How To Dress For Academia: Keep The Style, Lose The Frump

Every human environment has its own dress code, complete with significance and consequences. Career environments are particularly fraught, largely because how we carry ourselves there affects our prestige and our finances. Here at Privilege, we’ve discussed corporate career wear often, and will continue to do so.

However, what if you’re beginning, or in the midst of, a career in academia? What then?

Not wanting to speak in ignorance, I summoned the Privilege Academic Counsel and requested expert advice. Let us deconstruct their response. As academics, they give us first their assumptions.

Usual Caveats

As one would expect, dress code will differ between and across universities. The Privilege Academic Counsel is heavily weighted towards the West Coast, and towards the social sciences. So remember,

  • Big, state, private, liberal arts may have different cultures
  • Pay attention to regional variances
  • Departments and disciplines have specialized codes. Physics is not Social Welfare is not French is not the Graduate School of Business.
  • Please adapt this information with your customary intelligence

How To Build Your Wardrobe For A Career In Academia

If you ask yourself, in academia, “Who do I want to be?” the answer should come back, “A serious intellectual.” One might think that serious would require non-froofy clothes, and intellect would search out clothing high in quality of both construction and design.

In reality, on college and university campuses across the nation, academic freedom trumps style left and right. One can focus wholly on one’s work, throw on odd garments, and trade heavily in the Genius Doesn’t Care model. With sufficient genius, much is forgiven.

But, if you don’t want to leave all style behind, if you want to maintain your authority and still enjoy clothes, here are guidelines to follow and missteps to avoid.

We will use Use Cases to explicate.

Use Case #1: Working In Your Office On Campus

You’re in your office, no meetings on the calendar, just working on your own stuff. The chance of contact, with colleagues, administration, or students, persists.

Use Case #2: Outreach To Community Partners, Or, Teaching A Class

Here we see wool blend trousers in a suiting material, but no jacket. Essentially, one wears pants for the men, tops for the women. If your community partners are government offices, tailored cardigans work well. Non-profits can stand more color, because the women who run them are further over on the self-expression spectrum. The men tend to wear sports coats. Wear a shoe with character, instead of smooth corporate pumps. Above, a two-tone Mary Jane.

Use Case #3: Presentation at a National Academic Conference

Speaking engagements

Speaking engagements by AmidPrivilege featuring diamond earrings

Wear a jacket to present, along with coordinated trousers. Suits with matching jackets and trousers are very rare. Doctoral students occasionally come to conferences in suits and are identifiable as a result. Underneath, a silk jersey tee in solid colors, a blouse if you’re a blouse person, or a coordinating sweater if your conference happens to be held somewhere in the Frozen Tundra.

Guidelines To Remember

  • Earth tones and other “off tones” prevail. Not purple but aubergine. Not yellow but goldenrod. Less red more crimson.
  • Major pieces should be on the masculine side. Make judicious use of feminine details.
    • A cashmere ruffle on your charcoal gray sweater
    • An Akris jacket, sporting a peplum. Smythe makes similar jackets in the <$600 range. Again, if you can find the quality and the design at a lower price point, it’s not the brand names that we’re after.
    • A tailored blouse in a bright color
    • Do not look for recognizable brands per se, but do not settle for visibly cheap goods
  • Dresses are seen occasionally in the summer but senior faculty wear them with a jacket
    • Dresses are not the center of your faculty wardrobe
  • Shoes and jewelry are the best places to show more idiosyncrasy
    • Artisanal, two-tone shoes
    • Hence Fluevog, hence Chie Mihara, Pikolinos as a less-costly alternative
    • Two pieces of jewelry, not more, on any given occasion
  • Spend on your jackets and shoes. Mix and match the rest up and down.
    • Bad jackets make you look sad and unprofessional

Pitfalls To Avoid

  • Starting from ideas rather than an aesthetic. In other words, no matter the theoretical construct behind your outfit, if it looks bad, it looks bad.
  • Too many  patterns, especially leopard
  • Too much lace, puffed sleeves
  • Too shiny a facade, status logos. You want hints, however slight, of I Made It Myself
  • Too much show of flesh takes  you into frivolous and non-intellectual territory. Except in gender studies, where by overtly breaking those taboos you are in fact pursuing your work. Otherwise don’t let too much skin get get in the way.

And, in closing, if you want only to avoid ignominy,

  • Eileen Fisher is a safe bet. You will not be alone.
  • Jigsaw is the source of choice for Northern California academics. Especially those who work for large, hallowed, state institutions.

Thank you class. We will address your questions in preceptorial sections. There is, in fact, no homework.

Blogs demonstrating academic style do exist. I recommend materfamilias’s posts on what she wears. Rags Against The Machine also looks into the issues. Do your own research. As one does.

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  • Sounds like a dress code for academia in Finland, as well. I used to work in government & university research and the day-to-day wear really can be very casual, especially if you have to wear a lab coat over it all. But you forgot about formal occasions: conference dinners, dissertations & post-dissertation dinner parties and the likes. In many academic institutions in Finland, post-dissertation party dress code for men is white tie and for women either an all-black dress with minimal jewelry or white tie or black tie.

    10:07 am
    cafeatte said...

    J’dore! I am an academic, and I appreciate good design. However, the majority of women at most universities/colleges in the U.S. seem to believe that wearing make-up and dressing well are character flaws. I do so wish you could send a copy of this post to the entire academic world. Frump does not equal “serious”. Frump equals frump, period.

  • Thank you so much for this! It reinforces some of what I suspected and gives me new ideas. As an academic I have definitely noticed that the perfectly matched suit is only to be worn on the first day of class to intimidate the undergraduates — never to a conference or a meeting with colleagues unless one wants to be mistaken for a grad student.

    But what about job interviews for postdocs and assistant professorships? Should one cultivate the grad student vibe in certain cases? Do you go for the matching suit to show you are young and eager to please? Or should you try to dress more like you’re already their colleague (i.e. the Addressing the Masses outfit)?

  • Thanks for the nod . . . I’ve hastily put together a supporting post in anticipation of the many Lisa-sent visitors.
    All good advice and the Polyvores are, as usual, much good fun.

  • Should add that sheath/shift dresses in smart fabrics and strong-but-not-shouty colours (grey, burgundy, moss green) showed up a fair bit on young women in TT positions or post-docs — i.e. doing great stuff already but without job security yet, signalling creativity, intelligence, confidence, and ability to suss out the codes and make them work to their liking. The dresses were always v. cool/hip/classic and were worn with good shoes. In one case, cool red shoes I remembered from last year, so an investment (and remembering the repetition, in this case at least, was NOT detrimental but signalled smartness, knowing-a-good-thing-ness)

  • @PetiteChablis in my field, NEVER a matching suit, which says you’re part of the corporatization of the university. Unless, maybe, the interview is at Harvard, Princeton, or in the UK (Yale being excited to hire unconventional minds).

    LPC, I think this is a great post! Let me add, from the humanities: you’re right about never, ever wearing recognizable brands or logos but getting good quality pieces. I think sleek pants (skinny jeans to straight cut wool trousers) with interesting silk blouses with structural details, and simple cardis/unbuttoned blazers, work great for the humanities.

    And as a young woman trying to be taken seriously, I avoid all shades of pink, all ruffles, etc. I tie things that are supposed to be bows in double knots instead, so you get the visual interest without the overt femininity. It’s too easy to be dismissed if you dress like a young woman, you know?

  • Oh, my – I like all of this. A great deal. Well, except the jewelry, but you know I don’t do jewelry. I REALLY like the cardigan.

  • Marking this as a favorite. I will be returning to consult this source often as I embark on Project “Must Look Older Than My Students”

    Thanks for the awesome post!!

  • I like most of this advice a lot, but I would disagree with the advice to not wear any feminine details such as lace or puffed sleeves — a lace blouse worn with pants and a jacket, for example, would not be so over-the-top as to cause a problem. Ditto for dresses (and presumably skirts, which didn’t factor in here) — I see plenty of academic women wearing both, at conferences and while teaching. I think they’re doing good cultural work by showing that one can look feminine and professional at the same time.

    @PetiteChablis, in my discipline, a full suit is the standard for a finalist interview but not for preliminary ones, although no one will bat an eye if you’re wearing separates. But even though the suit is the standard, people in the audience still cringe if the interviewee looks too corporate, as Mouse noted. The most successful dressers, in my opinion, wear the suit but use their shirt/accessories to signal “academic” not “corporate.” The Mary Janes featured here would help do exactly that.

  • Your brilliance is showing Lisa!

    I appreciate the less expensive options for those of us who do not bring in enormous salaries and work in the public school system!

  • Lisa- this piece is timely and informative for me as I re-enter academia. Thanks. I especially appreciated the shoes and no suit, but great jacket tips. There is nothing better than the right jacket in a lot of situations.

  • This is a wonderful post. I think that these guidelines would work just as well for a woman who is recently retired, but still wants to project calm authority. Stylish, conservative, but with a bit of zing. Thanks for some great ideas.

  • Thank you for the suit/no-suit interview feedback everyone! @Meghan R., that sounds like how successful (female) candidates in my grad school department dressed for their interviews — a suit, but with interesting accessories that signaled “academic” rather than “future CEO.” @Mouse, agreed that the corporate look is off-putting to most departments in the humanities. (According to my husband, in Economics, you want to look like you *used* to be corporate but haven’t bought new clothes since you left the corporate world. The ideal interview suit in Econ is therefore one that was stylish five years ago.)

    Can I add something to the pitfalls? Do not succumb to the temptation to go braless, no matter how casual your department. Not appropriate, especially when students are around.

  • @PetiteChablis SO FUNNY about Econ! Ha.

    Ditto on the bra. Even the old-school feminists should, by now, be wearing bras. No bra=tasteless. Also, lawsuits.

  • Beautiful Choices

  • Another spot-on wardrobing piece, you detail the details perfectly! There is a certain je ne sais quoi, after all, one is pursuing a higher calling. You put it best in explaining that “Genius Doesn’t Care.” You know I smiled when seeing you mention the lack of logofication. :)

    Well done Miss Privilege,

  • We’re off to Berkeley for the day but I’ve printed this post to discuss with my academic sweetie in a cafe later. He tends to dress differently in class vs with colleagues. Definitely dresses up for presenting. I love all of the outfits.

  • Thank you for this post, which was both fun and informative. I think that one difficulty with being a new female academic is that the tenured male faculty are often running around in faded jeans and wrinkled dress shirts. It becomes a challenge to look polished and professional (and not like a student), but not condescending.

  • Lovely! The two toned Mary Janes are gorgeous, and remind me of some my very stylish stats professor used to wear. I’m afraid my notes in class may have suffered from spending time checking out her beautiful and varied shoe collection. Definitely want a pair like them.

  • Excellent advice, as always. I lecture part-time and have to admit I’m smarter on teaching days than admin days – generally speaking though, in London, we’re quite dressed down all of the time!

  • PC – I definitely think suits are de rigeur for interviews, which is so nuts since, as this post is totally right about, they are never worn any other time. I followed similar advice though, in that I wore a pretty conservative suit (although with a few cute details) and used accessories to jazz it up (a cute shoe and a colourful necklace, in my case). So I feel like the advice in this post stands for interviews, just with a suit? But what do I know–we are all groping in the dark on this one.

    Great post, in general! I agree with Two Chicks Nest that the idea of even dressing professionally can feel fraught in academic environments, but I know that most of us young female scholars feel like it is an especially important thing to do. Perhaps this means the realm of academic dress takes high WASP principles especially seriously: it is all about looking put together without seeming like you are trying too hard/thinking too much about your dress. Because, you know, life of the mind and all that. (HA!)

  • In business school, suits are fine because they suggest you glide smoothly between business and academia. And that your consulting gigs are lucrative.

  • Great post. I think more formal dress is definitely more acceptable in the humanities than in the sciences at most institutions. X wore a sportcoat to teach physics in for a week once, and his colleagues kept asking if he was interviewing for another position. Suits are considered suspect among scientists and identify one as either administration or guvmint paperpusher.

    I feel most comfortable in skirts, but they should be tailored. But these days, one generally need not worry about distinguishing oneself from one’s students — unless one tends toward pajama bottoms, tattered jeans, sweatpants with Greek letters emblazoned across the posterior, or flip-flops.

  • I find this post very intersting and while I have seen you comment on other’s posts, this is the first time I have visited you blog. It is habitforming!.

    This is all excellent advice. Sometimes a prof can have a style which falls within your category but they may use a colour that is flattering to them and stands out a little and has a European flair.
    Recently at Yale one of the profs in the architecture department, wore a gold colour linen suit, white linen shirt beneath with yellow ochre suede shoes. His hair (salt n pepper) was longer than normal. Quite dashing, quality clothing with his own thumbprint.
    Thanks again for posting this interesting subject matter
    Helen tilston

  • Working on the cusp of academia this is really helpful and true, it’s more relaxed but still smart and it’s lovely to have a little more creative freedom as it were…

  • Love this post and the ensembles you’ve created. Agree with comments that the sciences are less formal, although I have a tough time wearing dress jeans, no matter how I dress them up.
    Always feel stiff in a suit, opt for sweaters more often. A personal shopper comes in handy! My favorite day is when we discuss interviewing with the seniors, and dress to demonstrate our points- very enjoyable! Thank you!

  • Gah! Our entire blog summarized in one excellent post!

  • Thanks so much for addressing this! I have been a prof for many years, but my field is so male-dominated that I still feel uncertain what to wear in certain situations. The fact that your post shows some things I’ve gravitated towards gives me confidence – and the rest of it gives me ideas!

    About the suits – when I first started, the senior guys would wear suits only to academic “events,” but the suits were obviously at least ten years out of style – deliberately, I’m sure, to show that they were now out of the rat race. Young women interviewing do wear matching suits – but NEVER skirt suits: only pants suits. Of course,after you land the job you can always wear the pants with a cardi or different jacket…

  • This is so useful, so helpful, and so timely, thank you! (I’m a recent MFA who teaches and just spent Friday at a day-long training on academic CVs, teaching philosophies, and cover letters) and I’m noticing a lot of cultural overlap in those materials and in your dress code here:

    1. You want to appear serious.
    2. You want to be impressive without appearing to be bragging.

    There’s this weird thing in Academia (and in the Midwest, where I am) where if you take it one step too far you run into the wall of “Who do you think you are?” There is a constant push and pull between ego and inferiority going on, and it’s interesting to think about that as a dance you also do with your clothes.

  • i love this! though i have to say i’ve seen the rules bent quite a bit in NYC :)

  • I’ve had almost no contact with academia except for several months spent at Oxford a few years ago.

    Before that, it was in Montreal, in the early-to-mid ’90s. So maybe I’m out of touch. Or maybe England / French-Canada are culturally a bit different from the US.

    These all seem to casual to me — a combination of casual and a bit bland. (This is no comment on our very stylish blogger!)

    I can’t remember any professor in jeans at Oxford. Maybe some teaching assistants?

    From what I remember, it was mostly collared shirts, blouses, V-neck sweaters, nice scarves, cardigans, trousers, dresses, well-cut coats. (I was there in the winter, so people were pretty bundled up).

    “Presence Known, ” with the jeans and the boots, was basically what I wore — but I was there as a student.

    I have to say, though, that I like the two-toned shoes. Not sure if I would wear them myself, but I like them.

  • Anna – I have read about this custom in Finland, via I don’t think we have an equivalent dress occasion.

    Cafelatte – Well, if we all keep saying this, perhaps the behavior will shift, gradually, over time. But feel free to forward the link as much as you like:).

    PetiteChablis – You are very welcome. It’s our pleasure. Intimidate the undergrads. Ha! Probably good for them.

    Mater – Love your pink shoes. And I can absolutely envision those dresses. I agree that repetition in this situation is a good thing.

    Mouse – Thank you, from me and the Counsel:). It’s always easy to be dismissed if you dress like a young woman. Unfortunately.

    Jan – Academics really can, if they are so inclined, exercise some creativity.

  • Zan – So glad you like it. And while you may not need to look older than your students, I think it’s helpful to look as though you have more authority.

    Meghan – Thank you for the feedback. I corrected the post to make clear that feminine details are good in judicious quantities. A lace blouse, yes, but with the rest of your clothes more tailored. I appreciate the comments on suits and interviews, from everyone here.

    Hostess – Thank you. I did try to find some more reasonably priced options. Teachers are undervalued, no question.

    Erin – I agree. Jackets are the workhorse of so many jobs. So happy to be useful to you.

    Ally Bean – I think you’re right. It’s a look between casual and full metal corporate jacket.

    PC – Glad you got some feedback. I love the point about Econ and I can absolutely see how that would play out. And yes, braless serves no one, in the institutional work place.

  • Mouse – One can get sued now for going braless? Yikes.

    Elise – Thank you very much.

    TPP – Doesn’t it make sense that the highly intelligent would want to do without logos” :)

    Susan Tiner – Thank you! And I think these outfits, now that you mention it, do reflect the kind of style I see you pursuing.

    Two Chicks Nest – My pleasure. My Counsel concurred, laughing, at the senior male faculty in rumpled jeans.

    Aleatha – Thank you. Those shoes are iconic, I think, of this whole schema. I bet your stats professor would be happy to know her shoes have lived on in your imagination.

  • That’s Not My Age – I am so curious, how London differs from the US these days. Thank you!

    Anna – Thanks for the suit advice. Every work environment has its secret code. The High WASP component is just that my culture obsesses over the concept of being appropriate, and therefore develops very sensitive antennae to all this.

    mgh – Ha! Absolutely. I remember from business school, all the professors and their Wall Street consulting gigs. The suits they wore. Exactly.

    Staircase Witch – My counsel was very clear that the physical sciences had the least formal code of all. That said, as you so wisely point out, I imagine few physicists wear Greek letters on their posteriors:).

    Helen Tilston – Welcome, and thank you very much. I think Yale is known to have, as someone pointed out, the most creative culture of the major universities.

    Marie – Thank you. A little more creative freedom indeed.

  • Candy – That’s great, demonstrating for the seniors. I can imagine you’d want a sweater, and long sleeves, in the lab?

    A-Dubs – No, the Gah is on my part! How did I miss your blog? I will add the link at the bottom of my post. Thank you so much for saying hello.

    Murphy – My father the professor would certainly confirm that suits ten years out of style thing:). And sounds as though you’re on the right track. Confidence can only help in that case.

    Captain Awkward – Exactly. It is a dance. Almost everything cultural is like that, no? And I love little more than to be useful. Thank you.

    Miss Sophie – Do tell!

    Joyce – The bland comes from not wanting to look like you are trying. Same with the casual bit. It may also be more US-centric. Certainly that’s where all our expertise sits round here.

  • This is an amazing article! I usually work in corporate environments and feel comfortable with my fashion choices. But I often have to work with not-for-profits and go to several acdemic meetings a year and I always feel either overdressed or frumpy. Now I get it– no matchy suits and choose interesting shoes. I am going to a meeting in Settle this week and looking forward to trying out your guidelines. Now if you could just decode the term “business casual”.

  • Brilliant! Thanks so much for posting this.

    I am a Ph.D. in a creative-end consulting business with many faculty and university clients (and married to a faculty member in the physical sciences)–and I think you’ve pretty much nailed the dress code, at least among the younger, more savvy faculty members in the humanities and social sciences.

    Nonetheless, I do see huge local and departmental variation. We are located in one of the great hippie college towns. Here, skirts are much more common, as well as the whole drapey Eileen Fisher/Flax/Chico’s look, especially among associate and full professors. I rarely see jackets worn on campus, with the exception of loose, unstructured cardigan-style jackets or casual blazers (corduroy or denim, say). Shoes are typically sensible, at least on teaching and research days: Ecco, Dansko, Naot, and the like, and leather boots in the winter. Lots of long scarves and large or ethnic jewelry. In short, I think that many faculty here are artsy cousin professors.

    None of this applies to faculty in the law, business, and hotel management schools–they wear matched suits (with trousers or skirts), or at minimum, your suggested conference attire. Women in the physical sciences are at the opposite end–they very rarely wear skirts, and your suggested teaching attire would be really snazzy conference wear for many of them!

    When I meet with faculty or spend a day on campus, I typically dress in something like your teaching outfit, although often with a skirt. Clever shoes–yes!

  • Very interesting! I’m a law professor in a large Midwestern public university. Since my pre-law career was retail–I was a buyer for junior’s fashion–I dress very differently from my frumpy colleagues. More high-end, I guess: DVF wrap dresses, pencil skirts and cashmere cardigans, fitted unmatched suits, high heels. Also, tailoring is not a high priority for law professors in general! Anyway, my students seem to appreciate my efforts. Not sure what my colleagues think. Since I came in later in life, I don’t think they are as judgmental as they might have been with a younger new professor.

  • Until the recent pomp and circumstance, I was a grad student in neuroscience. Very male dominated, heavy on the frump, and very casual. My lab was an anomaly, full of clever, smartly dressed women.

    Our collective choice to be a bit more polished ended up looking a lot like your examples. Wish an RA stipend allowed for more Eileen Fischer.

    And as for lab work- you want short sleeves to avoid dragging the hems through your work, close toed shoes for safety against spills, and pants, never shorts, never skirts.

    Especially never skirts in the sciences- they draw too much attention to one’s female-ness.

  • Tenure track assistant professor in the humanities here — I loved this post! Just wanted to add another vote for drapey sweater jackets or cardigans. And cashmere dresses in classic-yet-hip cuts. Scarfs are key. It’s refreshing to see more variety in dress code as more and more women enter the profession. Personally, something between classy and bohemian helps me to feel polished but nonconformist at the same time, which is important in a profession that values individualism.

  • Deborah – I am very glad you enjoyed this, and hope the guidelines are useful. I always wonder, just a bit, if “business casual” is a conspiracy of the long-rumored patriarchy:). It’s fine for men and just dreadful for women.

    Velma – It’s my pleasure. Yes, there’s wide variance. And some people, of course, choose not to even try to be stylish, just dressing for comfort, or some personal concept.

    CashmereLibrarian – That is the pleasure of later in life authority. Particularly if you practiced, before teaching, that credibility carries over.

    Valerie – I love the idea of a lab of stylish women. Thank you for the points on lab dress. Well taken. And congrats on your graduation:).

    Ella – I think you’re right, balancing the formal and the more bohemian is the the exact juggle that we wanted to give advice for here. Thanks.