What Not to Wear, Assistant Professor Edition: Fashion for the Academic Set

(Thursday Post Category–Here’s How You Get Tenure)

Egged on by the redoubtable Martina of TheLifeAcademic, I have agreed to do a series of posts on What Not To Wear (Campus Edition).  She is on a mission to de-depress academic fashion, and this is a mission that I completely endorse.  Just because we’re smart doesn’t mean we have to be dreary.

Readers, dress better!  “Trust me, you’re gonna like the way you look.”

Seriously, you’ll be amazed at the boost this gives to your confidence. And the impact it has on the way you’re treated by students and colleagues.

There will be five posts in the series.

  • Grad school
  • Job market
  • Assistant professor
  • Conference
  • For the guys

And yes, these posts, except for the last, are directed toward women who present conventionally as women.  I am not offering a post for butch dykes, although being a loyal femme fan of butch dykes, I’d be happy to (please email at gettenure@gmail.com to request).  And men just have less scope for error than women, and so they only get one post.  Sad but true, women need more advising on this subject.

Today, Assistant Professor Edition.

Now to be perfectly honest, most assistant professors I have known have not dressed badly.  That doesn’t mean they’ve dressed well.  But they haven’t done anything sartorially that might actually destroy their chances for continued employment.   The same cannot be said for job candidates.

So for today, I’m not going to make the sweeping critical judgments reserved for job candidates in my forthcoming “Job Market Edition.”  I’m simply going to move top to bottom, from hair to shoes.  I am channeling Stacy, and I make no apology about that.  You may disagree, but you will not change my mind.

HairIt is not illegal for an assistant professor to have a trendy haircut.  Ditch the ponytail.  Reject the pageboy (of any length). Show that you ARE All That.  Spend the money on yourself to look good.  Find the hottest hair salon in your town, and become a regular.  You will be astounded at what a good haircut does for your confidence.  If you do nothing else from this post, do this.  Don’t know how to find the hottest hair salon?  Go to the hottest coffeeshop, find the barista with the coolest haircut (male or female, it matters not), and ask them where they got it.

Skin and Makeup:  I like makeup. Not everyone does.  It’s optional, of course. If you go for it, and I think you should, let’s lean away from Wet N’ Wild and more toward L’Oreal and Revlon.  No need to go into the overpriced department store brands at this stage in your career.  I like Revlon Colorstay because I put it on in the morning and don’t have to think about it again.  I recently discovered that lip stain makes a killer all-day blush.

Even if you don’t wear makeup, take care of your skin.  It’s your largest organ!  It deserves care!  Use a toner and moisturizer. They feel good and make a difference.Do the occasional clay mask.  Cheap ones are fine.  I like organics, myself.

JewelryWear conservative jewelry to job talks.  You may wear conspicuous jewelry at large conferences.  In your daily life in the department, aim for the middle.  Beware of jangling bracelets.

TopsTake out your tops and look at them them.  Are they stained?  Get them cleaned or throw them out.  Are they ripped?  Fix them or throw them out.  We notice.  Your students notice.  Please.

Iron your shirts. I know there’s no time. But iron your shirts.

Your blouse must button completely over the girls.  There must be no gapping of any kind.  Wearing a camisole underneath the gapping blouse is not an acceptable solution.  Your breasts must be, as Clinton says, locked and loaded, and covered in their entirety by your clothing.   Cleavage and bra straps are unacceptable in any academic setting. Leave the hooker-wear to the undergraduates.  Choose tops that don’t have to be tugged at to preserve modesty.  Aside from these two rules, wear what you want.  Take chances.  Be visible!  And your students will love you, simply love you, for any effort you make to stay current.  And wear colors, I beg you.  Black doesn’t make you smarter.

Addendum:   Readers have asked what to do when you’re really busty and blouses just don’t work.  I am not unfamiliar with this problem.  I wear a lot of ruffled and embellished pullover blouses.  Here are some photos:


On a related note, the fitted jacket is the assistant professor’s best friend.  The best current fitted jackets look hip and professional.  Have jackets in many colors.  At TPII we disapprove of matchy-matchy for daily wear–but jackets can be combined with any skirts or pants in your wardrobe.  Here are a few cute ones, from the Boden website.  But DON’T buy jackets online! The fit is too tricky. See below.

From Boden USA

From Boden USA

From Boden USA

From Boden USA

***Be Aware:  Jackets are hard to fit!.  The best and most expensive jacket will not do its magic if it doesn’t fit YOUR body.  And a badly fitting jacket will look the opposite of good.  Jacket shopping can be grueling, like swimsuits.   Put in the time.  It’s worth it.  The time you spend in the stores you’ll more than save in the mornings when you’re rushing out the door for the 8 AM class.

BottomsPants or skirt?  The perennial question.  I don’t think it matters.  You must be comfortable.  Just leave behind the trailing earthmother skirts you wore in graduate school.  You are a young professional. You have to look like one.  Old-timers bewail the homogenization of the assistant professoriate, in their sea of dull grey suits.  Nevertheless, own a grey suit.  Just make it really, really stylish grey suit.  And wear it with killer shoes.

Shoes: For the job interview, wear a heel between 1 and 3 inches.  I don’t recommend flats because, frankly, you need the height.  Above 3 inches, and you’re tottering.  I wear this kind of heel every day, but that’s me.  I like heels.  Avoid stillettos and kitten heels–they stick in sidewalk cracks and trip you.  The round or square toe and a stacked heel keeps you safe from falling over as you approach the podium.  Beyond these rules, express yourself.  Have the hippest shoes that you can pull off.  They give you mystique.  They say, “I’m brilliant AND I’m cool suckaz.”  You want your students to be a little bit intimidated, and your colleagues to feel a little bit inadequate.

Your Briefcase: You’re not still using a backpack because that would be sad.  You bike to work?  Of course you have a messenger bag.  Now take out your briefcase and look at it.  Is it stained?  Is it ripped?  Is it canvas?  Throw it out and go buy yourself a high quality, stylish leather or microfiber briefcase, preferably black, but there’s some give on that one.  If you want a limited edition graphic designer item, go for it.  It’ll add to your mystique:  “Oh this?  It’s from London, so, yeah….”

How to afford all this on an assistant professor’s salary? Second hand boutiques.  Any college town worth its salt will have at least one and probably a handful of high quality second hand women’s clothing boutiques.  Shop at these, and you can cover 75% of your clothing needs.  True, you’re buying your undergraduates’ cast-offs, and have to hate your life to some extent. But, whatever. I didn’t buy new clothes until after I was tenured.

Why do all this? Because image matters.  And because you’ll feel better.  And when you feel better, you perform better.  Don’t believe me?  Try it out for a month, and find out for yourself.

“Trust me, you’re gonna like the way you look.”

 


Comments

What Not to Wear, Assistant Professor Edition: Fashion for the Academic Set — 86 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this list! I will get started on building my wardrobe (I’m in my second year on the tenure track) this weekend. First thing to go is all my grungy shirts and broken-down shoes. Do you have any tips on eyewear? Specifically, would you recommend investing money in funky glasses (maybe with colored frames) or should I stick with the metal rimless/semi-rimless? I wear glasses all the time, not just for reading.

    Thanks so much!
    C

    • Courtney, glad to be of assistance! good luck with your shopping and let me know how it goes! thanks for raising the question of glasses. That was an oversight on my part. yes, yes, yes, invest in funky glasses! They’re de rigeur for the trendy academic set!

      • However, I am advising against the funky style of off the shelf reading glasses (for the over 40 set). If the glasses aren’t made for you they will never really look at home on you and so they should be discreet. Looking at chairs, directors, and so on I have noticed that those funky colored glasses that you push down your nose makes you look non serious … and also that only women try to economize in this way.

        • I have to confess, I’m a huge fan of colorful $1 reading glasses! But the glasses I was actually thinking of, among colleagues I know, look very expensive and stylish indeed!

    • Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve had such a hard time finding guidance in this department. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Keep it up!!

  2. Yes in so many ways! Yes, in fact, in all the ways! I’m so glad that you submitted to my peer pressuring because this is all amazing advice that I second with gusto. I’ll second, third, and fourth it, for that matter.
    I think these are really important, valid points. The way we present ourselves matters and I’m sick to death of the attitude that spending time on one’s appearance is a waste of time, is time better spent in the library, is an activity that makes you seem vapid or not serious or too girly. It’s nothing more than misogyny and it bores me. What you’re talking about (and what I’m blogging about all the time) is finding a way to represent yourself with confidence, with individuality, with personality. I humbly believe that the most important thing you can do to sell yourself, sell your ideas, sell your talents. If you can walk into a room and feel like you own the place, then you’re already succeeding; if I do that by wearing the hell out of a jacket, by dressing like a professional, by feeling put-together and classy, then all the better!
    So thanks again for doing this post — it’s great to see my theories backed up by someone who has both experience and style. I feel more justified in my mission statement than ever and am going to share this widely!

    • Martina, thank YOU for getting me to write it! It’s a version of what I’ve told many, many female Ph.D. students over the years, but i’ve never collected it all in one place. Looking good doesn’t take the place of good ideas, but it sure does help those good ideas get the attention they deserve!

  3. An administrator up for further promotion just got herself out of the running, I think. It is partly because of something that happened, the content of it, but while it was happening I was looking at her outfit.

    1 – obvious home hair dye job in unrealistic jet black
    2 – flat strappy sandals and bare legs, chipped black toe nail polish, in 50 year old addressing important meeting

    I had never seen this person in real life before and I thought it was a secretary standing in for her. But it was her.

    • oh dear, problematic. I have to say I haven’t seen a lot of such errors in my life in the university world….academic women tend to err much more on the side of nondescript, which doesn’t generally cost people their jobs. But with the cleavagization of professional women’s attire these days, I feel like the point needs to be made, clearly!

  4. It really is true about the jackets and shoes, and I am so tired of seeing cleavage … it is STILL not OK after tenure, y’all!

  5. Anyway, getting off the clothes topic, I’m posting here because I wanted to post on the why you should trust me post … about being mad because of what people don’t tell students (and assistant professors).

    I always appreciated straight info and I give it, but the issue seems to be that some don’t consider this “professional.” Yet I just had a student say “Thanks for discussing grad school with me — it’s nice to find a professor who doesn’t give me the feeling they’re hiding something.”

    Recently I was criticized for giving a complete answer to a job candidate’s questions about exactly what the U would and would not help with in the process of getting a green card. I thought it was a totally appropriate question and deserved a practical answer, not a vague reassurance. I also thought that although the news wasn’t good — the U doesn’t pay for this — we’d look better overall by not being deceptive. This, however, was only welcomed by the candidate — who did take the job, but having been forewarned, planned hir budget accordingly.

  6. Re second hand shops — OK I am depressed. The only second hand shops I know of that have the right kinds of items are far away and still expensive. My vote is, watch for January and Memorial Day type sales, like a hawk. Also, some research countries will have good clothes at better prices. The next time I go to Peru I want to buy everything — suit, coat, shoes, briefcase, multiple jackets — because in the traditional shops you can get very sharp stuff and what you would save compared to US prices would pay for the trip.

    • In the end, I did find that shopping well at Macy’s ended up costing not that much more than shopping second hand. Also because the clothes tended to last longer. But, I wouldn’t have made it through to tenure without The Clothes Horse, my home away from home in Eugene!

    • i’m a grad student and i use ebay (i’m also petite, so consignment shop clothes don’t always fit me off the hanger). i use the ‘saved searches’ so i get emails about new listings of clothes i have tried on in stores and searched for on ebay. of course you definitely have to know your size in particular brands, types of clothes, etc. but i have found a lot of amazing deals that way!

  7. As a woman who is 5’10″, I would modify the heels advice. In 2″ heels, there’s a strong probability that I’m towering over the committee, men and women alike. And men, particularly, hate that.

    • Thanks, M. I thought of that myself after the piece posted, so thanks for adding it.

      There are many, many such variables that have to impact peoples’ fashion choices in professional settings—for example, the regional variation as well. The West Coast is going to tolerate a lot more casualness than the East Coast, I suspect.

  8. If I may insert a piece of general advice that can apply to all groups, whether male or female: Pay attention to the sartorial culture of your department. You don’t need to slavishly ape it, and you shouldn’t wear anything that you’re horrendously uncomfortable in, but departments are different.

    And when you get to the men’s section, please, for all that is good and holy, advise them not to try to dress like twentysomething hipsters.

    • Excellent piece of advice, Notorious.

      Re men: agreed. except, what if they are a twentysomething hipster? some of them are, more’s the pity.

      • Even if they are a 20-something hipster they should not dress it.
        I was at a chamber concert at Stanford recently. The solo oboist–who was the guest and star performer–was a 20-something hipster and wore hipster tight pants. As a result, when he stood up to take his bow the hems of his pants stayed at mid-calf. He spent much of his ovation time shaking his leg trying to get the hem to drop to his ankle.
        Great performance. Looked ridiculous doing the shake.

  9. Thanks for this great post. Everything makes complete sense and it should be fairly easy to dress nicely with these guidelines in mind. I have long hair but wouldn’t be caught dead in a ponytail out of doors. The very thought of wearing one in a job interview is mortifying! Do you think pulling the front hair on both sides of the head into a (nice) hair clip at the back of the head (with hair hanging down one’s back) is enough to look professional? Or do you think it’s better to wear long hair pulled completely back in a bun or chignon?
    Also, may I ask the reason for owning a grey suit? It’s a really bad color on me. Is black really a bad idea, even a stylish black suit with jewel-toned blouse? Or a wine-colored suit perhaps?

    • Katherine,

      the grey suit is a great standard for interviews and campus visits. But if grey is bad on you, other colors will work, of course! I am soft-pedaling black because I think an all-black suit can be a little bit much for university settings, even campus visits—but with a great blouse, sure go for it. And i think any deep color would work fine–wine-colored, browns, tans…

      You know, about the hair… i never had long hair when I was on the market and active at conferences, so I would love to hear others’ perspectives. But from a U.S. perspective (I notice you’re writing from the UK), I think that the front pulled back in a clip look may be a little bit juvenile. Now of course a bun can look severe!!! of the two, I’d prooooobably go with the bun. But I’m a little stumped on this one. Readers? Weigh in!

      • For many years, the half-pulled-back hair was my go-to hairstyle. However, as my hair grew and as I watched more episodes of Big Love, I realized the “hairstyle” I was sporting might be termed “polygamist chic”–albeit a less-puffy version than worn by the compound set. Some people can pull it off, but beware the polygamist look. . .

      • As a caveat I do work in a university but as an administrator – so we’re a bit more conservative/”professional” on a daily basis than the academic staff. I have VERY long hair which I keep in my natural colour. I also have NO time but can’t wear a loose plat or ponytail most days.

        For work I brush it, plat it then wind the plat into a loose bun at the base of my neck. I secure it with a simple claw clip – I have them in butterfly shapes or with little gems on them so they aren’t too boring or in dark jewel tones to match my suits. I find that this is a good solution. It isn’t as severe as a normal bun (especially if you do the plat loosely) but it is also quicker than a proper chignon or roll and much more formal than a ponytail.

        For job interviews I do the same thing but I leave the claw clips at home and make it tighter then secure it with a number of bobby-pins. I also quite like the look of a formal roll for younger women – if you know how to do it or have someone to do it for you.

  10. I personally love these guides because all professions have their own “uniform” of sorts and few people are willing to demystify them. Thanks for this one; it is full of great tips!

    However, some of the standard advice for professional women of all stripes just leaves me stuck. I have an average frame and am, well, well-endowed. There are *zero* button up shirts that do not gap on me, and I have tried on expensive ones as well. I avoid them altogether; more people should.

    It seems as if the only real alternative for women my shape is a vneck. There are modestly cut vneck shirts, but even they often require a bit of “tugging” depending on my physical position. I have cleavage in anything that I wear. Crew necks accentuate my shape, amplifying it, therefore they are not a real alternative. Anyone who has watched Mad Men will see this in evidence on actress Christina Hendricks, although that look is intentional.

    That said, I guess my problem is really the continuous complaints that I see about cleavage. What am I supposed to do with it? Is it really impossible to look professional with my shape? Must I be either frumpy or immodest? help!

    • Dear k,

      thanks for asking. I am also not entirely bereft of cleavage, and struggle with necklines and blouses. Crew necks are of course out. Turtlenecks work well for me, and you can get really cute short sleeved and sleeveless turtlenecks for spring and summer that are great for work, and also look great under jackets.

      With blouses, I frequently sew up the gapping part of the front, so that it becomes a de-facto pullover but still looks like a blouse.

      Expensive blouses are usually worst, because as you know, the wealthier you are the skinnier you are. So high end clothing is often the last thing a busty, hippy girl should buy. I find that Walmart (gasp!) and Target blouses, chosen carefully, can work best because everything at those stores is made for the more “plentifully endowed.”

      What I’ve been wearing recently are embellished tops. They’re stretchy so you have to be careful to buy them big enough, but they are usually pretty modest, look really cute (especially under a jacket! ha!) and draw attention away from any distracting boobage. I see that I can’t post photos in a comment, so I shall add an addendum to the post now with a few photos.

      • Stacy and Clinton say to buy a blouse in a size that fits the bust and have a seamstress tailor it for you. Seamstresses usually charge $10 a seam/dart, so you really have to love that blouse to justify paying $20 extra dollars for it. I usually just wear a v-neck pullover or vest with the blouse. For an arts admin job interview I wore a purple shirt underneath a tailored, sleeveless black suit-dress (we used to call them jumpers). That looked pretty sharp, hid the infamous gap and it was slimming. That said, I too, usually have to wear V-necks with a camisole to hid the cleavage.

        • I’ve had the ‘gap’ problem for years, until I discovered….Brooks Brothers! They’re the only women’s button-downs I’ve found that are cut generously through the shoulders and bust (the ‘classic’ cut is best, but ‘fitted’ is also great). The fabric is high quality so they last forever. And they have great Jan and July sales: i’ve snagged some shirts for as little as $35.

  11. What a great idea, to sew up the front of button-down shirts. I usually opt for a safety pin but it can be so obvious and, well, tacky. It makes me self-conscious!

    I was thinking about the grey suit issue and didn’t realize that it was pretty standard for interviews. It occurred to me that there may be different shades of grey and that I might be able to find a darker grey suit.
    Since I usually wear black (or dark) tights with suits or business attire, what do you suggest for legwear with a dark grey suit?

    By the way, I’m not in the UK, but intend to apply for work in the US and the UK. I’m from the West Coast.

    • I can’t say enough about sewing the fronts of shirts! Now, keep in mind that if a shirt is too small, no amount of sewing is going to change that! But oftentimes, it really is just a button placement issue, and the sewing solves that problem. Reject the safety pin!

      About tights. Well, black is usually a safe choice. yes, it’s dark with a dark grey suit. If the weather isn’t too cold, I like the standard “flesh-colored” (WHATEVER that is for you!) sheer hose. But if tights feel warmer and more secure to you—and you need to feel secure—then go with the sheerest black tights you can manage.

  12. Thank so much for your advice. I took a look at some grey suits in a department store today. They were actually quite nice and there was a good range of shades of grey. Not as frumpy as I thought they would be!

    Thanks again!

  13. I highly recommend a camisole under every outfit — I particularly like the tanks from Express. I think I have about 7 in different colors. They help transition less professionally cut tops into the job situation by adding coverage. Plus, they are really helpful in concealing unflattering sweating on those tense days! They are also long waisted, and help cover gapping between shirts and skirts/pants. I wore them under dresses, under button downs, under everything, basically. Oh, and Spanx (the Target kind work great and are much cheaper).

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  15. Hi, I am excited to be starting a new assistant professor position this Fall. I am already starting to think about proper attire and want to plan accordingly. I apologize if you have already written the article “For the guys”, but I was unable to find it on your site. I was wondering if you had any advice. I am certain a blazer would be best, but am not sure if a suit would be over the top. Thanks!

    • Phil, thanks for asking! I have two responses. The first is that yes, once you’re officially “in” the club, you can ratchet the formality down until you reach the level of your particular campus. This will vary based on region, type of school, etc. At my beloved U of Oregon, no man would show up in a sport jacket unless the President (ie, Obama) himself were visiting his class. And he’d still be wearing his Birkies. As you move eastward, and up in wealth/rankings, campus culture may grow more formal. You’ll have to investigate yourself.

      My other response is to tell you to check the comment stream on this post, which has some great general sartorial advice for academic men: http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/10/12/women-fail-but-men-bomb-a-special-request-post-on-guys/

  16. Love this post! Might I add watching a few episodes of TLC’s What Not to Wear, and I personally love Ann Taylor Loft. They have lots of good basics, in all sizes, and the clothes last long if you take care of them.

    • I also like ATL. Their clothes are cut for real women’s bodies, and are trendy without being cheap or throwaway. and they have great sales all the time.

  17. Re: the button-down blouse gapping issue – I am also busty, and double-stick fashion tape has made it possible for me to wear button-downs again. The brand I use (Matchsticks – http://www.amazon.com/Commando-Double-Stick-Strips-Accessory/dp/B000NHXGVK) comes pre-cut in a length that fits perfectly between the buttons on most shirts. Takes less than a minute to apply and holds all day, in my experience. You probably can’t use them on every fabric, but they work just fine on my cotton shirts and leave no residue. It can also be used to remedy the visible bra strap issue you mentioned…

    The brand I linked to might be slightly pricey for some, but there are other brands that might be cheaper. Also, TJ Maxx, Loehmann’s, Nordstrom Rack, and other discount stores routinely sell double-stick fashion tape at a discount.

  18. Hi Karen, thanks so much for this. All excellent advice, but I’m still a little stumped. What are your thoughts on a simple black dress with grey jacket for a job interview/job talk? I’m 5 ft 12 (why yes, that IS 6 ft) and in my country there is ONE shop for women of a certain height, that does suits in ONE colour – black. And they are very ill fitting on me, I’ve tried them. Any advice??

    • that sounds fine. when you get some funding to go to a conference in a country with better choices, be sure and stock up then.

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  20. What would you say to a young grad student applying for a adjunct faculty position? I want to look older, but it’s difficult when I have the exact same body shape/size I had at 13 now at the age of 23. I’m a long and lanky, perky-little-chested woman with a baby face who often gets mistaken for a girl.

    So unfortunately second hand shops are out of the question for me, besides shoes (which I buy a lot of on the thrift) there is nothing in my size at thrift, or at most department stores even. Poorly fitting clothes are my flaw of life, and seamstresses are so expensive around here. If I buy a blouse there is a 100% guarantee that it will have chest darts a couple inches too low, wich can be altered but the sleeves will still be too short by 4 inches. I normally have to buy pants 3 sizes bigger to be able to purchase a long inseam and then take in the sides 3 sizes down. So I normally wear pencil skirts or curve accentuating dresses (empire waistlines make me look eleven), but I fear I still look too young in a skirt or dress.

    I understand that it is going to get expensive for me no matter what (unless I move out of the US to Europe where stores actually cater to people my size) so what are some tips to help me make the right clothing choice to look older, authoritative and in charge?

    • Adjuncts can get away with more than assistant or regular professors. However, we do want to set ourselves apart from our students. I’ve found that wearing dress pants instead of jeans is a must. Most stores offer long styles on their websites. Stores like Talbots and Ann Taylor Loft do. You can order long styles in a small size, and it should fit better. New York and Company keeps long styles in the store.

      Wearing turtlenecks with cardigans or jackets over them can help accentuate your body without making you look young. You can get a basic colored turtleneck anywhere, even the junior’s department if you have to, because it doesn’t matter for that. Then, just find a small, fitted jacket. Jackets today are very fitted, so that should make it easier. Try places like Banana Republic and Express. They are for older, but still trendy, women, so they have smaller clothes than the department stores. Go when they have their sales for great deals.

      Just some suggestions. Good luck!

  21. Having a lot of difficulty giving up the backpack. Tried to order a convertible backpack thing, but it didn’t work. Any links to great bags (made for bike commuting?)

  22. Any suggestions for assistant professors in the physical sciences at a research institution, particularly in the beginning when work in the laboratory is often required? You suggested ditching the ponytail, but what about those of us blessed with frizzy hair in humid climates? Also, it would be great to comment on how to dress during pregnancy at both the interviewing stage and once you have the faculty position. I had a few job interviews during pregnancy and was able to squeeze into my suits (with the help of the belly band at 7 months), but I certainly would have been more comfortable in a dress with a jacket.

  23. I’m currently a grad student and preparing to hit the job market next year, and I have a follow up question about briefcases / messenger bags. I haven’t seen many professors on my campus carry briefcases around, but a great deal of them do use messenger bags on a daily basis. That said, I’m thinking of trading in my backpack and investing in a nice looking, long-lasting (but not astronomically priced) leather messenger bag, but I wanted to know if that was something that’s appropriate to take to job interviews, assuming I get that far. Is the rule of thumb always to take briefcases, or would something like this be appropriate? http://copperriverbags.com/15inch-Laptop-Bags.html

    Thanks for this great post, by the way!

    • Yes, definitely. I thought I had something about messenger bags on the blog somewhere—must be in a different post! Anyway, they’re often a good choice, although people in general and women in particular need to beware the cross-body, boob=smashing strap.

  24. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for the helpful advice! I have a job interview for an assistant professorship soon and I have a question about shoes. I am wearing a dark navy suit with a skirt to the interview. First of all, does my blouse have to be plain white/beige/gray or can it be a bit more colorful? And second, I read in “Knock Em Dead” that your shoes have to be the same tone or darker than your skirt. But I have these really classy beige/tan pumps (closed toe!) that I wanted to wear. What do you think?
    Thanks!
    Anne

  25. This is a long overdue conversation! The sartorial question has puzzled me ever since I began my assistant professorship, three years ago. Because I am a younger-looking female in my 30s and constantly get mistaken for a student, everywhere, including my own university and by undergraduates, I am really mindful of clothes and appearances. In the first year I tended to wear lots of slacks, heels, blouses, office dresses, all very nicely cut and super comfortable. Yet, I never felt comfortable wearing any of this whilst teaching! I felt like someone who just walked into the wrong room at a convention centre. I actually felt on show, and exposed. Not to mention that my heels went click-click every time I walked to the board and back in some classrooms! And then, one day, I just said – sod it! I started to wear what I normally would. Jeans (dark wash, never scruffy, always well cut), flat boots, Breton tops (I even donned my black converse trainers with black slacks and a shirt a few times, first time after my ‘teaching’ shoes got soaked in the rain and then….just because I loved the look!) – items which allowed a full range of movement. Not only did I feel much better in my classroom but I became more relaxed, students became more relaxed and more engaged. And, agains all my expectations, my authority was not compromised.

    But here is my question: what is your view on jeans, and ‘smart’ trainers? I tried the nice, professional attire (which I truly love, and still wear when we have meetings, visitors, conferences etc) and it just didn’t work for me. How can I reconcile the need to be mobile, relaxed and comfortable in class with looking professional?

    Lastly, I noticed that whilst my female colleague and I are constantly discussing whether it’s professional to jeans, I notice that my male colleagues don’t seem to have this conundrum, and several of them are in jeans pretty much every day, many are in trainers – even when teaching. They don’t seem to care, and they actually look nice (obviously we are talking about those trendy, dark trainer-shoes things, rather than track shoes).

    What’s the deal? Why are some clothing choices ok for the male staff, of all ages and less so for female staff? Or am I just imagining things?

  26. Oh, and I must second your advice about the haircut – especially that it should be the first thing invested in! And, moreover, it must be maintained every 6-8 weeks, otherwise, all that money is wasted. Cannot second your point about skincare more; your outfit can be as professional as you like, but if you have uncared for skin/hair/nails…. it just diminishes the look. Never cut corners on personal grooming, even if you have to do that for clothes.

  27. I’m wondering if you ever did the other posts in this series. I looked through the website but didn’t see any. I’m specifically looking for advice for my husband for an interview he has coming up. I’m trying to convince him that he can wear something other than a black suit to his interview.

  28. Thank you, Thank you Thank you, you have singlehandedly confirmed what we have always suspected about “academics;” a bunch of conservative hacks trying to please the schoolroom bully (that’s you by the way). Please, tell us how to dress, walk, talk and sh*t just like you, princess. By the way, you all write the same, which explains the glazed expressionless yawn overtaking most- no wonder academia is biting the big one- no creativity, no freedom and certainly no expression. keep stamping those ned flanders clones for the mass market.

  29. Hello,

    I want to thank you for a much needed discussion. I would have to agree about the haircut and personal grooming advice. I have a bit of an odd situation here which deviates quite substantially from the picture you have painted of the young female academic in the US. I have finally landed my first sessional instructor position in the faculty of arts. I live in Canada, where six months of the year is ice and snow, and heels are just not practical. I’m in my early 30′s 5’8, and athletic with long hair which I do not wish to sacrifice for the time being. I get mistaken for a student on a regular basis. Our campus in Calgary tends toward a more professional appearance. I was actually told just after a faculty meeting by one of my old professors that a backpack will not differentiate me from my students. Yet other male Faculty members were in jeans – this is the Art Department after all. Yes, this is unfortunate as I have a) back injuries b) tend towards healthy living so I carry a lot of stuff, and c) no vehicle at this time, so I take transit. I see quite a few business people downtown sporting backpacks. Calgary being the most spread out for it’s population, nearly everyone commutes in some fashion… it’s okay for big oil administrators, businessmen and women, engineers and students, but not a female professor.

    Here’s a tidbit for everyone; a couple of years ago I had my ‘colors’ done. They now use a 12 season system, sci/ART is good. I had it done online and I have never been happier. It really does wonders for the appearance. All the colors co-ordinate, and you can actually save a lot of money in the long run. I also researched body type and cut of clothing. There are some excellent websites that explain the basics of design as it applies to body type.

    I am not particularly comfortable in a skirt, so I tend towards the pants and sweaters option, and I would like to thank you for the photos at the beginning of this thread, as this is a look I can defiantly pull off.

    The other female professors in my department; one wears black everything all the time, so it’s easy for her to mix, match, combine, and she tends towards causal/elegent. One wears tights a lot, grey, and dresses no different than a trendy grad student. I’m teaching electronic art, so it’s not as ‘messy’.

    What I have been doing with my hair up to this point is a loose bun at the back secured by a pewter colored jeweled clip. The pewter metal goes with everything ‘grey’ which fortunately is one of my better colors. I would like to do something different but have no idea what.

    I am still at a total loss as to what do do about shoes, backpack, hat in winter on busses or walking long distances, that will still look professional while most others are wearing tights and boots, or driving. All this on an extremely limited budget, besides. The other quandary is what to do with my nails as an artist. Basically they take too long and last about three days, or less if I spend time painting in my studio. I am thinking about just keeping them buffed and shiny, and that’s it.

    Thank you!

  30. I’ve been wondering about this as well. I’m in line with the above poster – I’m also in Canada, without a car, and have to carry around a lot everyday and wear shoes I can walk long distances in, sometimes run, and stand on the bus for up to an hour. Fieldwork left me with a neck injury (due to having a bag on one shoulder) and I have been told I have to wear a backpack by my RMT. I found one that converts and looks somewhat professional but will only hold a laptop, so I have to do that plus a large purse.

    It’s generally too cold to comfortably wear a skirt, so I usually do cords or dress pants plus a blazer (in a colour or pattern) and a cotton shirt with some sort of interesting but conservative cut (not button up). I also frequently use scarves, to add some colour, and to keep things modest. Currently I’m a grad student, doing some teaching.

    It would be great to have more tips on clothes for those of us who walk/cycle/bus and live in climates that can’t tolerate nylons!

    • I want to clarify that in academia, we really aren’t held to a hugely rigid dress code as people are in corporate North America. You can wear pants and flat shoes/boots and a top with a jacket, and be just fine. You’ll want to choose conspicuously “grown-up” versions of all of those—really study the “grad student look,” and then make sure that you are far, far from it. But on the U of Oregon campus plenty of faculty bike everywhere and wear basic functional clothes. Also in terms of the backpack, do just get one that has a side handle and can tuck in the straps to convert to a briefcase—-that is, when you actually need that for conferences or interviews.

      • Hello,

        I have one last question for you, as tall boots are quite on-trend these days, what is the general opinion towards the tights and boots option using, nice tights, or pants, or suit-pants which were designed to tuck into boots, with of course longer tops – as an option in cold weather climates. Is a dressy version of that a realistic option or is that just too casual for on-campus? It is a look I just love, as I have taupe leather flat boots and love silver-grey, muted amethyst etc. I solved the back-pack problem by ordering a nice leather convertible bag from mims maine on etsy, thank you for that link. It was not technically within my budget but it was worth it. Thank you, once again.

  31. Hi, I saw a bit about having a bustier figure but couldn’t see the answers on this thread. I am often very uncomfortable when I am wearing “fitted” professional women’s wear as I have, I guess what some would call a very busty figure. I often feel like people are looking at my chest and I can’t blame them because my body is quite small compared to my curves but it makes me very uncomfortable. I usually end up wearing baggier or sporty clothing to constrict or hide my chest. I guess this issue isn’t just at work, at home, the gym, and on dates with my husband I never like to “put it out there” and prefer wearing concealing clothing rather than accentuating my chest and feel like I am being stared at. However, I am about to start interviewing for assistant professorships but I am so nervous about what to wear and being prejudged on my body shape. I saw something about button up shirts but those never seem very flattering to me. I am very short as well so its kind of hard for me to find clothes that fit right, my legs are long and slim, I have a very short waist and then a large chest, not a fun shape to dress for professionally. Where can I find help to find an outfit that draws attention away from my chest and back to my eyes during an interview or conversation (and its not just men, its women too). A suit jacket may work to help hide my body, but it would have to be tailored as I mentioned a very short waist/upper body. If there is anyone out there that has faced this issue, I would love to hear how you coped with it and if there are any tips/tricks for toning down the bustiness. I would prefer to wear funkier stuff but I fear that with my body type this would further create the wrong first impression. Can anyone comment on how to deal with this issue?

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  33. Hi Karen,

    I’m wondering if you ever completed this 5 part post about how to dress. I’m particularly interested in the “For the Guys” post you mention above. I’m a recently hired Asst Prof at a lower public R1 in the Midwest. I’ll be teaching my first class in Fall, 2013. It would be great to get some male specific advice on teaching attire. Of course, if you’ve already done this post and I’m just not finding it, can you please post the link to it here?

    Thanks so much.

    • I didn’t finish the series, unfortunately—i have the focus of a tse tse fly. But I address this topic to some degree in the post, Women Fail But Men Bomb. Also be sure and read the comment stream–some guys wrote in with excellent advice.

  34. Like others, I was hoping that you had finished the five part series! Looking for advice on jewelry for the post-tenure woman since my field is one in which tenured women tend to be very bling-y.

  35. Hello, Karen,
    Thanks for writing such an amazing blog. I have a question about wearing dresses on campus visits. I’m an ABD going on the job market for the first time in the fall, and wondering how dresses might work in an interview setting. Because it’s hard to find (pants and skirt) suits that work for hourglass or pear-ish figures, I’ve taken to wearing (A-line, below-the-knee, solid-colored) dresses with fitted blazers to get a more classic look that has personality. Plus, dresses are the height of practicality! Am I risking looking too girly by waving my femme flag high, so to speak? Thanks for all of your help, C. C

  36. Tips:
    Go to a few stores that appeal to your tastes and offer clothing that would be appropriate in the classroom/at the office. These stores should be something rather fancy, probably outside of your range if bought at retail, such as Ralph Lauren, Theory, Calvin Klein, Elie Tahari, Kate Spade, j.crew, Tory Burch etc.

    Try things on. Be daring. The worst that could happen is that you’ll realise that this doesn’t work at all on you. Do not go for what you always wear. Do not pay attention to the price tag, but do take note of your size for each designer.

    What you want is to figure out a few items that look absolutely splendid on you, in terms of shape. Maybe you can rock a shift dress, a simple warp dress, or a fit-and-flare dress. Maybe you prefer pencil skirts, or maybe it’ll be an a-line. Trust your judgement, but be merciless.

    Find the brands that suit best your shape. All will have trousers and jackets, but very few will make the trousers and jackets that fit ‘just so’. Maybe you’ll prefer a boxy jacket, maybe you’ll prefer a fitted one-button jacket. Concentrate on finding the shapes you need.

    Once you’ve figured out what types of clothes work best, figure out the colours. You’ll want to have a lighter, brighter palette for summer, and a darker or richer one for winter. Pick the colours that appeal to you and that make you ‘pop’. You’ll want to limit the clothing you buy to these colours, in addition to the neutral ones. You don`t want to wear colours that don’t flatter you, no matter how good the fit of the clothing is or how cheap it is. I find that it is better to go as bright and saturated as you can pull off. It’s cheerful and makes you stand out. Grey can easily look cheap and, by itself, lacks lustre. Old black things turn grey… and then looks cheap.

    Work on establishing colour schemes you like. Some people wear clothing in neutral colours, but use bags, shoes and jewellery that are bright and distinctive. Others prefer to wear brighter clothing, without accessories or with neutral accessories. Some like jewel tones, some like pastels, some like strong contrasts. For suits and conference-wear, it is good to know whether you look good in black and white, in navy and tan/ivory, or if you prefer something else.

    Once you’ll have done this, summarise your results. That’s what you’ll be looking for, but at a price you can afford. Here’s how:

    1) Go visit consignment stores and thrift stores regularly. Thrift stores are great and are cheaper, but they require more digging than consignment stores. Always pick the stores that are in the poshest districts. In Los Angeles, I like Crossroads Trading Co., but I do not go to the one in Santa Monica… it caters to beach bums. I go to the one in West Hollywood, where all the rich people and the fashion stylists bring their unwanted things.

    2) Visit regularly the sales section of the website of the stores you like best, especially in January. You can check for these brands on ebay too (that’s why it’s very important to know what size you wear for each designer). You can also visit the sales section of their stores, or discount stores like Nordstrom rack that tend to carry your brands. Whatever you do, do not buy retail.

    3) build your wardrobe progressively, by purchasing 1-4 garments per month on average. The trick is to go to the thrift and consignment stores regularly and to know when the sales are in the regular stores/online. Don’t purchase what’s in season. Purchase thinking of what you’ll wear in the future.

    Also, get used to recognising high quality clothing. You shouldn’t wear anything else. At the very least, your clothing and shoes should look like they’re expensive.

    Toss out anything that shows a lot of wear, that doesn’t fit well, or that isn’t in a flattering colour or shape.

    You don’t need to re-do your wardrobe every year, but it shouldn’t look dated. Still, dated is better than ill-fitting.

    hope this helps!

  37. Dear Karen,
    I am joining NYU as a postdoc research fulbright fellow this Fall, all the way from India. I have absolutely no idea what to pack. I will not be teaching per se, but will be spending a lot of time on campus and possibly give the occasional ‘talk’. Please, please help me out since I have to start getting ready for the big move soon!

  38. There’s a ton of stuff in the air lately about how bad heeled shoes are for the body, and about how shoulder bags are bad for backs/necks.

    Should we just stop listening to this kind of advice in order to look professional in our day-to-day jobs? I don’t know about anyone else, but I often carry around a lot of weight (laptop, textbooks, lecture notes, papers/exams, water bottle – not to mention research materials) and I hike all over campus for classes & meetings. I’m really reluctant to give up my minimalist shoes and backpack since I’ve already had knee, hip, and back problems related to years of “looking professional” by wearing heels and carrying a shoulder bag.

    Granted, I wouldn’t carry a backpack at a conference or to an interview, and I would probably wear my heels, but those are only a few days a year.

    Is there any hope to come across professionally in flats and a back-pack for daily teaching and normal campus duties?

  39. Hi Karen,
    I was wondering if you had tips for grad students. As someone going to conferences, working with faculty, or even going to class, I’m never sure what to wear to look professional without looking like I’m trying to hard. Any suggestions?

    • Very interesting post. I find academics to be among the worst-dressed professionals, so it’s hard to pick up clues from those around you. I have found that in conference presentations it is helpful to have a visual focus – maybe an interesting pin or bold necklace. You do have to dress to endure. Academics have long, long days. Most hilariously (later) I recently went to a job interview with a lovely new shirt. It was a hot-weather place, so I had a short sleeved shirt. Unfortunately, the jacket had tight sleeves and “lifted” the shirt up, causing it to pop at the unfortunate gap spot. OMG. I spent the entire interview with my hand firmly clasped over my breast. Lesson: make sure you try on your clothes prior to the interview and wear them around for a while. Thankfully I was able to change before the obligatory dinner (with an all male cast). Not the successful candidate but it was a great interview.

  40. Loved your post, being Indian and working in a undergraduate college in a rural college in India’s I find it difficult to maintain a fresh look all day in saree (Indian attire wrapped around the waist accompanied with petticoat and the upper part covered with a blouse, which however, doesn’t resemble the western blouse much. Suggest makeup for tropical climate.

  41. Forgot to say:
    About make-up. If you want to wear it but feel unsure about how, go to the Clinique counter or Estee Lauder counter (make-up counter in a nice department store). Tell them you want a “polished, professional, subtle, daytime look”. They should ask you questions about how long you spend getting ready- so if you want an “under 5 minutes” kind of routine, be honest. Then they should put make-up on you, and show you how to do it. If you are clueless, be honest! They can help you. You can copy the colors for less at Sephora, if you have a Sephora near you. Or Target or CVS.

  42. While I wholeheartedly appreciate and agree with the bulk of your advice, I do take issue with one thing: the phrase “throw it out”. I would hope that the average assistant professor is ecologically enlightened enough to donate or hand-down their old grad student or postdoc digs if they’re still perfectly good. I know you probably wrote it in jest, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

  43. Love this post! I am planning to begin graduate school in the Fall, and I was doing some Googling, only to find that what to wear is a concern for graduate students! I never really thought about it, as someone who, as I’m told, always dresses “up.” It’s a rare day that I’m not in a dress or skirt. I certainly would think it matters for a student with a fellowship that involves teaching or if they are giving a presentation for class.

    I’ve always wondered if professors do put any stock in the appearance of their students. I once had a male professor confess (I don’t remember the context) that he felt a bit awkward when he began teaching because it was during the fashion phenomena of intentionally showing thong straps. I can’t imagine something like that being easy for anyone to disregard…but I do wonder if professors really care if students are dressed decently or in their PJs. Personally, I just feel more comfortable going to class in clothing rather than PJs or sweats…I certainly plan to maintain that as a graduate student!

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