Reader Request: Dressing Up While Others Dress Down

dressing up at college

Lovely reader Bonnie – who is a university student – sent this question via e-mail:

While I don’t dress in a particularly fancy way (I normally wear a collared shirt with dark wash jeans and riding boots, or a tailored shirtdress with a cardigan and a pair of sandals), the things I wear look out of place amongst the hoodies and ugg boots worn by my peers. Most of the time I even look smarter than my lecturers! In the faculties I am in (I am doing a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science) people seem to consistently dress down.

How do you balance your need to dress nicely when other people don’t? (I’m sure you must have experienced this before!) And do you have any suggestions as to how to balance your desire to dress smartly when other factors demand you dress in a more comfortable way?

I think a lot depends on your priorities. If you dress quite differently from your peers, that may feel uncomfortable at times. But is your priority to feel less alienated from your fellow students, or is it to remain true to your own style? Neither answer is right or wrong, and there is a happy medium to be reached, of course! But it might be emotionally helpful to ruminate on that question to see if you lean one way or the other. Understanding your priorities can help you act upon them with more commitment and confidence.

Other potentially pertinent questions:

  • Do you feel like you are avoided or ostracized for looking different? Or could it be that people respect your style and maybe even envy your commitment to dressing smartly but don’t know how to broach the subject? Could you make an effort to strike up conversations with other people who seem to dress a bit more formally to connect with like minds?
  • How about investigating softer versions of tailored pieces? Instead of twill or wool blazers, find knit or sweater versions. Seek out jersey versions of button-front shirts and shirt dresses, too. And accessorize with scarves as much as you can; Scarves are ideal for softening otherwise tailored ensembles.
  • How do your close friends react? Do any of them dress similarly? Can you talk to a select few people about why dressing up is important to you, so that you have some supporters and feel less isolated?
  • How about creating some casual looks that still fit within a dressier aesthetic? Graphic tees, jersey dresses, flat boots, scarves, and leather jackets all mix beautifully into smart looks but also have casual crossover cachet. Maybe try incorporating a few of those pieces into your weekly wardrobe.
  • If you simply don’t feel that plowing ahead with your current, smart-casual style will work, how about mixing it up a bit more? Continue to gather pieces that contribute to your look, but wear them in small enough amounts so it feels like your little secret. Or dress down Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and dress up Tuesday and Thursday.

Dressing for yourself in the face of resistance can feel frustrating and lonely since style is incredibly social. Especially in college! Much of what I’m suggesting here is derived from this older post, which also has a few more tips for honing your style in challenging environments or when faced with potential roadblocks. And although the advice in this post is tailored to college-student Bonnie, it could just as easily apply to someone in an office, teaching, or other group working/living situation.

Images courtesy Boden

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2012-01-04 06:18:10.

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68 Responses to “Reader Request: Dressing Up While Others Dress Down”

  1. Megan

    I often use Casual Friday as an excuse to wear some of my more interesting (aka crazy) pieces. I’ve become more comfortable with my style choices in recent years so I don’t really concern myself with other people’s opinions but my coworkers are very enthusiastic about my wardrobe. It’s nice to have support!

  2. Amanda

    I work at a big university and found that if I dress down, I’m viewed as a student and treated accordingly! Not that students (grad or undergrad) are treated poorly, but I’d rather be viewed as the staff member that I am. A touch of makeup every day and wearing jeans only on occasion goes a long way, I’ve found.

    We definitely have some sharp-dressing grad students, but also a fair amount for whom jeans and sneakers are the norm. With the crushing amount of work our students do in their program, I think a more casual line of dress is completely fine, but it does mean I take notice of those who dress up, and I’m sure I subconsciously treat them more like the staff/faculty (who dress up more).

  3. katrina

    when I went away to college, my mother gifted me with a large selection of new clothing from the boutique that she worked at, at the time. It was decidedly more posh and upscale than my 18 year old’s fashion to date, but I made it a point to make the new pieces fit into my existing wardrobe the best I could, and to “step up” my fashion a little.

    After that initial push, I never thought about it too much. I just mixed the silk knits with jeans, rocked the leopard print coat, and wore the blazers from the matching suites here and there.

    Yes, there were kids in flip flops and pj pants (this was pre-uggs in the late 90’s), but I just kept doing my own thing, which is kind of what college is all about, isn’t it?

    One day, a guy I had just started dating mentioned he was talking with someone in his dorm about me and he quoted them as saying “Oh, her? the one that’s always dressed so nicely?” only then did I feel that the style I’d cobbled together fit my personality well enough that it didn’t look like a kid dressing up or out of place, but as just me being me, and other people seeing that as part of my personality.

  4. Rocquelle

    I often feel overdressed in my surroundings, but when I try to dress down to blend better, I feel uncomfortable in my skin. My best advice is to be comfortable in your own style; plus I am a believer in the saying better to be over dressed than under dressed :-).

    • Mar

      Couldn’t agree more. I am also at a university in an engineering department where everyone dresses super casually, so I stand out with the way I dress (skirts, dresses, heels, touch of makeup), but my attempts to dress down have felt me feeling uncomfortable, less confident and simply “not me”. And I’ve also realized that while people take notice of the way I dress and occasionally I get asked “what are you dressed up for today?”, at the end, I don’t think my peers really deeply care what I wear. I’d think this to be the case at any university at least among students.

      • Brenda

        I teach at a community college in the Pacific Northwest. I once wore a nice sheath-style dress to work and saw the college president who asked me what the special occasion was. I said it was a normal teaching day. It was an awkward exchange, but I think it’s more of a commentary on the declining standards of other faculty. I’ve been thinking about how to style my dresses for a more casual look, but I’m not giving them up!

  5. LK

    This happens to me all the time. Going from NY to the midwest was a huge shift in local style. Almost everyone here in the midwest (Im not in a big city) runs around in a t-shirt, hoodie, and jeans 90% of the time. Even to go to the theatre or a nice restaurant. Or to work. I simply cannot do it so I’m always over dressed even if I’m wearing jeans. But I’m ok with it. I’d rather not look sloppy. And it has given me a leg up in a few situations already professionally and school wise.

  6. Tina

    When I was in college, I worked in a pricey boutique. Naturally, I was expected to dress nicely. Since I was a student without a car, I would dress for work, go to my classes and then take the bus to work. I did feel that some people thought that I was different, but I really had no choice. I felt that this had a postive consequence. I was selected throughout my academic career to work on various prestigious reearch projects. This, in turn, translated into excellent letters of recommendation for graduate school. I really feel that this was in part due to the fact that I had to dress up. Because I dressed up, I did look professional, which made me stand out. I also felt better and more confident because I looked nice. I would tell Bonnie to be true to herself.

  7. Minnie

    I’m definitely dressier than my coworkers. Our all-casual, all-the-time office means I get lots of second looks and comments/compliments. I second Sal’s advice of getting jersey pieces – my jersey dresses are a staple of my wardrobe, and they let me explain that I’m essentially wearing a long t-shirt. I also like to explain the backstory behind whatever it is that someone commented on – relating it back to my past or personality helps diffuse some of the awkwardness and shows that my style is part of a bigger picture.

  8. Bethany

    I second everyone’s comments that you really have to be true to yourself. I went through a phase of not wanting to be ‘overdressed’ all the time, but then I realized that I feel happier when I’m wearing a skirt!! Khakis and a polo don’t feel dressed up enough for me.

    If you’re happy with how you dress, then rock it!! And remember, most people probably don’t care about what you’re wearing as much as you think they do, they probably think more about what THEY are wearing!

  9. JuliR

    I hate denim with a passion that can’t be denied. I respect it as a textile but not a fabric and I refuse, absolutely, to wear anything made of it. Also, I used to work 80+ hours a week, wearing a uniform, so when I redid my wardrobe I only bought things that made me feel amazing out of uniform. So everything I own is either a skirt or a dress. Add my jewelry to that and my dislike of tennis shoes and I’m always overdressed.

    It’s pretty funny, actually. I’ve been contemplating making some historical dresses to wear to dressy events just so I can continue sticking out there but being classy about it.

  10. Maggie

    I love what everyone has been saying so far 🙂

    I spent the first year of college in t-shirts and jeans, but after I studied abroad, my style changed to reflect the influences I had encountered. My last two years of college I consistently dressed better than my peers, and I felt good about how I looked. I had people tell me that I always looked so put together, and I felt confident in how professional and “grown up” I looked. I’ve heard people say that you dress for the job you want (not the job you have), so dressing a little nicer is a great way to let everyone know that you think highly of yourself and that you have big dreams for where you want to go.

  11. Cynthia

    I think, if you like dressing nicely, you should do it. In college, you’re practicing for real life, and real life does not include wearing pajamas to work. When you get your degree, you’ll already know how to walk out the door into the working world looking appropriate, while your peers will have to scramble. And as a professor, I have to say, even the less stylish of us probably do notice and form shadings of opinion of students based on grooming. Not that a nice outfit is going to get you a good grade if you otherwise do badly in my class, but if you walk in looking like you pay attention to the impression you create, I will start off thinking of you differently than the student who walks in looking (or god forbid, smelling) like they just rolled out of bed.

  12. Colleen

    I wouldn’t sweat it. I was an overdresser in undergrad and am by far the dressiest person in my grad school cohort. Standing out is not a bad thing when the status quo tends to be unbrushed hair, sweat pants, and ugg boots – trust me.

  13. Heather in Oregon

    I’m a SAHM/homeschooling mom of two kids and I always feel more dressed up than the other moms I’m around. This isn’t because I’m always dressed to the nines, or my face is perfectly made up (I wear makeup approximately twice a year) but because I don’t like the mom “uniform” of jeans or yoga pants with some sort of t-shirt/hoodie and flip-flops/uggs/tennis shoes. Instead I almost always wear a skirt or dress (casual, machine washable, easy to chase my kids in). In the summer I wear sandals, keds, or a pair of tsubo flats. In the winter I wear a pair of dansko oxfords, nifty green lined rubber boots (it rains a whole lot here), or a pair of dressy-ish knee high leather boots. I own tennis shoes for running/walking and I do not own flip-flops or uggs. I do wear jewelry but usually it’s just earrings and a silver cuff bracelet that I’ve had forever. Necklaces get in the way to much to wear them for anything other than special occasions. I hear from so many of the other moms that I’m around that they don’t have the time or energy to wear anything other than the mom uniform but it takes me very little time to get dressed each day (sorry Sal, I truly don’t have the time to really compose my outfits) and I feel so much more presentable and like myself that I can’t imagine going back to just wearing jeans and a t-shirt all the time. I’ve stopped being self-conscious about it anymore. Most of the people I’m around on a regular basis are used to it by now and I’m happier.

  14. Katharine

    It’s important to be comfortable. If I am physically comfortable, and my clothes are what I feel are suitable for the day’s activities, then the only good response to others’ perceived (or expressed) opinions of how “fancy” I am is a big “whatever.” (Although I’ve reached an age now where people don’t judge that way, at least not in their outside voices.)

    But I do remember that, from high school and university, and I remember that I only ever FELT awkward about my more elaborate stylings if whatever I was wearing was stretching MY comfort zones a little bit, or didn’t quite fit ideally, or was a bit too tailored for easy movement, or whatever, because then, you know, I wasn’t actually at home in my own clothes.

  15. Geneviève

    I think dressing nicely shows I care about myself and about other around me, even the random people I cross on my commute to work (I think that’s why I don’t like women who put on their make-up in the train: they obviously think make-up is worth the effort, just not that it’s worth the effort for us poor shlubs who have to share a train with them. I think I’m worth the effort, hence my annoyance. But I digress.) Even if I’m just wearing jeans and a white t-shirt, I get comments about being nicely dressed: either I’ll have a cute pair of sneakers on, or some cute bangles, or a hat, or a colourful scarf that brings out the colour of my eyes… just something more than basic. I think I’m worth the effort, so I wear accesories FOR ME even if I’m just spending the day watching TV with my dog.

    Also, I’m tall & fat, and with striking features (so my mom and husband tell me on the last one- the rest I noticed all on my own), and I think people notice me anyway. And if they’re going to notice me, I might as well look nice when they do!
    I used to feel like I needed to justify what I wear when people comment, but it’s none of their business. Comments about what I wear are simply met with “Thanks, I really like this skirt” or “thanks, it’s interesting how does colours do work together, right?”

    • virago

      “I think dressing nicely shows I care about myself and about other around me, even the random people I cross on my commute to work …”

      I can relate to this point of view. My mom, now retired, was a visiting nurse for a long time and had a lot of patients who were either elderly or home-bound or both.

      When she was working, Mom dressed professionally, though also with an eye toward what is practical for a caregiver — sweaters and color-coordinated turtlenecks or blouses, mostly in jewel tones, with skirts or trousers and boots/shoes that she could walk in. She remarked that during her visits, several of her patients would regularly say, “Oh, Mrs. Virago’s Mom! I always like to see you! You dress so cheerfully!”

      So I think you show consideration for those around you by dressing in a way that brightens up the landscape a bit. And one of the things I’ve found that I have in common with my mom is that I try to do that, too.

      • sarah

        I agree! I’m the dressy grad student in my phd cohort. I love dressing for my students – especially throughout the dark dreary days of our winter quarter up here in the NW: the bright colours, pattern mixing, and fun accessories come out. They love it! – Just today, in fact, the first day of the quarter at my university, one of my students asked (in surreptitious terms, so as not to ruin the surprise for other classmates who have not had me as an instructor before) if I was going to wear one particular headdress again this quarter. Can’t beat that rapport! =)

        Bonnie, if your friends are anything like my classmates or my students, I bet the just LOVE seeing what you have put together each day! Though you might feel a little out of place, I say, good for you. The way you enjoy dressing is only going to earn you more respect in the professional world, and I bet your friends get a kick out of it, even if they aren’t dressing up, too.

  16. ParisGrrl

    I hope Bonnie continues to dress the way she feels most comfortable. It’s true there can be tremendous pressure to fit in in a University environment, but looking and feeling confident can make a student stand out in a good way, especially to faculty and staff. I made a major style upgrade when I started graduate school, and was given many opportunities because I dressed well. Consider the matter from a professor’s point of view: if you have two otherwise similarly qualified students to choose from to represent your program, and one’s wearing torn jeans/logo t/uggs and the other is wearing a skirt or slacks and blouse and dress shoes, who are you going to select? While I did take some heat for my unconventional look from my peers, the added opportunities and the creativity I was able to express through my wardrobe were worth it.

  17. Dee

    I have a sort of funny story about being “dressed up.” A few weeks ago I had a doctor’s appointment on a Saturday morning. I wore black jeans, low heeled shoes, and an animal print cardigan. (BTW, I am over 50,not a college student, my Dr is about my age, and we live/work in an upscale suburb). While sitting in the waiting room I noticed that the only other people were also mid-aged women, however both were wearing sweat pants, or similar, and clunky sneakers. Nothing against them or their style but I would not go anywhere, okay, maybe the gym, dressed like that. Anyway, the Dr. right away asked what I am doing the rest of the day because ” you are all dressed up.” I chuckled and said – “really? these are jeans! ” He continued to say “well you look nice..” I then could not resist mentioning to him my observation in the waiting room regarding the sweat pants etc. He says “well it is a Saturday.” My reply was a bit snobby I suppose but I said ” I don’t think I OWN a pair of sweatpants!”
    Its not the first time I have been told I am “dressed up” and a couple of my friends have had the same experience. I am fine with it, I feel confident, and comfortable, much more than if I went out dressed down…

    • Trish

      Love the sound of your outfit! I am a SAHM that likes to dress up and I came across this article (I do read the blog, too) while deciding whether to purchase a silky skirt and soft tank (love), or the cotton skirt and tee (like – more casual though). When I pick up my daughter from school (and actually get out of the car), I am constantly asked the same thing as you – “oh, you’re all dressed up today”. It does bug me, however, my husband thinks the mothers at the school do not even try to look decent anymore and loves my everyday look! I’ll be packing up the kids and getting the skirt and tank next time I go out! And I don’t own a pair of sweatpants either! Or tennis shoes. Which makes mandatory Yard Duty interesting…

  18. Bubu

    I echo everything else and also want to add: you will have a leg up when you graduate because you will already own a more work-appropriate wardrobe, and know how to wear it.

  19. Jessica N

    Stay strong, Bonnie! When I was an undergrad I wore (ill-fitting) tshirts, jeans, and hoodies, but I alwwished mired my more stylish peers.When I got to grad school I stepped up my sartorial game and only in the last couple of years have I finally settled into my style, which is sometimes dressier than that of my colleagues. I think Sal is exactly right – some of your classmates probably envy your style and are too shy to ask you about it, so just keep doing what you’re doing!

  20. Poorva

    Nthing the ‘don’t feel like you have to dress down if you feel like dressing well is who you are’ comments. Yes, you might stand out… but more often than not, it’ll be in a positive way. And like someone above me said, it’s great practise for the professional world.

    Some days I dress up, some days I dress down. I definitely feel more confident and put together on days when I’ve taken some effort versus throwing on whatever is at hand, and I have a feeling it shows both in my behavior and my work. So personally, I’d say dress up as much as you like.

  21. A. Marie

    While I am not particularily overdressed at work, I do have a particular flair for style and wear a lot of different outfits. Some of my co-workers like it, but others make snide comments, “you must own hundreds of boots… how many closets do you have… you must shop all of the time.” I let my co-workers know that I shop at thrift stores, consignment and heavy clearance. I do hope that it helps bring some perspective.

  22. Angela

    It’s practicing for life, you can’t go through it wearing jeans and a tshirt or you wouldn’t be in grad school in the first place. Keep being you, it will give you a leg up when you get to the work force

  23. Aristella

    Own it! There’s no reason why you should dress down because it’s what other people do.
    Bravo for looking good. I had a guitar teacher who once said, “always dress better than your audience.”
    I have always dressed better than my work place and position would deem necessary because I enjoy it. I have more respect for my self and I get more respect in return. I am often deemed more professional and hardworking y my bosses and peers because of it.

  24. Karen

    I have a college-aged daughter. She can wear real pearls with a t-shirt and look fabulous. She dresses nicely every day, whether she plans on going anywhere special or not. It’s who she is and I appreciate it. So Claire – you’re not alone and you look awesome! (Love the name of the blog – Claire De Lune ♫♪- very creative.)

  25. Elspeth @ paper armour

    For me, graduating college and getting a full time job inspired me to dress up more. Perhaps your peers will be inspired to dress more like you once this happens to them? I know it’s a situation of “sit around and wait for the world to catch up” but they probably will.

  26. Nebraskim

    Dee: I love your story. I had out-patient ankle surgery on Dec. 7 and during the pre-op call, the person told me to wear sweatpants to go home in. I told her I own none. There was this little gaspy intake of air and she said, “well, you’ll need something comfortable and stretchy to fit over your cast.” They were aghast when I brought a running skirt, which I opted for since I didn’t think my leggings would work, but I later learned they did stretch enough.

    I work at a university and I would guess that 80 percent of our women students wear a combo of the jeans/sweatpants/leggings with hoodie top and uggs/flip flops/tennis shoes on a daily basis. Many wear the full out shebang of makeup with these outfits, which shows they care a little bit about how they look. The minority who step it up just a bit do stand out and I try as often as possible to compliment them for that. So a young woman who is wearing leggings with real shoes or boots, not flops/uggs, and cute tunic or something that at least covers her bottom, or a darling dress, or who just looks more put together with say an interesting coat or something gets a compliment. Now I suppose they think, “Fail. I got a compliment from an old lady” but usually they smile and thank me.

    The questioner needs to feel comfortable and appropriate. The heck with the rest of them.

  27. alice

    I think as long as what you’re wearing allows you to perform all of your tasks, you shouldn’t worry about it. I think while people will notice that you are dressed up more than they are, it will only be viewed unfavorably if it seems like you care more about your clothes than your performance. I’m always the most dressed up person in my work environment (academic science), but I always stick to flats or chunky heeled boots I can sprint in, precisely for that reason. In the sciences it’s already a bit harder for women because there are so few women with independent academic positions. So my version of dressing up leans toward tailored rather than ruffly. That said, if your style is ruffly/frilly, you can still rock it if your work is good!

  28. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    If you like your style, stick with it! There’s nothing wrong with being a little overdressed — it doesn’t sound like she’s going around in ballgowns & stilettos to her college classes, which would be ridiculously overdressed ;-). In fact, it sounds like she’s dressing more like an adult when her peers are still dressing like teenagers. What’s the worst that can happen? She might get taken more seriously! Nothing wrong with that.

    I find that this is very useful in the workplace, esp. since I am petite & rather youthful looking (even at over 40). Wearing a blazer, skirt, & heels at a meeting in a casual office automatically gives me a serious edge. This young woman can use her fashion sense to her advantage in class discussions, when meeting with professors, & eventually in interviews. She’ll be ahead of the game.

    • virago

      OT compliment for Trystan:

      I just checked out your website, and you *do* look like you’re in the under-40 crowd! I’m betting you’re a regular user of sunscreen — I certainly am (even though I get teased for being so compulsive* about it), and I get told I don’t look my age (46). Keep up the good work!

      * I won’t lie — vanity is certainly part of my motivation for putting on the sun glop. But I also am naturally very fair, like my father, and his being diagnosed with precancerous lesions underscored for me the importance of good sun protection. Dad has to go to the derm 4x a year to get his lesions zapped (or whatever they do so the ugly spots don’t get worse).

  29. Stephanie

    I general I think people should be able to dress up as much as they would like. That said I think its always important to remember that we do not know why others are dressed the way they are and should be careful we don’t fall over int judging them. I was broke through most of college and my wardrobe showed this. My mom made sure I had one or two nice thing but other then that it was mostly jeans, cargo pants and tee shirts. It wasn’t that I didn’t like nicer clothing I just didn’t have a lot of money and that wasn’t what I wanted to spend it on. I also had labs several days a week many of which including using chemicals that you would not want to get on your good clothing so I dressed accordingly.

    Don’t worry Sal I know your not suggesting that women pass judgment on each other I just think we all need to be careful when we start comparing ways of dress.

    • Sal

      I hear ya, Stephanie. And I don’t think Bonnie was leveling judgment at her peers or faculty for their casual style, but instead trying to find a way to feel like herself in a world that makes sartorial choices different to her own. It is always hard to tell why anyone is wearing anything just by looking, always risky to judge.

      And while I am glad to see the comments from folks who have been in similar situations and who encourage all to stick to their sartorial guns, I don’t think it’s wrong to want to feel comfortable among your peers, or to make a few compromises. It’s a question of worry: If you aren’t worried about fitting in visually, that’s one thing. If you are, that’s another. And I mean literal worry:

  30. Jillian

    After spending the first 28 years of my life on the coasts, I moved to the Midwest and immediately discovered that my typical style was considered “dressy.” For the first year I lived here, I felt out of place and was really self-conscious especially around my bf’s family. At some point, I decided to just wear what I wanted anyway but in exactly the way you described above. I try to always look put together and appropriate, but I wear nice riding boots instead of patent heels and dark jeans instead of black pants. I’m a graduate student, and this post, and some of the comments above were a great reminder that dressing up at school can be to my advantage even if I feel out of place at first.

  31. Frenchie

    There’s another reason for dressing well every day: better customer service. I live in Canada (where customer service is generally awful) but I know that I get better service when I look good. And if it makes me feel more confident, that’s a bonus!

    • Tina

      I have gotten bumped up to first class on flights because I was dressed nicely!

  32. Charlie

    I’m shocked that, according to you guys, everyone in the US is really walking in sweatpants all the time — can’t imagine that happening here! (Yes, mostly jeans+tees at universities, no sweatpants though, fortunately).

    Love the stories here — I started university in jeans and tees, then I lost some weight and started wearing only skirts and dresses. So, the final part of my BA, and my entire MA, I was overdressed compared to other students. I never felt pressured because of it though — girly outfits feel more “me”. I only got compliments on my dresses, never comments suggesting I should dress down. During my graduation ceremony, my thesis’ supervisor even mentioned in his speech that it looked like I was dressed to go to a party every day 🙂

    Finally, I agree with Alice — flats and lower/chunky heels feel less overdressed than stiletto pumps.

  33. lisa

    As an undergrad on a budget who didn’t want to spend too much money on non-school expenses, dressing down everyday was the easiest option. I spent a lot of my university days in sweater hoodies (for some reason I hated fleece ones), T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. If you have the budget and the interest in fashion to motivate you to dress well in university, why not remain true to your style aesthetic as the other commenters have advised?

    For the record, I never judged anyone who showed up to lectures dressed up. Maybe they have an after school job with a strict dress code, they’re going somewhere special, they have a big presentation, they have a job interview. But I often looked askance at students who were so sloppy as to show up for tutorials in pajama pants and slippers.

  34. Hayley

    I can absolutely relate to the student asking this question. I go to a university where the dress is verryyy casual – not just Uggs and hoodies but bare feet can be considered normal. Even today, I noticed I was the only person walking around not wearing flat boots/shoes (I was wearing low booties, even) and I definitely feel out of place on a regular basis. I wear dresses, skirts, and pants/jeans equally but on the days that I do wear dresses and skirts, I stick out like a sore thumb. Or even if I wear a blazer over a tee and a pair of nice jeans. However, I don’t dress my style down just because everyone else has. If that’s what anyone feels comfortable in, by all means they should stick to it. I personally feel more productive when I’m wearing an actual outfit versus the sweats/hoodies/running shoes combo. I’m actually proud that for being a college student, I haven’t ever worn sweats to class haha. I just don’t like looking sloppy/shlubby in public and a put-together person is how I want to present myself to people. Thanks for answering this question on your blog, Sally. This is the only comment I’ve written that spans more than two sentences because I can really relate to the person asking the question. Especially since their style isn’t even super formal, it’s just slightly more put-together than her peers.

  35. jcb

    Of course dressing is highly context-dependent, but I think it’s also important to realize that it’s so difficult to please everyone in every context that you should worry about pleasing yourself first. A good illustration of this was a trip I took to my parents’ home in Florida (I live in the northeast) in early summer, during which I went to the grocery store in a plain gray tee, a pair of jeans, and a lightweight summer scarf. An employee saw me and exclaimed, “Now I know you don’t *need* that scarf in 70 degree weather, so all I can assume is that you must be a SLAVE to fashion!” He said it in a good-natured enough way, and there was another customer nearby to come to my polite defense, but it was telling. In certain contexts, scarves signal a certain level of wardrobe awareness – dare I say, even a level of sophistication some might consider bordering on snobbery – that is inconsistent with their ideas of normal dress. A friend of mine tells me that whenever she goes home to visit family and wears a dress, no matter how plain or simple, people always ask her why she’s dressed up. I think it just shows that people will fixate on certain things, regardless of whether the particular item is eye-catching or not. To a certain extent, I do worry about looking too dressed-up or dressed-down, but I try to combat that by choosing relatively simple pieces that fit impeccably and toe the line between casual and dressy.

  36. indigorchid

    I agree – keep the style you’re comfortable with, even if you are a little dressier than your peers. I went to school for fashion design, and the students in the program covered the range from sweatpants to extremely fashionable and dressy. I found my style somewhere in the middle, but it allowed me to become comfortable enough with my style that it doesn’t bother me that it can be overdressed in certain situations. It’s *your* style, and unless it’s offensive in some way (which it hardly sounds like), I’m quite convinced that it will rarely be wrong!

    Sally’s suggestions about finding softer pieces is one I particularly agree with, and I found that using bold, or colorful accents can take an outfit that verges on being “too dressy” and bring it into a more casual, fun territory.

  37. PB from MN

    I am one of those who feel that in the USA we have a tendency to dress too casually. I can be guilty of that too, however, you will never find me having pajama bottoms on when I am in public.

    In my work I need to visit schools, often it is difficult for me to figure out who the teacher is in the classroom because of the extremely casual dress. I think this can affect the behavior of the students too. So if you most comfortable dressing less casually-good for you-you may be suprised at how many may be looking at you for inspiration and admiring your look. A potential employer may appreciate it too.

  38. Megan Mae

    I dress very different from both my IRL friends and peers. I just don’t let it bother me. I know I am different inside, and don’t feel badly that my clothing choices are different. Sounds like your reader is growing up her style, while her peers are going to either be stuck in those teenage looks and have a harder time advancing or will have to “grow up” their own styles later.

    I used college time as my time to wear more “grown up” clothing. It still reflects my rock’n’roll/goth/alternative aesthetic, but it’s dressier than the scrubs, sweats and uggs my classmates are wearing.

  39. Charlmarjo

    I dress differently than alot of my coworkers(teachers) . I wear dress pants, dresses, skirts, etc. while others wear long sleeved t’s, very casual pants, etc. Sometimes I do feel overdressed. However, when I was in college, it was drilled into our heads to dress professionally so that you stand out from your students. On the rare occasion that we have a dress down day or I am more casual than usual, I am ALWAYS mistaken for a student. I even had a teacher ask where was my hall pass. LOL Stay true to yourself and your style!

  40. Mila

    Oh, this brings back memories! I went to UC Berkeley, majored in environmental science, and I definitely didn’t dress the way my fellow students dressed (they were all in hemp shapeless dresses and berkinstocks). I wasn’t particularly dressy, I was still all thrift store finds, but my clothes were maybe a little more fitted and less all natural? But I felt like in the eyes of my fellow students, I might as well have been the preppiest sorority girl type on campus and I felt like they didn’t take me seriously as a eco type because I didn’t dress the part, and it drove me crazy! It felt so superficial, exactly like high school only in reverse.

    Then I went away to grad school in North Carolina, and I remember someone telling me that they had described me to a friend as the “hippie looking” girl. Ha! All a matter of perspective I guess! But I can definitely remember going to a very casual party in those years, and looking around and seeing that EVERYONE else there was wearing jeans and loose, baggy tee shirts, and I was in a ankle length green paisley skirt, a fitted sleeveless top, and black wedges. I wondered if everyone thought I was weird or cool. I am glad to have arrived at the place in life where I really don’t care if I am the most overdressed person in the room, as I am now a stay-at-home mother, and have zero situations where dressing as dressy as I do makes me blend in.

  41. Catherine @ Not Dressed As Lamb

    Great post… I work in an office with a totally relaxed dress code but that doesn’t stop me dressing up every day. My female colleagues were especially casual before I moved from an all-male office to their male/female office, but some have started to wear bolder outfits and do say that they’ve been inspired by me to get more creative! I think every day is an excuse to get dressed up, even if it’s jeans and a t-shirt (go to town on the accessories!!!)

    Btw isn’t Claire just lovely?

    Catherine x

  42. Rebecca

    This is such an interesting topic to me, one that I have been thinking a lot about lately. My co-workers and friends have finally just learned that I am more comfortable in a dress or skirt than jeans (love those jersey knits!) I teach P.E. for a small part of my job and cannot bring myself to wear track suits. I find a skirt and leggings to be just as easy to move around in, and more “me.”

    My problem is when I go home to visit in the south/midwest. People there wear track suits and jeans everywhere. I often feel judged there because I “dress up” (i.e., wear what is normal to me). I get the impression that people assume I think I am better than they. I try to just get over it, but it bothers me a lot. Why can’t people just let me dress however I want?

  43. Sasha

    In all candor, I can’t help but feel that there’s some judgment embedded in Bonnie’s question — particularly in her shock that she’s often more formally dressed than some of her lecturers. It sounds as if she’s expecting something more or better. It’s silly, and perhaps a bit selfish/judgmental, to expect people to dress up for you in casual settings simply because you elect to dress up in them.

    • Sal

      Having corresponded with her, I respectfully disagree. Also, she felt somewhat judged by her peers for dressing up/differently from them, and was seeking ways to adjust her own dressing preferences to be more aligned with theirs while still maintaining her personal style.

    • Veronica

      Ditto to what Sally said. Also I would expect the professors/lecturers to be dressed at least a little nicer than the average college student since they’re teaching something.

      • Julie

        I appreciate both perspectives above. When I was in undergraduate and graduate school, I paid my own way. I barely had enough to make ends meet – that tall pair of leather boots and more fashionable outfits would have to wait for when I wasn’t working 100 hours a week.

        Now that I am faculty, I dress nicer, though my environmental ethics and preferences mean I lean towards a creative, thrifted wardrobe. I don’t have the same look from day to day – more casual days might mean a nice pair of jeans, graphic tee, and a blazer, while dressier days mean skirt separates and boots. Sometimes I wear COLOR, and SKIRTS at or just ABOVE THE KNEE (not too far – but still shocking!) and I often stick out like a sore thumb in the land of monochromatic jeans, khakis, polo shirts and cable sweaters.

        Being a petite woman, with an athletic frame and joint problems means my shoe and clothing options can be limited… so not only my personal aesthetic, but my size, needs, bike commute, and cold weather all play a role in my clothing choices. I’d love to wear heals every day, but that doesn’t work for me.

        This is just to say that there are a lot of things in our world that articulate with each other to determine what we wear. I’ve found it wise to take the opportunity to get to know the background of all my students- I was once the baggy-jean, sad tee-shirt girl when I had to work in a lab that often damaged my clothes (better than my skin!).

        Now, occasionally my students complement my fashion – it’s part of my personality, and I think it makes me accessible, a bit more fun, and always and individual. I NEVER thought I’d be someone that people admire for fashion, but it’s great to find a way to express yourself without saying a word.

  44. daiyami

    I tend to be dressy too. A nice thing I’ve found, is that other people will say to themselves “oh, daiyami will be dressed up, so I can dress up too [for this party, or whatever].” So it spreads.

  45. April

    I feel like these comments all come from the same perspective. We’re readers of at least one fashion blog. We actually care about how we dress, and we tend to notice how others dress.

    By and large though, most people don’t notice, at least not consciously. Now, those unconscious assessments can have some consequences in the way you’re treated, but in that case looking a little nicer than expected is usually beneficial. There are only 3 times I’ve *really* noticed what a colleague was wearing: 1) A very colorful crochet skirt that I liked so much I started considering whether I could make it. 2) One of the female professors dressed up in a striking but severe all-black outfit to chastise her whole class about performance on a recent assignment. 3) A male interviewee gave a presentation in possibly the worst-fitting sportscoat I’ve ever seen, that thing had to be 4 sizes too big. (The talk was good enough he got the job anyway.)

    My point is, people around aren’t noticing as much as you think they are. As long as what you’re wearing isn’t so dressy as to be non-functional, and you’re comfortable, just go with it.

    • Sal

      Indeed. I’ve heard it said that if you walk into a bar, most folks won’t be thinking about how you look. They’ll be too busy wondering what you think about how THEY look. (Probably an exaggeration, but an interesting idea to ponder.)

  46. Sarah R

    I’m late to the discussion, but wanted to add my two or three cents. Bonnie, stay strong! How you dress is part of YOU. Own it and enjoy it. I’m 36 years old, and have been almost exclusively dresses/skirts for about four years now. If I wear pants, people gasp…it is the funniest thing ever. (Little do they know I only wore them because I forgot to shave.) Polos and khakis are the way to go in my department, yet at my last meeting, I showed up wearing a fuschia shirtdress and black open toed pumps. My manager said, “Well, we knew Sarah would look great today.” And I am not a model by any means: I am 5 foot 5 and wear a size 18/20. I like being known as the lady who dresses up. My kids friends find it funny also, that whenever they come over, I will be dressed in either a sundress or a skirt/top combination. I get a lot of “Are you going somewhere, Mrs. R?” My son’s best friend’s mom is my size and yet I’ve never seen the woman in anything but pajamas or capri pants in which I can see her muffin top, with her Ohio State tees. Nothing wrong with a tee; but you won’t catch me wearing it anywhere except maybe when I’m gardening.

  47. Rayne

    I always dressed nicely throughout my life and got weird looks for it (i.e., black pants and blouses). Mostly I don’t care, but a quick and easy way to dress things down if it bugs you is just to throw on a hoodie over your outfit. You can always take it off when you’re done with the college environment.

  48. sonia

    I’m an 18 year old college student and whenever i am ready to walk out the door and am NOT wearing heels, my mom shakes her head and frowns at me. My college hours are tough and I simply would not last, but when i do make the effort to dress up…even jeans and heels, adults smile at me, more people open doors, call me m’am(unsure if I like this) and are just in general more respectful. This happens EVERY time I wear heels. I think people just don’t expect others to put in effort and when you do, you certainly get more attention…and what’s wrong with that?

  49. Jo

    I’m a 40-something working in a software company where the average age is 26 and the dress code is “wear clothes.” That means that jeans and t-shirts is the norm. I want to feel professional, but I don’t want to feel any more like “the old lady” than I already do. (I’m not old!) So I do feel like I need to stick with the jeans-and-tees norm — but with nice shoes and jewelry. As polished as I can be, I guess.

    I know I could dress up more, but I don’t want to build any more differences between me and my colleagues than I have to.

  50. Fayelene

    I definitely feel like I overdress and over think what I wear and feel that other people don’t really care at ALL. Like, I’ll wear a nice top with a skirt, matching earrings, necklace, and bracelets. Then, I go somewhere and people are wearing sweats, athletic clothes, and no jewelry. I just like to be stylish, because it’s part of who I am. I just can’t imagine never caring what I wear.