Just because today’s college students often come to class wearing flip-flops, band tees, and pajama pants doesn’t mean that professors should too. In this guide, one in our series of dressing for a profession, we tackle what to wear if you work in academia.
Among all the professions, academia may be the one field where the topic of what to wear is fraught with the most debate and disagreement. Part of that is because those who make up the profession have a special penchant for argument by virtue of being intellectuals. Academia is predicated on questioning ideas. Search online and you can find a handful of articles written by professors urging more professional dress followed by comment sections full of opposing views.
Why Some Professors Don’t Dress Well
There are those who object, often rather vehemently and even on moral grounds, to dressing up for the classroom.
1. Philosophical Reasons
Some see it as offensive promotion of capitalism or a class system. Academics as a whole have long aimed to separate the work they do in the world of ideas from the crass demands of money and the drive for materialism. For them, a suit and tie are elitist, the quintessential symbols of the businessman, or something that administrators wear. So, not dressing formally is a means for faculty to separate themselves from the loathed administration. As an extension of this, some academics uphold the idea that they are too busy thinking about important ideas to waste time figuring out how to coordinate an outfit. In response to this, I would argue that clothing can have strong intellectual appeal to academics.
A number of great thinkers in Western society–Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Roland Barthes among them–have devoted themselves to exploring the significance of the topic on a level that is hardly superficial. The academic, Barthes, was fascinated by the power of clothes to signify meaning, a topic he wrote about in The Fashion System and The Language of Fashion. More recently, Barnard historian Anne Hollander (Sex and Suits; Seeing Through Clothes) has taken up the mantle, and a number of authors who write about menswear online (Alexander Freeling, David Isle, Benjamin Wild, yours truly) are professors. There are scholarly journals dedicated to the topic, like Vestoj, and a popular dressing for academia thread on Styleforum. The menswear industry itself has a strong representation of people with scholarly backgrounds too (some folks at The Armoury and medievalist Aleks Cvetkovic of The Jackal and Crockett and Jones come immediately to mind). So, clothes aren’t necessarily a superficial pursuit!
Economics is another, practical reason why professors may not dress up. Those who are starting in the profession often do not receive a high salary in addition to having student loans to pay back for their longer years of education. Others toil for years as underpaid, overworked adjuncts. Purchasing quality menswear is therefore not a priority. However, economics aren’t necessarily an obstacle if the soul is willing but the wallet weak; there are a number of ways to update a wardrobe on a budget. Thrifting is a time-honored way to score menswear finds, vintage or otherwise, at a fraction of the cost even when one is firmly established in a career.
Lastly, some instructors want to be relatable to students by looking like one. The educational environment in North America is such that professors want to be friends with students–even to go drinking with them or invite them to their homes, especially grad students. There is a resistance to anything that can seem authoritarian or that creates distance in the classroom, which extends to clothes. Feeding into this is a natural desire to be liked as an instructor, which will help create a convivial class environment in addition to increasing the likelihood of getting good student evaluations at the end of the semester. Not being scary and aloof can certainly help with student learning, but being well dressed has less to do with that than personality and teaching practices. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true, as young men in my classes have told me they find the way I dress “cool” and see me as a style role model.
Why Dress Well as a Professor?
Whether you’re a young adjunct or an established veteran instructor, there are benefits of dressing up, for yourself, your classroom and your students.
1. It Enhances Your Authority
If you’ve come to class dressed like a student, disheveled and wearing a t-shirt and shorts, for example, your credibility and ethos are immediately diminished. The first impression created is that you aren’t an authority, or, at the very least, you would need to work harder to receive the respect of your students. Imagine appearing at a public speaking engagement dressed this way and the effect it has on the audience’s perception of the speaker. For young academics or those who want to get on the tenure track, dressing well has the added effect of making you memorable outside the classroom and cultivates an aura of professionalism as you look to establish your reputation and standing within an academic department.
2. It Enhances Self-Confidence
Indeed, teaching is inherently a type of public speaking, and surveys show that the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death for many people. Those who are new to teaching, those facing large classes, or those who are introverted by nature will find that tailoring as a sort of armor, just as it can be in the business world. It’s a confidence booster and can only enhance your ability to handle being in front of a group of people and help you command the room.
3. It Helps Hold Audience Interest
The important thing to remember about teaching is that, beyond speaking, you are essentially performing in front of an audience for two hours at a time (it is called a “lecture theater” after all). A well-liked and effective professor is one who performs well by being engaging and interesting, who mixes humor with education and genuine caring for students. Think of the professors you had who were your favorites, I can guarantee that they fit this mold. As such, a professor must be charismatic, and being well dressed helps with that as part of a total package.
A sharp outfit helps keep your audience’s attention. When you’re competing with laptops connected to the internet for the attention of 20-year-olds, this is no mean feat. Sure, passion and presentation are a large part of it, but being sharply dressed enhances your ability to grab and hold the audience’s interest. These days, as class sizes increase–some of them having more than 500 students–you may also need to serve as a visual reference point in a large auditorium. A smart outfit is more visually arresting than a polo shirt and jeans. Some have said that dressing in a flashy manner as a professor is distracting, and it is, so good taste should always prevail. You wouldn’t open your shirt three buttons or wear a lime sport coat, but a sharp outfit, which is rare outside the classroom, is an attention-getter.
4. It Elevates the Material
When you attend an important event, the usual practice is to dress well. Wearing a suit to a wedding or graduation signals that the context deserves formality. Dressing in an elevated manner to class similarly signals to students that what is happening there is significant.
5. You’re Educating Students about Professional Presentation
In the classroom, we may be teaching a particular subject, but we’re also always instructing our students in other, peripheral ways about how to speak effectively, how to question ideas, how to think deeply, and, through being well dressed, how to present themselves professionally. This is more important in some fields than others–a business, marketing, speech or law class instead of an art class perhaps–but all college students will at some point need to comport themselves in a professional manner, and how you dress will help teach them self-presentation by example.
6. It’s Intellectually Stimulating
Menswear has a lot to offer in terms of exercising one’s mental faculties. The history behind various items like the trench coat and brogues on shoes is fascinating in its own right, and the act of coordinating items of clothing is a pleasurable intellectual game in itself, like Sudoku or a crossword puzzle. I’ve personally created a spreadsheet to track effective combinations of jackets, pants, shirts, and ties in what I call my “structuralist” approach to dressing. And, I’m not alone in this sort of thing. Two Cambridge University physicists, Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, famously used mathematics to identify all the knots possible with a necktie in their book, The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie.
What to Wear as a Professor
Academics have more leeway for expressions of personality than other professions like the law. Universities don’t have a corporate dress code, and you don’t have to be as conventional to win over clients or convince a jury. With academic freedom comes freedom of dress as well. Indeed, the stereotypical image of a male academic is that of an eccentric, which includes the way he dresses. Think of The Nutty Professor (either the Jerry Lewis or Eddie Murphy versions), the instructors at Hogwarts or Robin Williams’ sweater in Good Will Hunting. Bright bow ties or novelty neckties are par for the course, though we wouldn’t recommend the latter. Most well-enrolled classes are those run by professors with some sort of defining personality trait, which can include their individual style of dress.
1. The Traditional Suit
It may be just my good fortune to have had male professors who were style role models when I was both an undergraduate at Brooklyn College and a graduate student at Columbia University, but many of them wore full suits to class. They were usually engaging teachers, but I also remember them for their dress.
Judging by the film depiction of professors, however, there are two general modes of academic dress: the British and the Ivy-League or Prep-School style. Though the last two were originally worn by students in mid-20th century America, certainly the button-down collar shirt, penny loafers and corduroy pants that characterize them also made their way into the professorship in the ensuing decades.
The three-piece tweed or flannel suit, sometimes with elbow patches, and the bow tie, similar to what John Houseman wears in the law school drama The Paper Chase, are inherited from traditional British country wear. In their origins, tweeds and corduroys are not businesswear; they’re not meant to be worn in town. They are meant to be practical and relaxed, associated with leisurely rural pursuits. As such, and especially when coupled with a bow tie instead of a necktie. the desired separation of professors from the world of commerce remains intact. If you’re a banker or a stockbroker, the fact is you won’t be wearing a corduroy suit. It should also be noted that elbow patches are signs that one’s jacket was repaired from being worn out at the elbows, perhaps from reading a great deal. Thus, they became a sign of a scholar’s studiousness and also of his “noble poverty” in dedicating himself to a profession of study, not material gain.
These are versions of how most real professors (and a decent chunk of the male population) once dressed in Britain and parts of the United States, so you can’t go too wrong with them as products of an established sartorial tradition. However, there is the chance of looking like a stereotypical professor. To some extent, this is perfectly fine–just as a doctor wears a white coat and a lawyer a pinstripe suit, a professor wears a tweed suit, probably a three-piece, maybe a button-down shirt and maybe a bow tie. This is the unofficial uniform of the profession. In this way, Roland Barthes would observe, your clothes are the outward signs that you are, in fact, a professor. You look the part.
Hollywood, which has to distill the essence of a character through easily registered visual symbols, knows this, and your students will readily accept it because it is immediately recognizable. A negative aspect of this is that you’re bordering on costume, so you might try more of a look that is inspired by these typical clothes: like a corduroy jacket but not a full suit, a tweed jacket with chinos (and no elbow patches) or a vest with an Italian-style sport coat.
2. Go with “Smart Casual”
While what you wear when you teach can depend on where you teach (California community college vs. large research institution in NYC) and what you teach (law vs. engineering), in most North American settings a useful guideline is to go with a “smart casual” look. I use this term as opposed to “business casual” not only because it sounds more appropriate when describing intellectuals but because the latter can evoke all sorts of horrors, including billowing khaki pants. A jacket is required, but think more sports coat than a suit, knit ties rather than printed silks or jacquards. With this framework, you are visually interesting and well dressed with less risk of being overdressed. You can gussy the outfit up by wearing a tie or tie and odd vest, or you can dress it down by going tieless and by wearing chinos or, dare I say it, jeans.
With a smart casual rig, you have more of the desired approachability to students than when you wear a suit. You look at home in most university settings while being less likely to out-dress your male senior colleagues and make them look bad. When all the other male academics in the bi-annual department meeting are wearing cargo shorts, sandals, or at best, denim and a golf shirt, coming in with a three-piece suit can only make a negative impression. You’ll be looked at as if you are trying to show everyone else up, which is also true of any other workplace with an informal dress code. You are, however, likely to encounter a few sports coats, one bow tie, and some sweater vests in the room, so doing something similar but adding dashes of individual style will go over better. Wear better shoes, for example, or a grenadine tie. Get a made-to-measure jacket. Add a pocket square to a blazer and chinos.
As a professor myself who has cultivated his personal style over the past few years, I hope my reflections have provided some food for thought, and no doubt, for debate. While there is a range of possible ways for academics to dress, smart casual is an appropriate starting point. These impressions have been formed by my experiences in American and Canadian university settings, so I’d love to hear how things differ in other countries, particularly the UK and Europe. I’ll also be the first to admit that I am presenting one man’s reasoned argument, so let’s hear from the other professors (and students) in the Gentleman’s Gazette audience. How should a professor dress?