Appropriate academic garb

Dearest colleauges: How do you dress for class? For those days when you need to be on campus for meetings but don’t teach? For lectures? I think this is something we should talk through somewhat.

I’m teaching in a setting where there is not a lot of pressure in that area, but I still want to look nice. Partly it’s a matter of being tired of the squalor of my grad school years. Partly it’s also strategic: I’m still pretty young, so dressing up nicer is an easy distancing strategy with my students that hopefully helps me to avoid some of the awkwardness that comes with explicitly stating boundaries, etc.

More broadly, I think that academic men of my generation are reacting against the baby boomer emphasis on dressing down — though at the same time, I think it’s valuable to resist imitating business garb. The end result is that many of us are trying to dress “like academics,” meaning like the very people our older colleagues were reacting against. Yet the break introduced by the baby boomers’ quest for authenticity means that there are relatively few genuine models of that old style still walking around. Thus we young academic men embrace cliches, illustrated by the continual reference to the burning need to track down a jacket with leather patches on the elbows, etc.

Meanwhile women have a much different set of pressures to navigate, without even the comfort of a cliche of the “classic female academic” to refer back to. Women of my generation seem to have a similar fashion reaction, embracing femininity over against a perceived feminist requirement for frumpiness — yet that can introduce a whole other set of problems if they are perceived as overly sexy (which can happen basically no matter what they do). Actual women can probably address this more fully, of course.

Anyway, where do you come down on this crucial issue? My current plan is to make the combo of a button-up shirt, non-jeans, and a jacket or nice sweater the baseline, allowing me to go up or down relatively easily without drawing undue attention (i.e., the shock of “wow, why are you so dressed up today” or “I never even pictured you in jeans before). Going much higher for a baseline would probably be inappropriate in my setting, and in any case I don’t think that I have a deep enough bench in my wardrobe to really support it right now — and The Girlfriend is getting tired of only ever shopping for me on all our shopping trips.

32 thoughts on “Appropriate academic garb

  1. I would love to wear a suit everyday, but I ride my bike and sweat a lot. Plus I don’t have a real office, so I can’t keep clothes there. I tend instead to do the jeans, sometimes non-jeans, dress shirt, jacket with an elbow patch look. Ok, my jacket doesn’t have an elbow patch, but I don’t mind those. They don’t wear down from leaning!

    This year I was considering saying “fuck it” and just rolling up my sleeves. In the past I was worried about distracting my class because of my tattoo sleeves, but I don’t care anymore. America is too damn hot.

  2. My partner is very particular about what I can/can’t wear (e.g. against anything that remotely resembles sweater vests). I tend to wear what you have listed (I’ve got a few corduroy’s, khaki’s, dark pants and wear that with short or long sleeve collared shirts — generally button-ups instead of polo’s) with ‘nicer’ shoes (i.e. not sneakers). This seems to be a good baseline which worked well (though at one conference, I felt a bit under-dressed until I saw two people running around in shorts and t-shirts). Most of the faculty in my grad department wore something similar or ‘proper’ business attire even though they were mainly boomers (except for one of the younger members who always wore jeans and polo shirts).

  3. Hood, t-shirt, jeans. I don’t own anything else and I’m not in the market for new clothes. Hasn’t been a problem with faculty, administration or students. People seem to accept it as “my thing.”

    Well, one student commented on evaluations that I wasn’t professional, but didn’t elaborate. They could have been referring to my swearing as much as to my clothing.

  4. Spiegelman looks great but if you dress like that once you have to keep it up, I think.

    I’ve decided to allow myself to wear (nicer) jeans, but I think I’m mostly going to try to go with non-jeans pants. Unfortuantely most of my non-jeans pants are themselves pretty casual and some of the ones that are dressier are really close fitting. Probably not a big deal?

  5. I know I’ve succeeded via your plan when my students comment that they didn’t recognize me when I slum around in shorts.

  6. I’ve got a special challenge since I teach studio art classes. In one of my classes it’s mainly video/digital work so I let myself dress up. This has the nice distancing effect since I get mistaken for a student all the time (which I like, but still). I also have refused to let my students call me by my first name in class for the same reason but I think I’m finally comfortable enough that I’m going to change that this year.

    In my other class there is lots of glue and paint and ink and all kinds of things that could permanently damage clothes. I have a lot of “studio clothes” when I work on my own art, but those are too shabby to wear in class. I try to wear passable blue-collar work clothes for this class, but I don’t have too many of these kinds of clothes and can’t afford to buy a lot more of them, so I end up repeating the same work pants too often.

    Since it is sort of my job to be a ridiculous artist I let myself play dress up sometimes. I wore wigs for a few classes last year, and I have some nice hot pink shorts that I’ll wear when it gets really warm. One of my classrooms can get insanely hot sometimes so I have that to factor in too.

  7. I just bought another jacket yesterday to give myself room to move a little ‘higher’ up the casual-smart spectrum. Don’t be scared of jeans – but always get black or dark navy. With a nice polo, taking the jacket on and off becomes something of a Clark Kent-in-a-phone-booth-esque exercise.

  8. I normally go Shirt, tie, blazer and either khakis or decent jeans. However, since I’m teaching in Florida now I’ll probably wait a couple of months until I bring the blazers out. I feel like being covered in my own perspiration won’t help me appear anymore professional. I find dressing reasonably ‘nice’ helps me get a bit more respect from students who are sometimes only 4 or 5 years younger than me.

  9. APS: I’m known to the folks at the local Men’s Warehouse, a store with a generous reward program and folks know to get me gift cards to there for my birthday, etc., since gift cards to there are the only way I ever purchase new clothes for myself. They will press your suits for free and will fix or repair any tailoring they do that might need modified down the road. I like the quality of their store brand shirts, and have good occasional sales.

    That said, I dress differently at different points of the semester. More formal at the beginning in the fall, more casual as we continue, and more practical as the winter sets in. I dress much more casual on my non-teaching days when I am doing church work.

  10. I definitely found myself walking the tightrope between “too” feminine and masculine for teaching attire; you’re kind of damned whatever you do. So I went for a fairly smart casual – nice pants, and a blouse with a bit of colour usually. Nothing higher than kitten heels, and hair pulled up.

  11. Great thread. Don’t have much to contribute as I sadly haven’t taught that much of late, but when I do I go for smart jeans, nice shoes, shirt and blazer. Like APS, if funds permitted, I’d wear a suit all the time, but I don’t currently have one as I trashed my other suits. As a person who is a lot messy, I find that dressing smartly helps me feel like I am in control of the situation.

    All black, because I only wear black because I am an idiot.

  12. It’s curious that three of my major influences had really particular dresscodes: turtle necks, a string of sausages, (you’ll have to guess those two) and Wittgenstein never left the house without a tie until the first world war, but then was never seen in one after it.

    I wear a brown blazer pretty much all the time, but only wear a tie to funerals and baptisms. The blazer is because I need all the pockets (I hate carrying stuff around) and don’t like to surprise people too much. British academic: he does exactly what it says on the tin.

  13. Feeling exposed…
    Symeon was also a big fan of nakedness, but Augustine (rightly?) recognised dressing down as the emptiest form of vanity. Actually a number of monastic thinkers (that write about clothes) feel the need to come up with arguments against nakedness. A peculiarly Christian temptation?

  14. Since I’ve just finished my PhD, and thus lack funds to invest in a new wardrobe, the past two years I’ve had to just make due with the “nicer” end of my existing grad student wardrobe — which is mainly a handful of button-ups, a cheap blazer, and nicer jeans/non-jeans.

    When I was at Duke, I only saw Hauerwas one time in non-jeans, and he opened up class by pointing at some students and remarking that he had to dress up because “these assholes got themselves arrested, and I’m apparently an expert testimony.”

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