Reader Request: Adjusting Style to an Academic Workplace


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Mary had this request:

Not sure if this is a good suggestion but I am switching careers from a creative industry to a serious academic/historian setting. My fun, twee printed dresses won’t really fly in this new setting. Easy ideas how to look more professional would be very welcome. Sounds cheesy but tweed items would really fit in! Really wish the the Academichic ladies were still around!

This is one of those questions that I totally want to address, but know that I will ruffle some feathers if I do so. What with the not working in academia myself and the knowing that working in academia has all sorts of tricky-to-navigate unwritten rules and norms that you can’t really understand unless you’ve experienced them personally. So I’ll get the ball rolling with a few suggestions and then ask you readers who are working or have worked in academic settings to weigh in.

Add structure

Even if you don’t need to or want to wear actual suits, incorporating some blazers, pencil skirts, structured cardigans, and relatively heavyweight trousers will add gravitas to your outfits. In some cases, throwing a blazer over a fun, twee printed dress might even work!

Bold color OR bold shape

This is a best practice for interviewing, too: Bold colors and unusual shapes are both eye-catching, so pick one or the other. A bright red dress can work if it’s a simple sheath instead of a pleated fit-and-flare with an asymmetric neckline. And on the other hand a sculptural blouse or jacket can work if it’s in a neutral or subdued color. To keep the focus on your teaching, your words, your message, pick one or the other to minimize distraction.

Have fun with your footwear

Having spoken with many women professors, it seems like the unfair, utterly sexist scrutiny that women receive in academia focuses more on clothes than shoes. I don’t think wearing five-inch spike heels every day of the week will go unnoticed, but the occasional pair of funky Fluevogs? Your students and colleagues will probably love ’em.

I’ll stop there and hand the mic to you: Academics, how would you take a creative wardrobe and transition it to academia? Specifically in the history field, if possible? Any other general rules for professors and academics to keep things professional without getting cliched or boring?

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22 Responses to “Reader Request: Adjusting Style to an Academic Workplace”

  1. Sewing Faille

    I’m an academic, and this question is almost impossible to answer. At the very least we need a better idea of the university (or at least the geographic region). Why? University dress cultures vary wildly from university to university, and even within the same university. At Berkeley and UCLA, your fun, twee printed dresses would fit right in. Tweed would be weird. Even at my university– one whose name everyone would recognize– there are two departments which have basically the same form and function, and one has a very strict, formal, codified dress code (“no tights before Halloween” kind of strict) and mine…I showed up in my windbreaking insulated cycling tights all winter and nobody really cared. I also don’t know what your position is. If you’re a full professor, there’s a lot of freedom to wear whatever you want. If you’re a dean or a staff member, I imagine there’s less.

    It’s a really weird fashion world and not in the ways you’d expect. One of my friends TA’d at Harvard and tried to dress what she considered professionally. Her students didn’t really respect her. They all came from very wealthy backgrounds and she wasn’t able to play the game at their level. Then she started coming to class in sweats and her students’ respect for her took a huge jump, because now her students assumed that she didn’t have time for fashion because she was too busy doing brilliant science things. My own approach to fashion in academics has been to exploit the trope that eccentric = brilliant. It suits my personality.

    I think your best bet is to just observe what everyone else wears and fit in as best you can.

  2. Sally McGraw

    An anonymous commenter asked me to post this on her behalf!

    Ditto to all this. Geography, academic discipline, what you are doing each day (in front of classroom? In the lab? Meeting with parents? Working on a white board versus chalkboard? Cleaning out a research space?, Sitting at a forum with no modesty panel on the table?, walking a mile across campus to get to class?) naturally factor in, along with the usual trying to make things work for one’s own body type. Women in the front of the classroom are especially scrutinized by their students–it is performance after all, and women are already rated lower on teaching evals than men, with students sometimes mentioning clothes—so, sometimes safe bets are the best bets. I literally like to literally cover my ass because I have to turn to the board to much. At the university, this person has just got to get there and see what it takes to differentiate yourselves from students, still command respect with faculty, feel comfortable in your body, for me increasingly be on camera for different kinds of events, and make tracks across campus—all without looking like you are trying too hard. For me, I have found that suits don’t fit the situation at my very casual western university, but I can’t personally pull off jeans and casual clothes because my body type just usually goes to frump fast that way. But business casual works a lot of the time, with modest skirts that let me stretch and reach across the board and cover my ass literally, with a jean, leather or simple jacket, a nice scarf to look like the thing is pulled together more or less. Can’t get too precious about it, and yet it takes a lot of thought and I have so little of it to spare. Uniforms of the skirt, top, jacket, scarf style work best. And Danskos.

    I have learned a lot about scarves from Sally’s blog, and so that has made a big difference in all of this for me. Sal, though you don’t talk about academia much, the thing that you DO talk about helped me figure a lot of things out.

    (Academia is not for sissies, in case any one was wondering.)

  3. Roxane

    As a former academic in the arts, I second what the others have said. I had great latitude in how I dressed, and people in creative majors were able to reflect that in their fashion choices.

  4. Beverly

    Hi. Sally, thanks for raising this issue! I’m recently retired after 25 years in a male-dominated field, at a community college. I agree so much with the other commenters [love that academia is not for sissies!]. At my college, women’s clothing depended very much on their disciplines….. Although I HATE seeing academia corporatized, I love the idea of finding a uniform that works for you, given all the constraints already mentioned by the others. I had a ten-year lagenlook moment, which made me feel artsy and intellectual. Feeling powerful in your clothes will translate to being powerful in the overall environment. On the other hand, it is truly creepy [I think] to “undress” in front of a class on a blustery, snowy day, having just walked from one building to another—taking off coat, scarf, hat, gloves, smoothing the let’s-get-started look, too. (and finding somewhere to pile the stuff, including briefcase) I completely second the “cover your ass” rule……there is so much scrutiny!! If there are other women in your field, it’s helpful to emulate. My college was incredibly accepting of a wide variety of approaches to dressing, I think, because female faculty just weren’t seen as being all that important…. I also think faculty appearance really matters to female students in male-dominated fields—-be willing to be a role-model. I will stop rambling!!! Thanks again, Sally!

  5. Nebraskim

    BOTH of these commenters’ comments are true from my experience. I retired from a big Great Plains University (my screen name gives my location away). And yes, what you are doing at the institution and your institution’s and your department’s culture will vary a lot. If it’s a private school, the code may be more rigorous (especially religiously affiliated privates). At my large public university, the deans and senior administrators all dressed very corporate/banker/lawyer. The other folks, not so much. Sometimes I yearned for a dress code because often people just could not figure it out (off-the-shoulder flouncy dresses, OMG just NO!) But depending on the situation, you may be walking for miles from your parking lot. You may never see anyone during the day. Or you may have a front-line job with a lot of interaction from people of all walks of life.

    My advice is to take it pretty conservative the first few weeks and make careful observations of others. It’s not necessary to exactly mimic the group and look like a lemming. But once you get the norms, then it’s OK to color outside the lines in ways that respect your personal style and integrates them into the culture. That being said, if your style is grunge and ear grommets, well, you may be too far outside the lines. But twee printed dresses can be worn with even a denim jacket and probably work. And as in all cases, showing too much skin will not win awards so be sure you’re not exposing too much thigh or too much chest/cleavage.

  6. A Little Birdie

    Totally depends on your university and department. In my field (academic librarianship) dressing like Zooey Deachanel would be totally unremarkable. You’d probably go more classic for an interview, but for day to day work, a few novelty prints wouldn’t be looked at twice.

  7. MarieP

    I’m an adjunct at a private university. On class nights, I wear a conservative dress with pumps and often a jacket or slacks with pumps and a jacket. My go-to stores for this look are Ann Taylor, J Crew, and sometimes Banana Republic. My favorite jackets lately ARE tweed: collarless with a cropped cut. I loved Academichic and I miss it.

    • Ashley Patriarca

      Ditto! I relied on that blog when I was looking at conference wear and job market outfits as a grad student. Their explanation of color theory remains one of the most user-friendly discussions of that topic I’ve ever seen. I miss them, and I hope they’re doing well.

  8. Mary

    I agree with what’s been said in the comments. History is still pretty male-dominated, and unfortunately the twee prints WILL get negative attention. (One of my colleagues in history got judged for wearing cutesy dog-face flats, so I’m not sure shoes can be totally playful, either.) It’s now defunct, but was a good site for showing what’s appropriate in an academic setting, and the posts are all archived, so I’d start there.

  9. Fat White Cat

    Please note that I am not condoning the unwritten rules but rather offering possibilities for navigating them. As a petite Asian female who’s natural style is rather classically feminine, I’ve had to figure out which looks are both professional enough to be a professor yet not so intimidating as to fit stereotypes about ‘Dragon lady’ Asians. Plain pencil skirts and cardigans are my go-tos, although I do not wear skirts the first week of teaching – when I do, I inevitably get more pushback/less respect from the ‘bro-y’ members of the class. Ultimately, I do the above by thinking about not only what the workplace expects but about how those expectations intersect with my particular appearance/persona, which I think is a key point that a lot of the commentators have already wisely pointed out.

  10. Bridget Wall

    I agree: the key to any new job, no matter what the venue, is to take it conservative and slow and plain at first, and observe around you. Then, you will have a basis on which to update your wardrobe as necessary, whether that’s adding some longer cardigans over your fun dresses, or whether that is finding smaller pieces so you know you’re being yourself, even if your job requires something different.

  11. Flagless

    I’m a professor at a rather liberal university, and my style is extremely laid back – I more or less dress pretty much the same as my students. For instance, today at work I wore jeans, Doc Martens, a Star Wars T-Shirt and a hoodie style cardigan, all in pretty bright colours, paired with bright green glasses (I have a collection, in various colours – since I need them, I may as well make them fun to wear). It certainly helps that I teach poetry and am young(ish), so a certain level of ‘geek chic’ or ‘cool nerd’ is not only tolerated, but even expected. The only people at my university who wear suits are men, well into their middle age or close to retirement, who teach at History, Sociology, and Philosophy departments. Everyone else is quite relaxed – even our Dean can often be seen in jeans, though she always pairs them with nice boots.

  12. ACM

    I’m a young-ish academic (5 years into my first tenure-track position). Echoing everyone else, yes it depends on the culture of the university, as well as your field. My university is, for the most part, pretty casual. I have male colleagues who wear jeans, tees, and tennies almost every day. I prefer to dress up more for several reasons, but I also feel free to do a nice jeans outfit whenever I feel like it (dark wash skinnies, blazer, nice flats or wedges, statement necklace or scarf). I usually dress more professional the first week or two of a semester, and then once I’ve established a bit of cred and rapport with my students, I might break out the fun printed dress with a blazer or jean jacket.

    I have a couple go-to uniforms that I can do variations on, and that has helped a ton, as I teach 5 days a week and am thus always “on” dress-wise. I have a couple black dresses (one maxi and one knee length) that I wear with different accessory combinations: jean jacket and variety of scarves, jean jacket and skinny belt and statement necklace, patterned cardigan and belt and statement earrings, etc. And yes, you can almost always get away with funky shoes. The other “uniform” basic that has been a wonderful staple for me is the Lands End Ponte Sheath dress. It’s so so comfortable, but also looks structured and professional. Short sleeve version can be worn with just knee-high boots or heels and a necklace or scarf. Sleeveless I usually add a ponte blazer or a cardigan.

  13. anna dee

    As a former academic (and historian), I agree with everything here. I will say that in my experience, suits were very rare, and I usually saw more funky/ethnic/lagenlook/Eileen Fisher stuff than structured/formal pieces. But again, it will depend on the culture at the institution. I also think that there tends to be a bias against pieces that lean sexy/revealing/uber femme – thinking of your comment about spike heels; spike heels might be seen as kowtowing to the patriarchy (or just inappropriately sexy/unserious) where funky heels wouldn’t be, and I know I’ve seen women get criticized for wearing body conscious/low cut tops/ruffles or frills, say, to present at a conference (so in your office – no one cares; in front of people, maybe a problem). In a similar vein, I’ve seen people with high-maintenance hair in the sense of something like a pixie or dreads, but if your high maintenance looks means waist long curls you hot-roller every morning, that would probably not go over well. (Then again, it might – depending on where you are.) Oddly, I almost never saw anyone wear nail polish in academia. So there can be a sense that effort on certain kinds of self-adornment/presentation is frivolous, and it tends to work against traditionally feminine looks. (Not saying this is good or bad, just saying this was my experience.)

    I think, too, that there’s often an avoidance of more business-y/corporate looks, maybe because of a faculty/admin divide.

    Again, though, a particular institution or department may well have a different culture. The above are just some generalizations based on my experiences at a Big 10 school, a small rural public school, and two urban private schools.

  14. Rebecca

    I’ve been teaching in a UK university where tshirts and jeans are the norm unless there’s an explicit need to be formal. I actually found I betrayed my youth and insecurity more by wearing formal clothes, but don’t feel comfortable in the “student but older” clothes that some of my older colleagues wear. So I strike a balance and wear smart jeans and nice shoes with a soft unstructured blazer, or an unstructured jersey dress and a slight heel.

    Academia is a weird one because there’s the “clothes ethic” of the entire profession, plus a university specific tendency, plus practical concerns. And then there’s the knowledge that all those things transfer to the classroom. One of my favourite ways to start a semester with first year students is to deliberately dress down, and to make my demeanour as laid back and informal as possible. This combined with the usual requirement in the UK that they call me by my first name, destabilises their traditional image of the classroom as a formal space in which they absorb knowledge that is imparted to them, and gets them working with the idea of a communal approach, where I lead their thinking but don’t direct it. I leave them in no doubt where the line is (lateness/rudeness) but use my clothing choices to reflect the pedagogical emphasis, in a way that changes week by week sometimes.

    All this to say- test the waters. Lean over formal to start (over formal doesn’t offend) and then find your niche, the way to combine the customs you see around you with your comfort zone. (But don’t sacrifice comfort when slogging across campus to your need to be as traditionally dressed as you can: heels aren’t worth it!)

  15. Evette

    I am a professor in an academic medical center/medical school and grad school. I agree that the unwritten rules will be very specific to a field, institution and department. At my institution the administration and leadership dress in a very corporate fashion. I follow suit on days I am in committee meetings or meeting with higher-ups (slacks or pencil skirt, blouse or shell, blazer or structured cardigan), usually with a bit of personality from shoes or boots and necklace or scarf, and my separates tend toward a bit of embellishment- ruffle on the collar, box pleats on the peplum, embroidered border print or pattern on the skirt, and usually at least one piece has a pop of color. (But not all at once! If one piece is highly embellished, others may be more plain or subtle.) On days spent alone in my office writing, researching, meeting one-on-one with the students and trainees that I supervise, I am more likely to wear comfortable cords, ankle boots, and a sweater, again with a necklace or scarf. When I travel to conferences or to present at other institutions etc, my wardrobe is more in between in terms of formality, with some structured pieces but mostly substantial knits like ponte and fine-gauge sweater knits that travel well. I’d suggest caution with the shoes until you know your workplace well– in my circles, fugly (funky-ugly chunky shoes) go over ok, but too-sexy stilettos, for example, may create an image you will have to fight against to be taken seriously. For my workplace, the lace-up open toed block heels second on the left would be too extreme for me. Actually I believe we have a formal rule against open-toes in our dress code, although maybe not 100% adhered to.

  16. Courtney

    Seconding all the comments so far. I’m an adjunct prof in the humanities. I’ve taught at a big state school in the Northeast and a smaller liberal arts school in the deep South. At both, I saw people who wore full suits every day and people who dressed down. My favorite was a colleague whose personal uniform was holey jeans, a graphic tee from threadless, sandals, and a velvet blazer. In some ways, I feel that apart from particularly rigid departments or particularly lax ones, the dress code is inverted. The more seniority a professor has, the more they tend to dress down. As a result, I’ve stopped wearing suits except for the first day of class – dress for the job you want to have, right?. I wear business-casual most days. If I want to wear something really funky, like my favorite grey oversized sweatshirt material moto jacket, I wear all black with it so it reads as a statement piece. The rest of the time it’s trousers with a tee-shirt and cardigan or a dress with a cardigan. Shoes are boots or flats, and I occasionally wear dark wash jeans. I’ve had students both students and administrators compliment my style. The most important thing, to me, is to feel comfortable. Pick a look that feels powerful and appropriate to you and that you can walk miles across campus in. The more confidence you have, the more you can channel a genius-doesnt-care attitude, the better off you’ll be!

  17. Evette

    Here’s another suggestion for the OP– take a look at the blog of Susana Fernandez, “A key to the armoire”. She is a fashion blogger AND academic, and her style marries bright colors and girly elements (Peter Pan collars, round-toe pumps, fit-and-flare dresses) with some more classic and business-like, structured pieces to achieve a fun but professional look. Not all of her outfit posts are workday attire, but many are.

  18. Ashley Patriarca

    Oooh! A colleague of mine, Katie Manthey, does some work on the rhetoric of professional dress – check out her work at Dress Profesh:

    I’ll also echo all of the other commenters who say academia varies really wildly in terms of dress expectations. My department (English) at a teaching university is quite casual – you’ll see jeans more often than not. However, my colleagues in the same field at other unis dress up quite a bit more.

    Personally, I started off dressing a little more formally, with nice ponte knit sheath dresses and cardis. Part of that was my newness, my height (I’m really short), and my relative youth. Still, I was routinely getting mistaken for a student, even though I was dressed up 🙁 As I’ve relaxed into my role (including some admin work) and realized that I’ll probably always be mistaken for a student by people who don’t know any better, I’ve also gotten more relaxed clothing-wise. I’m now way more willing to wear jeans with the cardis and dressier shells. Also, I have days where I’m completely channeling Zooey Deschanel. I contain multitudes, outfit-wise, and every damn one of those multitudes is good at her job 🙂 I have no doubt you’ll be the same.

  19. Emmy

    Not an academic, I’m writing as someone who’s also made big job changes and had to navigate dressing appropriately for each environment (e.g., nightclub to law office). To all the other comments I’d add: Be careful of going so far out of your style wheelhouse you end up wearing a costume. It will only make you appear uncomfortable and therefore not confident in your abilities. So if tweed and horn-rimmed glasses aren’t your thing, don’t wear them!

  20. OMGsrsly

    Everywhere is so different. I used to wear sneakers (like Keds or Converse), leggings (I was in science, so legs had to be covered), casual skirt, t-shirt, hoodie. Now I’m working in another department, and it’s very tailored. My coworkers all wear suiting separates, and IF they wear jeans on a Friday, they wear dress shoes and a blouse and a jacket as well. I’m trying to build my professional wardrobe without breaking the bank, and working within a capsule so everything goes with everything, and I have a bit more freedom to dress things up with a jacket, or down with a casual cardigan. In this department I could wear a cute printed dress WITH a tailored topper on a Friday, but that might be it…