Dressing for Academia

One appealing aspect of academia for many of us is the lack of a dress code. As a graduate student and a postdoc both women and men gravitate towards casual clothes – it’s not uncommon to see hooded sweatshirts, printed tees, short skirts, and old ripped jeans on the average pre-faculty academic.

It would be nice to think that as teachers our appearances don’t matter, and that students are more concerned with our grasp of the material and ability to teach it to them. However I’ve heard stories that have given me second thoughts: the junior faculty member whose evaluations focused on her clothing instead of her teaching – “she looks like she cares too much about her clothes, she wore a different dress every day!” or the female graduate student who dressed for West Coast weather in East Coast winters – “all the male students really liked class!” These stories, and others, are making me think about how much attention I need to be paying to my appearance as I navigate life as a new faculty member. And not only on days that I teach – at a smaller school who knows when you will run into the provost or dean!

I recently sat in on a lecture by a professor whose work focuses on gender issues in communication. One point she made was that women trade off more power than men when they dress down, so women need to dress up to gain the same level of respect. She provided us with a concrete list of ways to ensure that students aren’t distracted by a female professor’s appearance and are most likely to respect her authority. The goal isn’t to have students say “nice outfit” but “I learned something.” These suggestions would also work well for meetings with university officials.

These include:

  • Wear dark colors (you’ll look more authoritative)
  • Wear glasses (you’ll look more intelligent), but avoid “fun” distracting frames. Make sure you get the anti-glare coating so people can see your eyes.
  • Minimize patterns and jewelry (so listeners focus on your face). However, even relatively small patterns can strobe on video. See examples on what to avoid for more formal videotaped lectures or other recorded events here and here
  • Wear structured clothes and boots with heels (maximize the visual space you take up)
  • Keep your hair off your face (so it doesn’t look like you are hiding behind it)
  • Wear make-up (you will look more competent) – NY Times article ; original source

She also instructed women to “take up space like a man” – i.e., stand with your feet apart and embrace the “power pose” ala Amy Cuddy. Square your shoulders rather than hunching them, and avoid touching your own body. All of these suggestions will not only affect how you are perceived by others, but how you perceive your own competence – which then feeds back to how good you are at your job!

So, how can academics balance the need to be respected while staying true to our personal sense of style (and budget)? For some of us, our identity is exemplified by our clothing, makeup, and hair choices – and we wouldn’t be true to ourselves if we changed just to fit the norm. And that can work just fine; I know a woman who is in a humanities department at a private liberal arts college, and her extensive tattoos and hippie style facilitates discussions about stereotypes. I don’t mean to suggest that all young woman academics should go buy closets full of tailored black pantsuits and throw away their jewelry.

For the moment I am thinking about how the way I dress on an average day in the classroom or lab might affect perceptions of my competence and intelligence, at least while I am a junior faculty member. In particular there is a list of things that I’m planning on avoiding – visible bra straps, cleavage, short skirts or shorts, flip flops, sheer clothing – and I’m on the fence about some other wardrobe basics (skinny jeans, Chacos/Tevas, knee-high boots). I plan to start out a bit more conservatively dressed, and embrace a feminine business casual look like that depicted by some of the strong female characters on TV: Temperance Brennan on Bones (here and here and here), Kate Beckett from Castle (here and here) and Olivia Pope from Scandal (here and here).


Temperance Brennan (Bones), Kate Beckett (Castle), Olivia Pope (Scandal)

I know it’s silly to have one’s style icons be fictional characters with unlimited wardrobe budgets, but I am one of those people who needs to see outfits on someone to build them from items in a store. I’d be interested to hear about other style inspirations! Obviously I’m not the first person to think about this – here is a great blog post about dressing for AGU, an academic conference. Many of these outfits would be just as appropriate in other academic settings. I’ve also found the blog Putting Me Together, which has a great ‘wardrobe from scratch’ how-to section. I’ve enjoyed compiling a pinterest board with some ideas. There is a lot to stress out about when starting a new academic job, but I’m looking at this as an opportunity to have some fun freshening up my wardrobe!

57 thoughts on “Dressing for Academia

  1. ‘women trade off more power than men when they dress down, so women need to dress up to gain the same level of respect’
    The same is true for persons of color, or at least in my (& friends) experiences as African-Americans.
    When I do #realtalks with undergrad and junior graduate minority students, I also tell them go up a notch in dress for professional meetings. It’s always better to risk over dressing than under dressing.

    • That is a really great point, and something that I haven’t had to deal with personally. Do students generally respond well to discussions about clothing? I have wondered how best to approach it (and whose job it is to do so!) when we see that students, undergrad or grad, are dressing in ways that might be hurting their jobs.

    • I wrote about this on my own blog recently: I started teaching at a new university (at which I’m a minority among both students and faculty) this past Spring, and after 4 years of never receiving critiques about my dress before, I suddenly started hearing lots of comments about how I “looked like a student.” Since most students I know don’t wear dress shirts to class (unless their coming from or going to work), I began to interpret these comments as actually saying that I didn’t look like a professor.

      On the one hand, I acknowledge that as a nearly-30 Chicano, I’m more likely to be a student on my campus than a teacher. But I want to refuse to dress more professionally than my colleagues just to be taken seriously as an academic. Thankfully, none of my mentoring senior faculty have criticized my dress, and they have been happy with my work, so I’m perhaps in a better situation to make such refusals?

  2. One issue I often have is how to dress for the different activities I may have in one day: an outdoor lab in a field course, a lecture to freshmen, and maybe even a meeting with an important administrator. I have yet to figure out a way to meet all of these without bringing at least two outfits (which I also won’t do). I really think the men have it easier…

    • I am struggling with this as well! At first I was thinking a nice pair of field pants could work for everything, but then I realized that after a few labs out in the dirt they probably wouldn’t be appropriate for morning meetings and lectures any more.

    • I would have thought that the men get muddy or dusty pants and shoes and sweaty shirts too, if they have been in the field prior to an important meeting – how do they deal with it?


  3. I’m on the postdoc in old jeans with printed tees level… The problem for me, however, is that in the lab I work daily with potentially dangerous substances. To which, unfortunately, a good pair of jeans still provides the best protection. Thanks for the tips though, I’ll definitely give the darker colors & less prints a go.

  4. To add to the groups that need to use dress as an indication of power, I’ll also add that as a fat chick I find I have to dress up quite a bit to get respect. I heard from a prof (female) when I was in grad school that “you fat girls in the department are obviously lazy, otherwise you wouldn’t be that weight, and since we know you’re lazy, how are we supposed to take you seriously?” It was something I was overly thrilled to be hearing while trying to get my ED managed, I’ll tell you what, and the only thing that could be immediately done/fixed was in the clothing department.

    It’s frustrating to see lots of conference/office wear in academia posts that try to give solid advice on items of clothing and see suggestions like “Oh anything at LOFT works pretty well”. Well, thanks but I’m sized out of LOFT and the choices for plus sized clothing are mostly a lot of bedazzled cutesy print crap, meaning my choices for “appropriate” office wear are either $$$$ or buying boatloads of stuff untried on from stores in other countries (like ASOS) and floating the amount on my credit card while I get to try on clothes, and then ship back whatever doesn’t fit or has no chance in tailoring. Most of the other postdocs where I am go for the jeans and tshirts look because they have neither the time nor money to invest in such shenanigans whereas I spend a lot of time I could be spending on science searching out the sale and trying to figure out how to tailor things myself as tailoring rates in DC are about 4x more than they were in LA.

    • I have this same problem, too — and with an odd body size, I often have to get things tailored, or they just don’t fit. I did recently discover Gwynnie Bee (a rent-a-clothing company targeted to sizes 10-28), and I’m thinking of trying it out when I start my faculty position this fall. At the very least, I’ve found some new designers! I’m dropping weight, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look great now! I absolutely hate most things at places like Lane Bryant. I find a lot of plus-size clothing to be pretty infantilizing, personally. I have had luck at Eddie Bauer and Macy’s.

      • I miss having good luck at Macy’s- even though some would see DC as power suit central, I’ve just had a bear of a time finding anything that works. The plus size sections here are hella wee compared to the plus size sections at the two Macy’s in my old area of Los Angeles. I’ve heard of Gwynnie Bee, but I still don’t think I’ve actually seen any real reviews, which would make me ponder throwing some money at them. I work at a government lab, so I try keep it neutral and unremarkable but people notice when you’re the girl who has the outfits with the interesting pintucks and colorful belts just to make them fit you properly.

        • A tip for shopping at Macy’s: anything you buy at macys.com you can return at ANY Macy’s store. I wear a petite short pant (yes, I’m that short) and have a curvy body type. The stores around me just don’t carry pants that will fit me (and for some reason all of the petite clothes are targeted to the “mature adult”). When I needed new jeans, I bought several pairs online, and just kept the pair I liked. As a former employee of that store, I can tell you that that happens all of the time.

      • Infantalizing! Do you mean the teens-and-early-20s-at-the-oldest goth look that’s so popular at stores like Torrid by any chance?

      • Conveniently, I totally am a middle-aged woman. And it’s taken me until this age to decide I can pull off sequins and squirmy dresses if I want to.

        I get the cutesy flower print aggravation. The sequins are more… hmm, I’d say they’re more outright objectifying rather than infantilizing. And I do understand the novelty of even having the option of wearing something really sexy as a fat chick.

        But I will admit that I wish at least some cute plus sized shirts weren’t so low-cute as to provide a view straight between my boobs to my stomach. I’m uncertain how that fits into the professional dress code, but I’m thinking it’s not the best power look.

  5. This is great advice, and also applies to offices… I work for a mostly-scientific non-profit, and there’s very little oversight of what we wear. Thus many of the scientists dress very casually, and I’ve heard their supervisors comment on it. We’re creatures of subtle prejudices and opinions whose origins we don’t tend to personally understand, so these little things can really effect how we’re seen regardless of how well we do our jobs. It matters around bonus time!

  6. Alison at wardrobeoxygen.com has done several blog posts on Gwynnie Bee (e.g. http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2013/07/in-navy.html). She’s not an academic, but she does post a lot of business casual outfits.

    I personally always feel like my skinny jeans are too casual and revealing for campus (postdoc in life sciences starting first faculty position soon), even though my bootcut jeans are just as snug everywhere except below the knee. I don’t know why, it’s just one of these subjective things. I think starting more conservative and seeing how things feel is a good way to go. I would also caution against buying a lot of clothes up front when transitioning. I did that for a fellowship that required dressing up, and it took me nearly a year to figure out clothes that were both appropriate and that I actually felt good in. I regretted buying a bunch of stuff that I eventually realized was not working for me.

  7. As a new assistant prof, I’ve definitely struggled with leaving my post-doc wardrobe behind. I’ve bought a bunch of shift dresses and wear them when I’m inspired, but there are days when all I can bear is to put on are a pair of jeans and a sweater with some ballet flats. I’ve found that a necklace goes a long way to make me not feel completely unprofessional. Also – keep a pair of heels in the office!

  8. It worries me just a “tad” when we are looking to TV shows to model … well anything about science. (Life imitating art imitating what they think is life). Shouldn’t we be doing the modelling, and wearing what is comfortable, appropriate, practical and useful and then letting the producers of TV shows know what we really look like? What really makes me angry is the CSI shows where they wear designer clothes and heels to a crime scene, and don’t even give the detectives galoshes to wear over their big muddy shoes. And there is never a spot of blood or mud on their white pants suits. And their hair waves everywhere and gets in everything, yet the case is solved by the finding of one of the criminal’s hairs on the victim’s shirt. AND they never do up their lab coats in the lab, and often wear totally unsuitable shoes … which brings me to another pet hate – the use of the lab’s fridge for food, or even eating in the lab. At least the British crime shows make a token of wearing zoot soots at a crime scene, and ensuring the detectives do as well. No, let’s not look to TV shows to show us what to do as scientists, nor even what to wear.

    • There’s a huge diversity of what “we” look like. I know scientists who wear designer clothes, and are criticized for not looking like a scientist enough!

      I recently started watching Bones, and I’ve been pretty happy with the depiction of the science as far as shows go (I happen to think cultural depictions of scientists matters, though this post is really about something else). That show definitely does NOT depict a clean, bloodless crime scene! I think having style icons is helpful, regardless of where they come from. It’s just easier to go with TV characters in a case like this, because, well, they’re visible, and it’s easy to show photos of them (as opposed to, say, your fashion-forward labmate). I actually really liked that aspect of the post– it reminded me (also a new faculty!) of how much I love Temperence Brennan’s clothes, and I also need examples when I go shopping, which the poster mentioned.

  9. Interesting post. I am 1.5 years in to my t-t faculty position and have thought about this a fair bit. I’m not someone who naturally puts much effort into my appearance or clothing, although I do like to ‘look good’. I am an EEB (ecology & evolutionary biology) biologist – which I think is a group that dresses even more casually than other academics. Although I see other (young) female faculty dress up for teaching and meetings, I have consciously decided not to. I don’t wear scrappy clothes, but I will wear jeans and casual sweaters/tops. I think it just perpetuates a sexist culture if I put more effort into my clothing than my male colleagues. Its a tough one, and its a fine line, but its my way of making sure that women and men are treated equally in the workplace. We will see how it goes!

    • I’m also an ecologist, and most of my colleagues are earth scientists and ecologists. I’ve heard from a lot of my female mentors that they’ve struggled with perception issues — being taken seriously, student evaluations, etc. I think the key is the point that the poster makes that women trade off more power than men when they dress down. Is it fair? Of course not. The problem is, wearing similar clothes to men doesn’t ensure that you’re treated equally in the workplace. You have no control over how others perceive you. It’s hard to break down institution-wide barriers with individual actions when you’re in a place of vulnerability (pre-tenure) and being judged by different standards. I don’t think it perpetuates a sexist culture to acknowledge that, and weigh risks and rewards.

      It’s also important to point out that there’s a big double standard here. Women are punished for not looking professional enough, but we can also be punished if we’re perceived to put too much attention into our appearance. I’ve had colleagues tell me that they got better evaluations and are treated more respectfully by students when they wore skirts, boots, makeup. Those same colleagues have told me that they get told by male academics in their field that they “don’t look like a scientist.”

      That’s not my colleague’s fault, and she’s not perpetuating sexist culture by wearing makeup to work. If that’s what she has to do to survive, I’m not going to judge her for that. I’d argue instead that the sexist culture is perpetuated by the people in positions of authority, and by a culture objectifies women and judges them for their appearance rather than their abilities.

      When it comes down to it, your mileage may vary. You have to do your own personal risk-reward assessment, balanced by what comes naturally to you and makes you comfortable.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with most of your points, but I guess my main message is that I’m not going to wear makeup to teach be ‘taken seriously’ when I never wear makeup anywhere else. I’m not going to buy a blazer to wear for a meeting, when I hate wearing structured clothing. If I can’t be taken seriously for my science and my opinions, then its not worth it for me — I need to be true to myself. That being said, I consider myself an incredibly professional person. For example, on the first day of class I instruct my undergraduate students on how to write a professional email to a professor. It drives me crazy to get hastily-written abbreviated-smartphone emails (and I had a few students tell me that they really respected me for that).

        I think a similar issue (in terms of respect, not in terms of practicality) is what students call you. I discovered that most of the young female faculty in my department referred to themselves as Prof. X (for example when signing emails), while most of the young male faculty simply went by their first name. This was a much bigger issue for me. I’m still wrestling with this one, and I go back and forth on it. Would love to hear other’s opinions!

        • Hi Jan!
          THE NAME THING!! I obsessed over this last semester.
          My solution was this: To undergrads in my classes, I sign emails with my initials. To students in my lab and graduate students, my first name. Signing with a title feels ridiculous to me, and for whatever reason initials are used by many in my dept, and I sign casual emails and notes with my first initial, so it feels natural to me.
          (On the first day of class I tell them they can call me Professor lastname, Dr. Lastname, or Firstname, though none of them ever do. If they address me as Miss, Ms, or Mrs, I correct them whether it’s email, or in conversation. We also have the “how to write a professional email” discussion.)

          • I do the exact same thing – initials for emails with class, first name everything else. Some students simply call me “professor” with no name attached, which for some reason cracks me up.

          • Good solution to the email dilemma! Thanks. I also love the idea of specifically laying out the options for what to call you (Prof. Lastname, Dr. Lastname or Firstname).

  10. It’s no longer actively maintained now, but there’s lots of great posts over at AcademiChic (http://www.academichic.com/). They have great advice on developing a style that sends the message you want as well as posts on “trickier” topics like dressing for pregnancy in academia.

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  20. I have been a college professor 32 years and feel it is disgraceful that people in my profession overwhelmingly dress poorly. I always go into class in an expensive pinstriped suit, matching tie and pocket square, white shirt with cufflinks, and Allen Edmonds wingtip shoes. My personal grooming is meticulous. As a student, would you rather look at me or someone who fell out of bed and came to campus? Of course we are judged by our appearnace; among other things, it speaks volumes about an adult’s maturity.

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  31. Thanks for this post! I am currently a PhD student who just turned 30 and it takes me forever to decide what to wear every day.. Not only because I’m not in love with a lot of my clothes (although I recently did a huge closet purge) but I’m still navigating in between the “student look” who’s no longer in her 20s and a more “professional but not old” look. Is refreshing to see there’s other people out there who feel the same.

    I experienced AGU last year, normally I would wear business casual at AAPG and I was very surprised to see that jeans, t shirts and hoodies were common at the meeting. I guess there is a “subculture” in geology like the AGU post states and where I am from (Latin America, a minority like you) female geologist are considered “frumpy and ugly”, so when I dress up a little bit for school I sometimes feel like people won’t take my seriously.

    I guess there are places with dress code that you have to respect and follow, but I’m starting to realize that I am not the only one who struggles with this and at the end of the day, is a matter of dressing for yourself, a nice fit (knowing your body type) and feel great about it!

    • I enjoyed reading your thoughts, Lucia. I have been a Professor of Constitutional law for 32 years and without fail, wear a pinstriped suit, wingtip shoes, and matching tie, cufflinks and pocket square to work every day. There was a time when professionals who reached a certain station in life were expected to dress to the nines. I do it because it conveys self-respect and a feeling to students that I take myself seriously and believe in all of you and why we are here. I think it affects them positively when they look at someone professionally dressed for 85 minutes twice a week. Mainly, I dress up because it makes me feel good.

      If money is a factor, start slowly with a few interchangeable basics. Whatever you decide, Lucia, I wish you many years of fine health and a rewarding academic career.


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  33. Wonderful post! I have one quick question.

    If a young woman is not able to wear heels for long periods of time (i.e. all day at a conference) for medical reasons, is there another type of shoe that is recommended? I understand Oxfords are very “in” right now and are conservative yet fashionable. I feel as though simple flats may appear too casual or too young. Any advice is greatly appreciated!

    Many thanks!


    • Hi Lydia,

      Have you tried wedged court shoes? I find that a small wedge is more comfortable than completely flat because it supports the arch of the foot. I suffer from backache due to a chronic health condition. Also, I think it’s really important to try the shoes on and pace in them before buying, look for good insoles and spend more on a versatile pair of shoes that will go with anything, maybe two pairs such as a black court and a nude court which look smart?

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