UPDATE OCTOBER 2023
I was sure that I updated this post in about 2019 but I can’t find where I did. I know that I absolutely planned to from some years ago because this advice in no way reflects my current opinion about academia and what to wear as an academic. This 2022 post is much more reflective of my current thinking: https://theprofessorisin.com/2022/01/21/the-professor-is-in-has-changed-part-ii/ The tl;dr of this post is: “I don’t give a flying fuck what you wear.”
However, that is a flippant line, and wrt this 2011 post and any actual academic fashion advice, it needs more elaboration.
I am not going to do a dirty delete and remove the 2011 post. This WAS my thinking in 2011. However, as many readers have since pointed out, it’s sexist, ageist, elitist, and ironically for me as a gay person, heteronormative and transphobic. It is repressive and judgmental and part of the toxicity of academia that I am dedicated to exposing and challenging. I repudiate most of it now completely, except for the face mask part. I do love a face mask. And now hand and foot masks as well.
Here’s what I’d say now: there are biases and judgments of all sorts rampant in academia. Humans cannot stop ourselves from reading signs and signifiers and clothing and other aspects of appearance are a signifying paradigm. Humans make meaning, and clothes etc. carry meaning. To deny that is foolish in the extreme. I want to communicate that most fields of academia remain quite conservative, and also profoundly invested in the respectability politics of white (esp upper class white) supremacy. I take it as my job and indeed my mission to communicate that, so that nobody goes into an academic setting uninformed, due to coming from a non-privileged background.
HOWEVER, what you do with that information is absolutely 100% up to you. Ignore it, defy it, mock it, challenge it… Abide by some conventions and not others. Change it up on a daily basis. What you do is up to you.
Because there is nothing, not a single thing, more important in this life than you, your authenticity, and your mental, emotional, physical and financial health.
COVID certainly helped a lot of us see that as never before.
Wear what you want. Wear what you feel good in. Wear what you feel comfortable in, and what you feel best expresses your professional and personal goals. Wear clothes that don’t distract you, and that allow you to focus with maximal effectiveness on the conversations, meetings, and presentations that make up a campus visit and the entire academic career.
Don’t ever be gaslit into believing that “academics don’t care what you wear.” Your advisors and friends may say that. They may even believe it. You may want to believe it. It is not true. It will never be true. Academia is a cult-like environment with powerful insider-outsider divisions that are shame and judgment based. Academics categorize other academics, and certainly job candidates, through a host of judgments about not just what you do and how you do it, but also how you speak and how you look. You will never hear me say: “if they reject you because of how you look then you dodged a bullet” because there is literally no human enterprise in which you are not judged to some degree on how you look. Denial around that point is dangerous. Academia is not a special magical space outside of these judgments, as much as the cultists try to tell you it is.
But you are the agent in how you decide to deal with that. No job, no career, is worth sacrificing your well being for. You can choose which enterprises you engage with, under what terms. You do not have to conform to expectations that are damaging to you. Indeed you DO NOT HAVE TO GET AN ACADEMIC JOB. If the respectability politics of academia prevent you from living your authentic self, then leave academia. Do not ever leave your authentic self. No job is worth that, and certainly not the destructive, exploitative jobs of academia.
Academia is like the abusive partner or the narcissistic parent: no matter what you do it will never be enough for THEM. So, what you do has to be enough for YOU. If your enough and academia’s enough happen to coincide peacefully, then living and working in that world will do you little harm. But if they don’t, academia will destroy you. It has destroyed so many.
And advice like mine from 2011 was part of that destructive system. I apologize for it, and for harm it has caused. I reject it, and I encourage to reject it too. Except for the face masks.
Original post from 2011
(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
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Hair: It 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.
Jewelry: Wear 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.
Tops: Take 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. Pullover tops with some embellishment are good.
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.
***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.
Bottoms: Pants 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: You don’t need to wear heels if you don’t usually. Flats or even better, flat-heeled boots (ankle boots or knee-height) are great. If you do like heels, 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.”
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.”