Dress Codes: What to Wear in Academia

As the inaugural session of the Student Led Seminar Series, it was decided that we should kick things off with a discussion on a general topic that affected and was relevant to everyone within the postgraduate community. The question of what to wear at conferences, and other formal academic events, has been a constant worry for many of those hoping to enter the professional world of academia. Along with the now out-dated stereotypes of the unkempt professor, ‘Dress Code’ became an obvious first point of discussion for our seminar series.

Before the discussion, Juliane Schlag circulated some articles that would serve well to stimulate discussion as well as provide some background reading (see links below).

“Dressing for Academia” by “Tenure, she wrote”

“Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels- and no flowing hair allowed”, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

 Whilst Juliane had provided this recommended reading, which was interesting in itself, many in attendance had gone out of their way to locate additional reading that was both written by a male academic and aimed towards a male readership. This naturally led to the opening conversation of our session – the issue of gender. There was much discussion as to why there were more posts to be found online considering the issue of what women should wear in academia than considering the dress codes for men. One might observe that women tend to be critiqued more severely, more frequently, and more blatantly than their male colleagues, creating greater anxiety for women around this particular issue resulting in more posts about it.
Female academics are writing about appropriate dress codes in academia for a variety of reasons. Articles, blogs, and subsequent comments range from anger that their dress should be questioned and analysed in the first place to helpful, good-willed advice for what to wear at different academic events. The sheer volume of and diversity across the writing on female academic dress codes mirror the minefield that is professional female dressing – there is so much to think about.

Male academics, it must be said, seem to have a far easier time of things as far as dress codes are concerned. We spent some time discussing the significance of the tie – when and where a tie is appropriate, the origins of male formal and professional dress, and what the tie, as an item of dress, is even really about. A discussion surrounding the phallic symbolism of the tie (literally, a strip of fabric pointing towards the most obvious sign of masculinity and virility) led to us reaching out on Twitter to try to find some answers …





This online interaction really added to our overall discussion, and demonstrated the power of a supportive, virtual community. It also confirmed what we, as a seminar group, had been considering – modern day men can wear ties to indicate formality, professionalism and superiority. Other than that, the standard of academic male dress code is basically, certainly comparatively, simple and easy to understand.

Further points of conversation continued to develop, for instance, whether or not working in comfortable clothes was a good idea – when at home working, is it jeans or pyjamas? But what our discussion ended up circling was a question that stood out in particular of one of the articles we read in particular – why do we even care what other people are wearing? It has no impact on the quality or integrity of academic research, and how is it any of our business anyway?

In truth, this question is a lot more difficult to answer than one may initially think. A very strong part of me wants to believe that everyone has the right to wear whatever they like and feel comfortable in at any and every event; academia is not like other professions. Women are not expected to wear a pencil skirt and heels. We have all been to conferences where a speaker dressed in suit and tie is followed by a speaker in a t-shirt and flip-flops. There is no ‘uniform’ – which, I suppose, is why everyone is so confused about what is actually appropriate. Yet, there are rules. Unspoken, unexplained, and occasionally ignored rules that dictate how we react to another person in the professional world.

Ultimately, however, academia is a profession that depends on the expression of personal opinion. One’s dress sense is very much an extension of this, and in an environment of intellectualism that thrives upon creative thought and communication, it seems somewhat counterproductive to impose upon academics what they should or should not wear. We concluded that a professional space that brought flip-flops and heels together in one space was, on balance, a very good thing indeed.

Charlotte Garside & Edward Mair



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