I always wanted to blog about academic attire - every time I returned from a sartorially desastrous conference (frequently), every time I saw a colleague who knows how to dress without being arrogant (once in a while), every time I received comments on my own attire - appreciative (occasionally) or otherwise (rarely). A recent post on the Thesis Whisperer, and the ensuing discussion on #phdchat gave me the last necessary kick to finally write down my two cents. While doing so, I again realized that most commentary and advice out there is for women - arguably because female academics tend to be under much more scrutiny in these matters. For men, I only came across a classic rant at Inside Higher Ed - and a piece in the Chronicle which asks all the right questions - about geography, discipline, campus and role - but provides no answers.
Without claiming exemplarity, I thus decided to flung open my wardrobe and assemble all those things I wore during the last couple of months in official academic contexts (except fieldwork - where I tend to wear a simple trouser-shirt-combo - but the same rules apply there, too). The collection is pictured to the right - and I will go through three classic occasions to explain what I wear, and more importantly my reasoning behind it. These occasions are teaching in the classroom, presenting and networking at a conference, and making the best out of professional meetings.
The classroom: When I teach, I invariably wear a jacket. In winter, it might be the tweed one in the back of the picture, in summers the half-lined linen one in the front. With the jacked come odd trousers, a patterned shirt, and leather shoes - but pocket squares rather than ties. In this list, jacket and shoes are non-negotiable, the rest might vary. My reasons for this attire are twofold: it is not what I wear everyday, and neither what any of my students is likely to show up in for class. Both reasons in turn go back to "showing respect": I respect teaching as a professional event, and thus dress for the occasion. And while I do not intend to come across unnecessarily authoritarian, I don't want to gloss over existing hierarchies either. I am not a student among students; students don't usually decide the curriculum, nor do they assign grades. I am a teacher - thus the jacket. But overstressing this point would be disrespectful, too - thus I tend to choose rather informal cloth (tweed, linen, pattern), pair it with odd trousers (rather than a suit), and leave out the tie - not to speak of the bow (which I only wear in academic contexts as part of sub-fusc, but that is another story). I want my students to remember what I taught, not what I wear.
The conference: The same basic rule applies in conference attire: clothes are one way to pay respect to those who chose my presentation over all others - and over the coffee lounge. Also, a conference presentation is again not an everyday occassion, so neither are my clothes. But while I want to show respect, and be shown respect, I also want that people talk about my paper more than about my suit. Thus the typical conference outfit tends to be a slightly more formal and less adventurous suit (like the cotton-wool one depicted in the middle), paired with the non-negotiable leather shoes, and - in contrast to the classroom - a white shirt and tie (on the day I present at least). The suit should never be black (almost no suit should ever be), not blue, nor pinstriped - we are not in the boardroom. Brown and beige are wonderful, grey might work - but if it needs to be blue, then it should be no suit but the midnight blue blazer worn over khakis or grey moleskine. Which might be too clichee in some contexts. Likewise, the tie will be subdued as well - maybe the brown one, or the slightly more Indian red one, but rarely the Alumni tie (which is for occassions where I need to show-off unabashedly in order to be taken serious. Which is rarely the case at conferences). I should add that ties are negotiable, however - if the average delegate at any particular conference is especially badly dressed, I adjust (but never leave the jacket). Conferences are job fairs, too, after all - and you do not want to grossly outshine your (potential) boss.
The professional meeting: Which brings me to the last occasion - a professional meeting with a small group of very senior colleagues. This might be a scheduled job / scholarship / grant interview, a panelist dinner, or just a professional one-on-one to discuss shared interests and ask for advice. Again, I tend to stick to a jacket to show my respect - but the rest needs to be handled very carefully. Fortunately, there are many good but unobtrusive ways to leave a good impression: anything tailored can impress with fit rather than color or pattern, and ties can impress by being tied correctly (i.e. sitting firmly in the collar rather than hanging a cm below) and need not "leap out in front so as to announce the awkwardness of the wearer".1 The professional meeting with much more senior colleagues is probably the only occassion where being under- rather than overdressed is a sensible choice (with the exception of the job interview, arguably). Again: you want to be listened to, not looked at - and never envied.
Finally two pieces of advice to other grad-school youngsters like me. Firstly, you might say you need to feel comfortable while teaching, speaking in public, or meeting intimidating seniors, and thus can't bring yourself to wear a jacket. I tend to agree (though some stiffness can help sometimes, see my post on wearing a tie while writing), but trust me: jackets can be extremely comfortable - as long as they are tailored (or, if that is impossible, altered) for your bodyshape. The jackets depicted in today's image all are (another perk of working in India - good tailors are affordable here), and I barely notice their presence on my body. Secondly, if you say you feel insecure in all matters sartorial, don't despair: read menswear blogs, for instance, or good books2. But make sure to discount for the eccentrism often found there, find ways to spend less money, and please, please, eschew advice written for bankers and other business professionals - academia works rather differently, at least as far as cloting goes (in fact, academia might be the one professional context in which men can dress up more creatively - which is a boon for those who love to!). Start your exploration on A suitable wardrobe, An affordable wardrobe, and Permanent Style
Does dressing well in academia makes you stand out? Yes, undoubtedly. And this can be an uncomfortable position - but at the same time it is nothing else than what we aspire to when we submit our articles to the very best journals. As the Thesis Whisperer wrote: "Possessing and displaying the right cultural capital – in your writing at least – is essential for building trust and credibility with your academic colleagues, so why not clothes too?"
- 1. (2006). The suit: A Macchiavellian approach to men's style. New York: Harper Collins.
- 2. such as the one by Antongiavanni quoted earlier