Academic fashion can be tricky sometimes. This is why Dr. Aaron Hanlon shares some useful tips on finding affordable and sustainable ways to outfit yourself for academia’s contradictory pressures and demands.


The physical spaces of academic professional engagement—classrooms, conference venues, meeting rooms, corridors, libraries, labs, and studios—pose all sorts of contradictory expectations for how we dress.

Or rather, the people who fill those spaces impose contradictory expectations, as we’re constantly shifting between roles, and asked to look the part.

On any given day, an academic can be expected to look like a:

#1 Subject-matter expert or authority

#2 Open, receptive, approachable teacher

#3 Professional among other, traditionally better-paid professionals, like physicians, lawyers, and engineers

#4 Public intellectual or science communicator

#5 Industry partner or community organizer

The sheer number of roles we’re asked to fulfill before vastly different kinds of audiences—students, colleagues, and the wider public—puts extra pressure on our clothing choices and broader self-presentation strategies.

I offer below what I hope are useful tips for finding affordable and sustainable ways to outfit yourself for these contradictory pressures and demands. But first it’s important to understand what fashion choices can and can’t do.

I experienced both the benefits and the limits of fashion choice from the moment I set foot on campus on day one of my first academic job. Dressed in a less-than-tidy shirt and tie and carrying a briefcase, I was nevertheless mistaken for an incoming first-year undergraduate.

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These kinds of experiences have led me to experiment with fashion, an ongoing process of trial and error.

But the stakes for me, as a white male professor, of tinkering with my fashion choices as a way of mitigating ageism are not generalizable.

As my colleague Sonja Thomas, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, points out, clothing “choices” are “never choices for some, but always read as an extension of what we think we already know about bodies.”

For women of color in particular, clothing can be seen as “an extension of the body”—and an extension of prejudicial assumptions about what kinds of bodies can occupy the professoriate—in ways that limit the efficacy of clothing choice.

So I don’t want to oversell the liberation potential of clothing choice, but I do want to share some strategies I’ve used to find nice clothing, by sustainable means, suitable to a range of styles.

These tips won’t upend entrenched hierarchies, but I believe they offer everyone a range of affordable options for self-expression in academic settings.

people standing around with shopping bags - academic fashion

#1 Buy from ethical designers

Labels like Everlane make stylish, high-quality basics in both muted and vibrant colors that can be layered for both dressed-down and semi-formal occasions, making them ideal for conference travel. Everlane prioritizes transparency of how and where its clothing is made, and only partners with ethical factories.

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#2 Embrace the unexpected

Academics have a reputation for making staid and conservative clothing choices.

If you’d like to participate in a tacit rebellion against that stereotype, consider designers that allow you to blend traditional styles with bolder streetwear trends.

I prefer labels like Paul Smith, Diesel, ALLSAINTS, Uniqlo, and Comme Des Garcons for these purposes.

Most of these are not within the typical academic’s budget, so read on for tips about how to get these at affordable prices.

#3 Break the consumption cycle without breaking the bank

Charity shops and consignment stores often have exceptionally nice, used clothing at affordable prices.

The key is to carve out time to check out such stores when you find yourself in a major city (for a conference, visiting friends, on vacation, etc.).

The more shops you cover, the greater feel you’ll get for whether their sources offer the quality and range of styles you’re looking for.

Good sources are crucial, for charity shops as for academic work. And by giving new life to cast-off clothing, you’re refusing to participate in consumption for its own sake. This is both savvy and ethical.

#4 Use consignment apps

These days you don’t need to travel to consignment shops in New York or London to find low-cost, designer clothing for a variety of professional situations.

Apps like The RealReal and Poshmark bring the shop to you, and allow for easy sorting by style, label, size, and price.

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Dr. Aaron R. Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College.

His first book, A World of Disorderly Notions, is forthcoming in May 2019 from the University of Virginia Press.

In addition to his research on literature, culture, and science in Enlightenment Britain, his public writing has appeared in: The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe New RepublicThe AtlanticVoxThe Chronicle Review, and others.

Twitter: @AaronRHanlon | Website: aaronrhanlon.com

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