Power-dressing or window-dressing?

Dress, cardigan, boots...
Dress, cardigan, boots…

I don’t think much about what I wear to work. I tend to wear dresses, boots and cardigans most of the time, whether I’m giving a lecture, attending a meeting, going to the pub or cooking dinner – and when I started doing my PhD I noticed that the dresses-boots-and-cardigan uniform  was one adopted by a lot of female academics. (I generally save my more obviously vintage dresses for outside work, though). Since I’m not someone who tends to wear very casual clothes anyway, I mostly have the same wardrobe for all occasions, and that’s fine. Or is it?

A recent article in the Guardian , entitled ‘Why do academics dress so badly? (Answer: they are too happy)’ referred mainly to the sartorial choices of male academics, in their tweed jackets and mismatched shirts, trousers and (maybe) ties. A follow-up article, ‘Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed’ looked at the perils and pitfalls of being a woman in academia: judged for making an effort, and judged for not making an effort, torn between wanting to choose clothes one likes or being put in the position of appearing too ‘try-hard’ or too ‘glamorous’ to be taken seriously. Because, of course, society makes judgments about women’s appearances and clothing choices that we’d never make about men (who are, presumably, too high-minded to think about clothes).  Although these articles related specifically to academia, this is a society-wide problem: a man can always wear a suit, but for a woman her choices seem to be much more inflected with meaning, and thus much more complicated. It’s not just men who make these judgments, either: women are as likely, if not more so, to judge another woman for her clothes.

Where I work, everyone’s pretty relaxed: the articles I’ve read recently on the bullying culture in academia is not one I’ve experienced, or can even imagine, at least in the part of the university I work in. When it comes to clothes there is, perhaps, a slight tendency for the women to dress more smartly than the men (though there are exceptions), but after all, as long as we behave professionally and work hard, what does it matter? Certainly no one ever has (or would) comment on my hair (long and usually a bit untidy), makeup or clothes in the way that clearly other women academics have experienced. It certainly hasn’t ever occurred to me that someone would question my authority on my subject because of how I look, but the articles make it clear that in fact in order to be taken seriously in many workplaces, a woman has to be as unobtrusively dressed as possible – too masculine and she is overtly trying to take over; too feminine and she’s a bit silly and girly. When I was younger I read in women’s magazines about ‘dressing for the job you want not the job you have’, which would present some interesting sartorial clashes for many (actually I have the job I want!) but of course the implication is that the smarter the suit, the more impeccably you hide your inconvenient femaleness, the better you’ll do at work.

Do our students even care? I always thought students didn’t really pay any attention to how their lecturers looked, though I was proved wrong when one started asking me about what brand of foundation I wear (I don’t wear foundation), but I still thought – and think – that how we dress is up to the individual and shouldn’t really matter. Like Virginia Woolf (and many others), I think the clothes we wear do signal how we feel about ourselves and the image we want to project to the outside world – I’m not saying clothes aren’t important (as anyone who’s seen my wardrobe will testify). I realise this is different in the environment in which I work where we have freedom to dress, within reason, as we choose (when I left my previous, non-academic job, I donated all my much-hated suits to charity and haven’t looked back) but no matter where you work it does seem that women’s choices are always more complex and consequently more considered because we’re not men. And that’s a shame, and a waste of good research time too.


  1. When I worked, I occasionally had to attend county council financial meetings. Those invited were usually headteachers, deputy headteachers, bursars, school finance staff. You could always tell who were the bursars and finance staff; they were almost always better dressed than the (much more highly paid) teachers!

  2. I can imagine! I think there’s something about education which inspires a completely different dress code – which isn’t a bad thing in my view!

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