fresh out of undergrad into grad school, so naturally I’m still wearing all my 1st year hoodies (I love them! So comfy). I’ve also started TAing and my students are at most 4 years younger than me, and sometimes dress more mature than I do. I swear a few professors were genuinely surprised when I introduced myself as new grad student. (And I’m pretty sure one was just about to remove me from a grad student meeting before my interim supervisor greeted me..)

  38. riotgirl32 says:

    Great post – but I’m stuck.
    Speaking at my first conference. Its a horror themed conference. I’ve got several tattoos.

    I feel this could go either way……


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