Can dressing down harm your career?

Dress to impress if you want students in your corner, claims US study

July 23, 2015
Tourists in rubber rings and flippers ready for snorkeling class
Source: Reuters
Don’t beach: staff in professional dress were better regarded by students

Ditching a smart suit for shorts and sandals might seem a sensible choice as temperatures soar this summer.

But dressing down may have deleterious professional consequences for academics, a new study suggests.

Scholars who wear casual clothes are seen as less likeable and approachable than those who don business suits or smart-casual attire, according to a paper published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

Conducted at an unnamed creative arts college in America, almost 1,000 students were asked to rate photographs of lecturers dressed in three different outfits: casual, business-casual and business-professional.

Academics wearing smarter outfits tended to score more highly on approachability and likeability with the 112 students who responded to the experiment, which was conducted by Amber Chatelain, from the department for family and consumer sciences at Eastern Kentucky University.

That result, albeit based on a small sample, surprised Dr Chatelain, who expected students doing fashion, video production and graphic design to favour a more liberal dress code, particularly as these industries are generally populated with people wearing more casual clothing.

“No matter what academic discipline they study, [students] still expect academics to dress professionally within the walls of the post-secondary environment,” she concludes.

Institutions may wish to advise academics on what to wear if they wish to be seen as likeable to students, while lecturers should also consider dressing more smartly, she adds.

She told Times Higher Education that despite attempts to reverse the cultural normality associated with a focus on outward appearance, we still make snap judgements on an individual’s personality and characteristics based on appearance alone

And this goes for everybody, not just those in higher education. I think this is why, even at an academic institution where it is standard in the culture and industry to dress casually, students still prefer their faculty to ‘look the part of the academic.

Dr Chatelain’s results also found variations in the way men and women were perceived according to their attire, which she believed required a renewed “conversation on gender inequality and perceptions of men and women in the workplace”.

Earlier this year a mass email to students at Rutgers School of Law from Adam Scales, its vice-dean, attacked sexist comments in evaluations directed at female academics’ attire.

However, Dr Chatelain said the root cause of this problem lay in attitudes outside academia.

Methods and strategies to overcome student bias towards women academics isn’t the issue here. The fact that there have to be methods and strategies to overcome student bias towards women academics is.

Instead of telling women how to dress more smartly, perhaps we should steer the conversation toward gender inequality in the workplace, the portrayal of women in the media etc., and start at the root of the problem.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities


Print headline: Sartorial no-nos of scholarly attire

Reader's comments (2)

Out of 1000 students polled at an "unnamed creative arts college" in the US, 112 responded. Impressive. I don't think UK academics need to start worrying about their attire just yet...
There is an unwritten dress-code, no doubt. Nonetheless, I never have bothered about the clothes of sandals my Professors chose to wear. I would rather judge them by their ability to inspire and be engaged with their topic.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Microlight pilot flies with flock of cranes

Reports of UK-based researchers already thinking of moving overseas after Brexit vote

Portrait montage of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage

From Donald Trump to Brexit, John Morgan considers the challenges of a new international political climate