Dressing for Academia

Think about your time at university. How did students and faculty dress?

If you walk around campus now, you will see staff wearing faded polyester suits with open collars; or some faculty in more casual garments, such as a checked shirt, tucked into skinny pants. We can go down the rabbit hole of professors lecturing in hoodies, but won’t.

Students dress no better. But this is your typical casual university — nothing special, which I believe is the problem.

But how important is dress?

In my department (English), faculty see each other quite often. On campus, faculty offices are located in the same hall, usually on the same floor. You will bump into colleagues, grad students, and students, just going to the bathroom. There’s usually brief verbal exchange (“Hello! How are you?” etc.). At weekly department meetings, you will spend two hours conversing. Plenty of other encounters occur at events across campus.

Use these interactions to your advantage by looking professional and put-together.

Professor of English. Many departments encourage professors to submit headshots for online viewing.

Looking your best is even more crucial for junior faculty (i.e. Assistant Professors), who have not achieved tenure. Dressing can be a positive thing. It can boost your confidence and give you ground to build interesting relationships.

Even if you are tenured, maintaining your professional presence and having a decent website photo benefits your reputation and visibility (by grant agencies, publishing companies, graduate students, other faculty), as photographed above. Dress can compliment your age. It can positively influence your research and networking aims, as with any profession.

Wearing the same suit every day does not strike a good impression, even if you are a brilliant scholar. But with more financial benefits, senior professors can invest in quality clothes.

Dragging out the same clothes creates complacency and commands less respect of your colleagues and students. It signals that this “look” is here to stay.

Your department wants to hire someone fresh. Over the years, they will observe whether you can offer fresh attitude, initiatives, and academic contributions.

So how to begin?

In our current dress climate, I recommend a smart-casual ensemble: odd jacket (i.e. sport coat) combinations with odd trousers.

Odd jackets strike the perfect balance because they sit between casual and formal. They are formal enough for conferences, dinners, lectures — yet they don’t look too imposing on campus.

Simon Crompton wearing a brown Escorial tweed odd jacket with a pink dress shirt. Photo (and those below) courtesy Permanent Style.

I think Simon Crompton has mastered these combinations best, so i’ve attached photographs of his outfits, which would be appropriate for academia. Ties are optional, but always invited. Again, the idea is staying fresh and creating new looks.

Suits are starting to dwindle because they look slightly out of place on campuses, though if worn correctly, are still appropriate. Plus, suits are less versatile; because they are a set, people easily recognize when you wear a particular suit more than once a week.

Your odd jacket, with subtle texture and pattern, can be a grey herringbone, oatmeal tweed, or navy wool.

Assembling these with grey flannel or chino trousers can look very smart. Next, invest in a few staple, well-fitting dress shirts (blue oxford, white oxford, striped cotton, light denim).

Rotate all of these and you will develop a respectable wardrobe in few years time. Invest in one pair of good quality shoes for five years.

Suits are appropriate at conferences, and so is this odd jacket combination (unless you are speaking at a formal, conservative university).

Muted, yet interesting gray donegal tweed overcoat.

After mastering the basics, i’d commission one bespoke overcoat (with warm lining), because there will come a conference during the freezing winter.

In summation: create a staple wardrobe and take it slowly. Your colleagues will appreciate your subtlety. It’s refreshing — without the shiny accessories and eccentric cufflinks attached.

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