No, you mustn’t wear a suit to be taken seriously as an academic.

As a self-styled vintage clothing addict, I do not adhere to the common perception that as an academic, independent researcher, museum curator and all the above, I must always wear suits to make a ‘good’ impression.

Contrarily speaking, I do wear suits occasionally albeit vintage tweed or woolen suits that would have been deemed ‘everyday’ wear in the mid-twentieth century.

I’ve never owned a ‘modern’ suit.

Many vintage aficionados, including myself, adhere to the age-old maxim that clothes were better tailored in the past. It’s why they have survived for over sixty years.

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In a recent blog post on Stylish Academic Dr. Kavita Mann discusses the perceived notion that to be taken seriously as an academic one must wear a suit.

Dr. Mann rightly points out that this can cause problems for people who are disabled, from different backgrounds or even have different clothing budgets.

A good two-piece suit does not come cheap if you want it to last for more than a year.

You may also like to read: A guide to bespoke tailoring for academics

By Dr.Madeleine Seys

Dr. Mann also discusses elements of culture that influence her personal style choices as an academic which I thought I would replicate below:

1. Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. Always a perennial favourite for classic fashion.

2. Morticia and Wednesday Adams. I was a goth as a teenager and still have a penchant for anything black with skulls or with a peter-pan collar. I have several ‘Wednesday Adam’ dresses in my wardrobe that I wear on a regular basis.

3. Ginger Rogers / Katherine Hepburn / Jean Harlowe. Dependent on how I feel I will channel these actors’ personal style on any given day.

4. Any picture of fashionable clothing between 1920 to 1965. Or in my mind any excuse to whip out one of my amazing vintage pieces daily.

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I basically dress like Morticia Adams in an episode from Murder, She Wrote if it was on television anytime between 1935 to 1965. 

As you can see I do not fit in with the ‘regular’ appearance of an academic.

However, on what hand is there even a ‘regular’ appearance of perception of an academic in the 21st century?

Any lecturers I have ever had have been dressed in a smart casual manner that reflects their personal tastes and discipline. Perhaps the reason I’ve never really seen much ‘formal’ academic attire is due to the reason that I have studied Fine Art and Museum Studies; both quite liberal studies. Hence, my perception of an academic is a somewhat relaxed one that has translated into what I wear in academia.

I am not a traditional academic as such as I do not regularly teach or undertake research in a university-based setting.

I am an academic within my work as an early career dress historian and museum curator working in Irish museums.

I regularly contribute my research to journals, conferences, exhibitions etc. and I’m a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Dress Historians which is an incredibly relaxed and informal group of like-minded academics.

Perhaps the reason that I am a dress historian is reflected in the way that I dress at academic events.

There is always some form of performativity and playfulness in the way that I dress. Almost like I am trying to inhabit the lives of the women and dresses I am discussing by becoming a ‘character’ almost of the topic I am covering.

Most recently, I gave a paper at the Women’s History Association of Ireland Annual Conference on Irish women in World War Two. I dressed head to toe in 1940s vintage clothing from Ireland. I physically became the paper that I was giving to the conference delegates.

In a sense, I dress in this manner (even daily) as I feel ‘comfortable’ in vintage clothing.

Nothing makes me happier than donning a 1930s dress, putting on some red lipstick and painting my nails red.

You may also liked to read: Learning to love myself through lipstick

By Dr. Hattie Earle

I feel glamourous and sophisticated yet relaxed and informal as if my body was made for these types of clothes. This translates itself into the way I dress within academia and museums and have always been encouraged to dress this way within my museum work as this style of dress is embraced within museum culture.

To this date I have not had a problem wearing full vintage clothing and red lipstick to my job as a museum curator. In fact, it is a bonus as it encourages people to talk about the past and their own memories of clothing.

I don't like fast fashion
Dr. Rachel Sayers

I don’t keep up to do date with fashion trends as I find ‘fast fashion’ superfluous and non-environmentally friendly. I really don’t want to be wearing something made by a child in India.

I do buy high-end or hand-made pieces that reflect my interest in vintage style. These ‘modern’ pieces are worn on a day-to-day basis so that I can wear my ‘good’ vintage clothing on special occasions.

I also buy a lot of ‘1980s does 1940s/50s’ clothing on eBay as the shape, cut and colour often match the vintage originals and again I’m not ruining my favourite pieces.

I also scour charity shops, car boot sales, estate sales and any other source of second-hand clothing to purchase vintage clothing.

I have been buying vintage clothing of the same dealers in Cork, Dublin and Glasgow for eighteen years and these shops have constantly been the best suppliers of amazing vintage. I won’t be giving away any names as they are my tried and trusted vintage dealers!

I perceive myself within traditional academia to be ‘other’ as in I am not formally dressed and perhaps do not take myself too seriously.

Although, as I suggested earlier, this is perhaps due the field of academia I work within, namely Museum Studies and History, where there is a more informal approach to dressing which I have found from personal experiences.

I do take my research seriously and obviously like to look neat and tidy, but I also want to feel comfortable and approachable to students and conference delegates. There is nothing worse than (from my own experience) being in a stuffy conference room with people who are unapproachable.

I hope this blog post has given you an insight as to how I perceive myself as an academic from someone who is not within the confines of traditional university-based academia.

I hope to develop my career to the point where I have some part-time lecturing work alongside my curatorial work where I can continue to develop my work as a museum professional and wear all my fabulous vintage clothing at the same time!


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Dr. Rachel Sayers is an Irish Historian, Curator & Blogger, C20th Irish Dress, Social & Domestic history. You can follow her on Twitter @Rachel_With_AnE