The codes of dressing in academia can be tricky. No one knows precisely where it sits on the spectrum of professional to super-casual, and this is not unexpected. The world of academia is not one big homogeneous bubble. It is more like an onion bulb with multicoloured layers representing diverse disciplines, and at the same time splayed across cultures in different parts of the world.
Dressing to work in academia means different things to different people.
On Sylvia’s Meet the Scholar feature, she described her colleagues in Mexico as dressing in suits and ties, high heels and beautiful dresses; whereas wearing high heels to the lecture theatre or at conferences is certainly not common practice in the UK.
The culture of the society one lives in, and that of the institution itself, imbues the academic with an unspoken code of dressing.
I remember chatting with an academic who had just moved from a top university in London, to work in another great university outside the city. She mentioned having to adapt her personal style to the “culture” of this new institution, whilst still being true to herself. London is a fashion capital. It is not surprising that the city’s fashion culture would rub off on the institution and the people in it. Any attempt to establish, or at least come close to establishing what the academic codes of dressing are needs to take certain factors into account – namely:
1. The nature of the discipline
2. The general culture of dressing in a given society
3. The culture of dressing in a particular institution (think of it like branding)
Stylish Academic readers shared their thoughts with me on this topic.
@drPatsyPerry says the codes of dressing at her institution depends on which discipline/school.
E.g business schools tend to be more formal,where suits are acceptable for males and females. In my subject group of fashion business, anything goes in terms of colour and shape, especially for females. I would say any style is acceptable as long as it’s not too revealing or way too casual. You can definitely be more flamboyant if you wish, although revealing or casual extremes such as transparent body con dresses or board shorts would be quite inappropriate.
She goes on…
I tend to be slightly more formal on a teaching day, so I might wear a dress or skinny jeans with a tailored jacket. I could experiment in terms of shape, such as maybe wool harem pants or a silk trapeze-shaped dress with a fitted jacket, rather than your average suit trousers or office dress. I may also just wear interesting shoes or big earrings with a fairly simple outfit, depending on how experimental I’m feeling!
Prof @Jessicapgh also addressed the t-shirt & jeans culture at her university.
I think the notions of academic professional dress vary per institution and region. For me, I have a lot of flexibility in what I can wear, but because of my gender and age, I feel limited in what I am willing to wear to campus.
I have plenty of colleagues who will wear t-shirts and jeans and I admire that confidence. Perhaps it is my own imposter syndrome showing, but I think it is important that I dress to convey professional authority. I still wear lots of prints and clothes that feel like me. I just try to make sure they find a balance. I dress professionally, but I avoid things that look or feel overly stuffy.
I am rarely in a full skirt suit for example, but I will wear “smart separates” in that vein.
Officially, my institution wouldn’t say anything if I taught in a clean t-shirt and jeans probably. But I do not even wear jeans at home really, so I would never wear them to work.
I do avoid showing cleavage and ensure skirt lengths offer coverage – but I also do that at home because I am inclined toward modesty.
@Jessicapgh is a Communication and Media Studies professor. She blogs at Consume or Consumed.