This first suit, an off-the-rack, navy blue, pinstripe, three-button affair with perilously skinny lapels, was needed to transition me from unkempt graduate student to serious academic; a uniform meant to project confidence, accomplishment, professionalism, and, crucially, to hide the pools of sweat I’d incur during the interviews I’d hoped would materialize five months later... By Dr. Jared Richman.
Approaching the end of my graduate school tenure I found myself in need of a proper suit. It would be the first suit I’d ever purchase myself and only the second suit I’d ever owned.
The first was procured by my mother, and while surely not designed to fit an awkward 13-year old frame, that suit got me through the emotional turmoil of a bar mitzvah. I thought it would be worn just that one time, my grandfather’s funeral four months later demanded a second wearing.
Suits, I was beginning to learn, were de rigueur for significant life events – emotional armor that shielded one from life’s travails while simultaneously masking one’s traumas.
“There are many like it, but this one is mine!”
I’d owned sport coats in the past (one in high school and then a thrift-shop special I’d used in college), and now kept one on hand for teaching and other “formal” events that punctuate the graduate school experience.
I rented the tux in which I was married.
This first suit, an off-the-rack, navy blue, pinstripe, three-button affair with perilously skinny lapels, was needed to transition me from unkempt graduate student to serious academic; a uniform meant to project confidence, accomplishment, professionalism, and, crucially, to hide the pools of sweat I’d incur during the interviews I’d hoped would materialize five months later.
I suppose it was bold, buying a suit before I actually had the interviews, but the purchase was in part psychological warfare against my own anxiety and dread – after all, if I owned the game-day jersey then of course the coach would put me in! My mediocre high school athletic career should have reminded me of the folly of such notions. Alas. Looking back, the suit didn’t fit all that well (I’ve since learned about sizing, styling, and tailoring), but it looked more professional than the jeans, flannel shirts, and leather jacket that made up my existing wardrobe.
Find your uniform
An academic doesn’t wear institutionally prescribed attire in the way that, say, a physician may be identifiable by her white coat or a police officer by their badge and official uniform. Nor does the academy invest professors with the kind of daily sartorial authority afforded by a judge’s distinctive black robes (American jurists no doubt find relief in the fact that they need not don the curly white wigs of their British counterparts).
Members of the military, medical staff, officers of the law, waitstaff, mechanics, and even flight attendants distinguish themselves by wearing some kind of standard uniform. But not the academic. At least not officially.
It is certainly the prerogative of each teaching assistant, lecturer, and professor to determine how they wish to present themselves in the classroom, and the choices have (thankfully) grown beyond the tweed jacket and oxford cloth button down shirt. In the 21st-century academy, clothes may not entirely maketh the (hu)man, but they can certainly define them.
The ability to dress down, as many academics suggest, is indeed a privilege. But on the flip side, I’d suggest that dressing up can be a welcome and even useful professional practice in academia. First and foremost, I wear a suit because it makes me feel good, but also because:
- It reminds me that I’m working: when I’m dressed this way I’m teaching or presenting my research.
- It makes me feel different, and so I’m more likely to be on my game with regard to the crispness of my language, my professional cues, and my ability to listen critically.
- It gives me confidence. My suit is my modern armor, my protection, and a projection of my professional identity.
- It reminds me that I am have made something of myself.
I’m a first-generation college graduate from a working-class family.
My father wore old jeans and sweatshirts to work, as I did in my pre-academic life.
My current professional wardrobe reflects the transition I made from jobs doing manual labor to a life of the mind. The purchase of the first suit reminded me of that milestone each time I wore it. I wore that suit to my mock interviews (thanks, graduate program, for having these!), through a gauntlet of job interviews and campus visits, and well into the early years of my teaching career.
Over time I wore it less and less; having a salary allowed me to buy new professional clothing with some regularity. But the first suit stayed in my closet for several years. It was special to me; it held within its fibers the memory of that transitional period, and I cherished it for reminding of how far I’d come.
Some of my colleagues (especially the older ones), scoff at my penchant for suits, instead favoring jeans and fleece vests and boat shoes. At times it seems to me that they wear their relative wealth and privilege with disdain. I (literally) don’t have that luxury, and if I choose to wear a suit it’s not because I want to be a banker or politician (though I certainly wouldn’t object to being paid like one!).
Of course, as another writer here has argued, one certainly doesn’t have to wear a suit to be taken seriously as an academic. However, one should recognize that the various spaces of our profession (the classroom, the conference venue, the library, the lab and so on) each demand recognition of the work that occurs there, and that this work merits the distinction signaled by certain forms of dress.
The suit may not be the way you signal seriousness of commitment to teaching and research. But for now, at least, it’s mine.