According to Hattie Earle, there are 4 key academic dresses that will take you through your career.
The incomparable Oscar Wilde gave us many pearls of wisdom but one above all remains with me: ‘You can never be overdressed or overeducated’.
Having on more than one occasion been the only person in pjs at a breakfast table, I’ve never since feared being overdressed. Any anyway – who’s judging?
Alongside my normal lecturing, I am also a course leader (basically just the main point of contact for all admin to do with the course), which means a lot of meetings with all kinds of people.
Rather than fear being under-dressed again, I curate an ever-changing wardrobe of brightly coloured dresses, each one pair-able with Dr Martens shoes and a bold cardigan.
It’s an academic wardrobe of simplicity and manageability. It’s comfortable and it’s recognisable.
“Which one is Hattie?” “She’s the one in the dress”.
I’m an advocate of dresses… for all occasions. And so, I present to you: the four dresses that will get you through some of the early landmarks of academia.
#1 The PhD Student Presents
You’re going to be presenting at a conference for the first time and, after the initial panic of ‘Oh my heck, what if my paper is tosh and everyone laughs at me’ subsides, the question of clothing is likely to loom.
All conferences are different; in my field, a clean t-shirt and un-ripped jeans will probably be fine.
However, it’s probably preferable to go for something a little smarter.
When I first presented at an international conference, I wore something oddly shaped and I fidgeted the whole time. Not a good look.
Not-too-migraine-inducing colours (nor violent patterns), sensible necklines, sleeves if that’s your thing.
Whatever you need to ensure that you’re not fiddling, you project confidence and authority, all while looking approachable and not overheating (or freezing). Simple!
#2 The Viva
Up to this point of your academic career, the viva (or ‘defence’ or ‘oral examination’) is the most important thing you’ll come up against.
Forget the nerves of being a first-time PhD student presenter – this is the true test of your academic chops.
You don’t have to dress smartly, you don’t have to go all out in a suit (or whatever the academic equivalent is) but you’re going through something remarkable and it would be a shame to do it in a t-shirt you’ve had since you were 19.
COMFORT IS KEY.
Softer fabrics, nothing too tight around the middle (you might be sitting for a while), ‘temperature control options’, pockets.
#3 The Interview
The ‘space of the interview’ is such a strange one.
We all know that it’s a type of performance and the way we are in an interview is some kind of weird, uber-polished version of how we actually are.
I’m not entirely sure I’d bare my arms in an interview, though anyone looking at my social media will see that I’m visibly tattooed. It’s an odd concern but such is the curious pull of the interview!
If in doubt, go plain. Let the sparkle of your personality be the shiniest thing in the room.
Smarter than usual is safe. Clean, well-fitted, conservative of neck- and hem-line is a must.
#4 The ‘Serious’ Academic
Once you’ve got that hallowed permanent post, wear whatever the heck you want.
I’ve got dresses printed with dinosaurs, lobsters, and astronauts; bright yellow, bright red and glow-in-the-dark stars… and everything else in between.
No one has ever said a thing. Well, not a negative thing.
The thing about academics is the sheer number of stereotypes of what we’re supposed to look like.
Pretty much the only thing we aren’t supposed to be is stylish, especially if we’re also women.
So, with that, there are no rules. You can be whatever you want to be – including stylish – because there’s no real expectation that we’re anything except a brain on a stick.
Whatever you want. Preferably clean, especially if you’re going to be around people or using public elevators.
The Golden Rule: If your underwear doesn’t fit right, your clothes won’t either.
Invest in good quality underwear, take care of it and get refitted regularly.
Hattie Earle is a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing.
Her research focuses on representations of violence and trauma in visual culture, especially comics.
She’s also interested in how we can use images to tell old stories in new, different ways.
Hattie has published her first book on war and comics with the University Press of Mississippi in July 2017.