Do I really have to break out the elbow patches?
March 21, 2012 7:38 AM   Subscribe

My department chair thinks I dress too nicely for academia. Is this solid career advice, or is he just being a curmudgeon?

Yesterday my department chair commented to me that I looked "fancy", like I was going on a job interview. I replied that I didn't really think that was a bad thing, and he said "Well, in acaDEmia....." in a tone that conveyed very clearly that he thinks it is a bad thing. I expect this professor to say vaguely inappropriate things on a pretty regular basis, so I wasn't particularly bothered by it. But I've found myself wondering whether this is actually good career advice or whether he was just being his usual curmudgeonly self.

When the professor commented, I was wearing a three-quarter-length-sleeved blue-grey sweater dress from Banana Republic, with a skinny black belt, lightly patterned black tights, and low black heels. Today I'm wearing a classic black shirt dress with Oxford heels and a neutral-colored pashmina.

In general I like my style and I get a lot of compliments. I do tend to dress a notch above the average person. I prefer to look pulled-together and polished, especially in a campus context because it makes me feel confident and also helps me remember that I'm not just a perpetual undergrad -- that being a grad student is the first stage of my academic career track and I'm already an adult living my real grown-up life.

But am I sabotaging myself here? Is looking nice going to hold me back in academia? I have very few female role models in my department (almost all male professors) and now all of a sudden I'm worried that I might have misjudged what's appropriate to wear.
posted by ootandaboot to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (80 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I know, full on suit == too much. Pajamas == not enough. Anything else == just fine.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 7:42 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I vote: intimidated.
posted by fatllama at 7:43 AM on March 21, 2012 [43 favorites]

....That is the one and only example I've ever heard of someone thinking a person should dress less professionally at work. And what you were wearing sounds fine.

I'm almost wondering if maybe he has some weird ulterior motive.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:44 AM on March 21, 2012 [22 favorites]

You're an (assumingly) young female with style; he's an old male department chair. Knowing how creepy some profs can be, I'm surprised he didn't try to pick you up.

Perhaps he's telling you that if you're serious about the academic life/style, you need to look the part. And if elbow patches is all the rage in the academic world...
posted by ditto75 at 7:45 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good christ. Department chairs do not get an input into what the grad students wear in their department, unless the clothes are so casual as to be disruptive to the learning environment. Male department chairs ESPECIALLY do not get an input into the aesthetic choices of their female graduate students. I wonder if he thinks you should wear skirts more often? Yeesh.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:45 AM on March 21, 2012

I am also a female grad student, but we have a number of female professors in our department. They range in their level of "dressiness" and the average is probably more casual than the outfits you described. However, there is one woman in particular who is clearly enjoys fashion and is rather known for her style around our department. She is not overly flashy or trendy, but I would say that her clothes are more interesting than most of the other professors (again, this is not in an outlandish or inappropriate way, and not exactly more formal....hard to describe what I'm talking about, but people think of her as particularly "well-dressed"). I do not think that this has held her back in any way; I think people in the department admire her style and also she looks more pulled together and thus professional. I do not think that people perceive her negatively (frivolous, narcissistic, etc), despite the fact that she is clearly notable for her clothing.
posted by Bebo at 7:46 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your department chair, who is male in a mail-dominated field, doesn't understand that women in male-dominated fields often dress a notch up to help being taken seriously. It's sexist and unfair, but like you say, it makes you feel grown-up and more confident.

His advice might have been useful to a male academe, but it falls flat for a woman. The way you dress and carry yourself will push you forward, not hold you back.
posted by juniperesque at 7:47 AM on March 21, 2012 [26 favorites]

Sounds like he was just running at the mouth. I wouldn't give it another thought.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:47 AM on March 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

Looking pulled-together and polished is not in fact very normal in academia. It is a little amusing that you can show with in a multi-colored mohawk and nobody will notice, yet people will roll their eyes if you wear a suit and tie on a regular basis.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:47 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

You sound fine, particularly because women's fashion in a casual workplace is always a small notch above men's. I'd probably say something else if you said you were coming in with suits every day.

That said, people go into academia so that they don't have to dress up all the time (or at all-- the idea being that the work speaks for itself, and anyone giving a talk in a suit that's not a job-talk is trying to bullshit the audience). I'm not saying this to suggest you dress down. I'm saying this because you will have to accept the fact that you will become known as "the stylish one" in your department.
posted by deanc at 7:49 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

To help you calibrate your fashion radar:
posted by Ness at 7:51 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a grad student. Both the men and women (grad students and faculty) in my department dress very nicely. Some people have more eccentric styles, and some people dress in more professional attire, but putting effort into one's appearance is the norm here, not the exception. Continue dressing in a way that makes you feel confident and professional.
posted by mmmbacon at 7:51 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

His comment makes no sense to me. It might just depend on the school you go to or the area it's in. I go to UPenn, and my profs always look nice. Even most of the students look pretty stylish. Wharton students are always in suits (even the undergrads!). But my school is also in an urban environment, and basically nestled in between normal city blocks and businesses. I don't know about Drexel, which is adjacent to my school -- the students look more normal, but I don't know the profs. The schools I went to before this were both suburban, and it was a much more casual environment on the part of the students (like, sweats or pajamas were pretty common). The profs there were a mix of casual/professional/fashionable. Even in high school I had some teachers that leaned towards casual, but a couple who always looked put-together. I admired those because they were setting a good example!

My personal opinion is that you have good style, and you are dressing professionally -- fantastic.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:52 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like he was just running at the mouth. I wouldn't give it another thought.

I would document it somehow for future reference. A comment that a stylish young woman is dressing too nicely is borderline harrassment. I'd let it slide as such, but if it becomes part of a pattern you will want to have a record. Just in case.
posted by gauche at 7:53 AM on March 21, 2012 [17 favorites]

Stick with your style. Put together and polished is a good choice of armor, especially in a male dominated field. My mom is a professor, and a semi out lesbian, and her constant polished and professional look is a good shield, I think, from the nitpickers and haters.
posted by Malla at 7:53 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

My undergraduate department was mostly male, although the ratio was changing. Thinking of the male professors, almost all of them wore business casual at worst, and suits at best - is that true for your department?

I would classify your level of dress as "chic business casual," which I imagine is in line with or one step down from most of your professors. Certainly it's a step above most graduate students (my PhD husband wears jeans and athletic shoes to work, much to my dismay), but that's not a bad thing. Professionals are advised to dress for the job they want, and I think this goes for academia as well.
posted by muddgirl at 8:00 AM on March 21, 2012

There's nothing wrong with being the best looking person in the room.
posted by jander03 at 8:01 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I meant my PhD student husband.
posted by muddgirl at 8:02 AM on March 21, 2012

I agree with the rest, wear what you want. If you feel the need to change and want to change one thing - change the shoes to flats. I think this guy is dumb, but I could see someone getting told they were too dressy if they wore a tux in. For many, the heels might be the sign of dressy. Don't change, but if you decide you do want to change, or test it out, try going with flats. Years ago I read about people who interviewed with various companies - and those who got the jobs were often those whose dress made them seem like they fit in. So you had a story of someone who went in casual (not business casual) to a starbucks position interview and got the job, and the dress was part of what helped (this was in a book put together by a job firm).

But I've been in and around acedemia all my life, and one of my best friends who teaches dresses to the 9's, as they say. It's up to you at this point. I don't think you need to consider dialing it back a notch unless it looks like you're ready to go ballroom dancing.
posted by cashman at 8:03 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Academichic also has several articles on this exact issue (academics dressing "too nicely").

Upshot: yes, this is a thing. You are fighting the status quo a bit by actually having some style; that could be fine by you or even a career plus, but it is a thing.
posted by nat at 8:05 AM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

"Low black heels" are not equivalent to a tuxedo.

I wonder if the problem here is that you are a woman wearing dresses to work. I'm trying to imagine you getting hassled for wearing low black heels, trousers, and an oxford shirt - still business casual, but would it be comment-worthy?
posted by muddgirl at 8:08 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hmmm I would have been tempted to either:

a) Laugh incredulously.

b) Point out that you consider how you dress to reflect your respect for both yourself and the institution.

c) Quote Oscar Wilde “Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not.”

(Seriously I worry when one considers themselves potentialy held back in academia due to the way one dresses. I know i'm idealistic but I would like to live in a world where the only reason for being held back in academia was because one was academically lacking.)
posted by numberstation at 8:09 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Keep doing what you are doing. I am in grad school as well and work during the day with my classes in the evenings. I am always dressed nice. In fact, I had a peer when I went for a study project comment how she didn't recognize me dressed down.

Looking good has an effect of feeling good. Most people in my courses dress nicely as they work during the day as well. Wearing jeans to class just feels weird as I generally think of school as a form of work, and I like to look good for work.

Remember, haters gonna hate!
posted by handbanana at 8:11 AM on March 21, 2012

Academia is not like other "professional" environments when it comes to stuff like this. I work in academia, and it was revealed to me later that one of the main reasons I got hired over many, many other applicants is that I didn't wear a suit or other formal attire during my interview. Everyone else was too fancy, and that was deemed inappropriate.

It's going to be highly dependent on your field though... I work in anthropology, and a lot of times our chair isn't even wearing shoes at work. Get a sense of what everyone else in the department is doing, and adapt your style to it.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:11 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

His comment is inappropriate, full-stop.

Both my husband and I are in academia, different sides of the house (he's in humanities, I'm in sciences). The work you produce represents your field and your department, and in the broader sense, acaDEMia. Your other representative choices are just that, yours.

Document his comment ("fancy"? truly?) in a professional diary and the next time tell him that if he's got time to lean, he's got time to clean (not really, I guess, but you get my point. If he was wrapped up in his own productive work he wouldn't have the energy to lob sexist pop flies at graduate students).

And yes, it's a continuum related more to a kind of personal branding than the work. My husband favors sport coats and weird shirts and is a well-known Shakespeare scholar--a peer of his at Yale likes chains and piercings--sometimes piercings attached to chains. My dean is all pretty heels and flippy skirts and our best researcher is Dr. Jeans and Polo.

There was a related post (sexism in academia) on the blue, recently.
posted by rumposinc at 8:11 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

If I was the professor you describe, my motivation would be something like "Damn, if she keeps dressing like that, I'm going to have to replace my "Science: It works bitches" T-shirt with something with buttons.

The question then becomes, what was he wearing?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:16 AM on March 21, 2012

Maybe he was fishing to see if you were actually going on a job interview?

Continue to dress well. If it bothers him then that is his problem, not yours.
posted by myselfasme at 8:17 AM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

What you were wearing sounds perfectly appropriate for any setting, by my lights, except maybe for a volleyball game! You weren't sporting a power suit or haute couture. You simply weren't frumpy, while everyone else there probably wants to be in a frump-safe zone. (Hell, I would LOVE to be in a frump-safe zone at work; at least until I want to be free to dress up again...)

The guy is probably afraid you'll steal his show. And you might just do that.

Are there tenured women in your university at large whom you respect? You might want to ask their opinion. I would also try to start making some connections with women in your field at other universities if you haven't already done so.

In a corporate environment, comments like your department chair's would be deemed inappropriate, if not full-on harassment. I'm with gauche: document it in case it comes up again.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2012

The most generous interpretation I can come up with is that he was trying to tell you that dressing nicely may make (usually older male) professors think you are insufficiently dedicated to Science because they will think that you are spending time thinking about clothes.

There is a class of (older male) professors in the sciences who will judge you harshly for having interests other than Science. I have heard one professor, for example, express misgivings about a prospective PhD student for having guitar classes on their undergrad transcript. Another PhD student was judged for having bodybuilding magazines on his desk, because obviously this guy was taking all this time to think about working out and not enough on science. I do not agree with these attitudes, but they are present.

The thing is, my female PhD friends have said that if they do not dress professionally, they are treated very differently. So it's important.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would absolutely say that your outfit was inappropriate if you're in the physical sciences and spend any time in the lab. I am regularly telling people that they can't work in my facility with ballet flats, skirts, or other clothing that does not completely cover their body from neck to toe. Some labs don't allow heels of any kind, makeup, untied hair, or dangly jewelry, depending on what equipment is running. And I must admit that when I see grad students in our department wearing those types of clothing all the time, I assume that they're not getting work done, since they can't safely be in the lab dressed like that.

If you're not in a lab, he's making that comment not because you're dressing too well, but because you're dressing too much like a girl, and he's an old fashioned curmudgeon that can't handle flagrant femininity in his precious academe. My rules on seriousness are totally different for friends in the humanities (or friends who are in entirely-theoretical fields of science.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2012 [13 favorites]

I'm only throwing this in for a different perspective to hopefully have you view this in a different way. Also speaking from the perspective that I was formally in academia and left on my own after a few years.

I know people are going on and on about people that they see, but it really is department specific (so if you are really concerned, go to a faculty meeting...and dollars to donuts business faculty dress in suits, and pple from department X are casual).

I interviewed and taught at a few universities also in a male dominated field (biology). You would have stood out at any of these places. However, to be honest, nobody really cares.My main concerns were...does Bob teach any interesting courses? Was he awarded an intersting grant? Can he share any interesting tidbits about his particular field. Although yes the majority were dressed casually, if Bob shared interesting info on an innovative way to teach and he dressed in overalls everyday, and John dressed in a suit everyday but was awarded a grant and had an electron microscrope...the clothing is only a small part of who they are and all the other stuff is more important.There really were pple who did wear overalls everyday and there was another person who dressed nicely, but again it doesn't matter.

Also, I don't want to go into this too much here, but at a small college, I had my chair tell me stuff that I felt was over the line.. In retrospect, the chairs will often view him or herself as older,more experienced and will want to share what he or she thinks is important. In reality, though, do whatever your job is and getting tenure requires. You can also look to other faculty for advice. Just saying this because you are likely to experience this again if you end up in a small department.

tl;dr Wear what you want. Be prepared for departmental chairs to tell you all kinds of stuff for the next 15 years.
posted by Wolfster at 8:23 AM on March 21, 2012

c) Quote Oscar Wilde “Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not.”

This is a great quote for any person to use in a situation like yours, regardless of setting or sex, provided you attribute it on the spot and make it clear (non-verbally) that you don't necessarily subscribe to the idea literally, and that you change the subject to something else immediately. Charming and disarming.
posted by davejay at 8:25 AM on March 21, 2012

Having read a lot of posts on here, I suspect if she was a programmer told she was dressing too nicely for her department, she'd be told that this is the norm for her field and to dress down because she's making the other programmers uncomfortable.

There's a culture in your department, and rather than reacting reflexively (I do not think his comment constitutes harassment), I'd look at what the other instructors at your level are wearing and consider scaling up or down as appropriate. Dressing much more nicely than anyone else in the room might be giving you an ego boost, but it's also going to set you apart from other people in your department--and if they don't feel at ease, it's going to make it just a little more difficult to have friendly professional relationships with them. And that kind of networking thing is important.

I'm not saying to throw out your style completely, mind you. But you could easily find a middle ground.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2012 [11 favorites]

it makes me feel confident and also helps me remember that I'm not just a perpetual undergrad -- that being a grad student is the first stage of my academic career track and I'm already an adult living my real grown-up life.

If you teach undergrads, too, this can make a difference in how you're perceived and treated by your students, especially if you're young and not too far out of undergrad yourself. I was perfectly happy to wear jeans in the classroom, personally, but a colleague of mine--same discipline--was pretty firm about not doing so, and usually wore dress pants or business-casual dresses like you describe.

My mother was an English professor throughout most of the late 80s to mid-90s and always dressed well (not conservative-business-suit well, but pretty, semi-dressy, slightly funky, well-accessorized) because that was her. She was quite noted for it at her small college and generally considered elegant and worthy of emulation. If you want to go that route and feel comfortable with it, more power to you.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

It might depend on your attitude around. It is odd to see someone as dressed up as you in many academic settings. Academia does tend to attract people who like not having to dress up and being dressed up (yes I realize for the real world you aren't dressed up, but you are in academia) can signal to some people that you think you are better than them. However, whether or not that's a problem really depends on how you interact with others. There are several guys in my lab who like to dress up, and even show up wearing suits on occasion. They do stick out of the crowd, but they are very friendly and not condensing to anyone so people just think of them as being fashionable, not pretentious. However, if you are not so good at being overly friendly (say if you are more introverted or what have you, not saying you aren't friendly), that plus the dressed up clothes could turn some people off.

I think you should wear what you want, but just be a bit cognizant of how people are reacting to you for a while to gage whether it is causing any problems. And, if you are really worried about it, just factor one dress down day into your week where you show up like the rest of us slobs.
posted by katers890 at 8:32 AM on March 21, 2012

My friend is in the sciences, and when she felt like she'd been languishing for awhile she stepped up her professional appearance. She found that she got a lot more respect throughout the department, so I say - go for nicely dressed. Don't go frilly, but it doesn't sound like you're in any danger of that.
posted by ldthomps at 8:32 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

doh. condescending, not condensing. They neither talk down to people nor produce water droplets.
posted by katers890 at 8:33 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I expect this professor to say vaguely inappropriate things on a pretty regular basis, so I wasn't particularly bothered by it. But I've found myself wondering whether this is actually good career advice or whether he was just being his usual curmudgeonly self.

Your instinct is correct, but you're too polite to actually say it, so I will: this guy sounds like a sleazeball, and pointing out your 'fancy' dress was a way of making an inappropriate comment about your appearance without being overtly harassing.

It is also extraordinarily bad career advice. The likelihood of negative consequences for being 'overdressed' is miniscule; the likelihood of negative consequences for being underdressed are much larger. Better to err on the side of the former.

Oh and this -

I prefer to look pulled-together and polished, especially in a campus context because it makes me feel confident and also helps me remember that I'm not just a perpetual undergrad -- that being a grad student is the first stage of my academic career track and I'm already an adult living my real grown-up life.

This is absolutely the right attitude. Good for you.
posted by googly at 8:34 AM on March 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

I would absolutely say that your outfit was inappropriate if you're in the physical sciences and spend any time in the lab.

At my undergraduate institution, many biology professors wore skirts in the lab - they wore lab coats like their male colleagues. Of course labs have dress codes, but that doesn't seem to be relevant to the discussion that the OP had with her department chair.

suspect if she was a programmer told she was dressing too nicely for her department

She wasn't told she was dressing too nicely for her department. She was told that she's dressing too nicely for 'academia.' And that is patently not true. Business casual is very common in academia.
posted by muddgirl at 8:35 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

To all the people who said you should dress how it pleases you, I say yes yes yes. However, this moment, however inappropriate it is, might be a moment to consider the culture of your department. Is it a very casual place? You don't have to dress like a slob to accomodate people, but you might consider shifting into less structured clothes to show that you are taking the culture of the department into account in how you dress. Like, maybe a pretty belted cardigan instead of a structured jacket, or a skirt with sporty details instead of a suit skirt.
And also, document comments on your attire, keep that file on paper and at home.
posted by pickypicky at 8:37 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well clearly if you're so focused on dressing so female, you're probably not as dedicated to your work as the women who show up in wrinkled khakis, and you're probably just planning to eventually quit to get married and have babies, and then look at all the time they'll have wasted on you!

It also makes it pretty difficult for the insecure people around you to feel superior if your appearance makes you look like you have self-respect.
posted by thebazilist at 8:37 AM on March 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

People in casually-dressed fields often view people who wear nice clothing as valuing style over substance, i.e., "my scientific output doesn't depend on what I wear, so why would I bother." This can then get turned around in some people's minds to suggest that people who do "bother" to wear nice clothing are compensating for lack of substance. This judgement is obviously more likely to be applied to women than men for purely sexist reasons.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:38 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

She wasn't told she was dressing too nicely for her department. She was told that she's dressing too nicely for 'academia.' And that is patently not true. Business casual is very common in academia.

Old stodgy academics who have been in their department for decades are likely to assume that the culture of their department is applicable across the board (incorrectly, of course, but it happens). In my graduate school, flip flops and tank tops were the norm. Getting that dressed up was almost unheard of, even among tenured professors but especially among graduate students.

Again, it all depends on the culture of the department.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:41 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had this said to me more than once at an academic library, more often than not by the other female librarians. It definitely felt more in the bitchy, "you're making us look bad" realm. I just ignored it and went about my business. Due to a ton of other factors, I relaxed my style a bit and started pairing jeans with nice blouses/sweaters and heels. I still got comments about how "stylish" I was, but it was more admiring than bitchy and I was eventually vote "Most Stylish Librarian" by my peers. (Still not sure how I feel about this.)

Some people just take the fact that you dress nice as a value judgement on how they dress. Because obviously if you wear nice clothes you think everyone in wrinkled khakis and t-shirts are horrible humans. *eyeroll*
posted by teleri025 at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2012

Actually, I misread your original question and thought you were a junior professor, not a grad student.

I'm not changing my answer, but... unless you're teaching classes, "fancy business casual" is a bit overdoing it. It's not bad, per se, but the first year you'll get, "well, what's with you getting so dressed up, today?" until eventually you will become known as "the snappy dresser." This goes double if you're in the sciences. Not that this is a bad thing, but just accept that reality.

Also, in academia, no one gets any pushback for their comments, so professors tend to have a really poor sense of boundaries.
posted by deanc at 8:50 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've worked in academia my entire life.

He is generally correct that you're overdressed for the part of a grad student. Most grad students do not suit up.

However, part of the benefits of academic life, the tradeoff for more work and less pay, is that there are fewer hard and fast rules about your conduct.

So dress how you want, just with the understanding that it might potentially raise eyebrows in people whose opinions may affect your career, by clouding their objective evaluation of your work. Even though it shouldn't.

It's unfortunate, but dealing those sorts of quirks in people above you in an academic hierarchy will be an unavoidable part of your adult life, too.

Like everyone else, you'll have to decide the balance of independence and compliance that's right for you, whether you're in academia or any other field.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:52 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Interesting to contrast these responses with those of a previous, related question. (Male, not academia.)

The whole tone here is (rightfully!) very different. Really interesting to see how context influences opinions.

If you want another person chiming in, I think modifying your dress to suit your environment signals your ability and desire to fit in. If you want to prioritize other signals, dressing differently is one way to do so. The whole question is complicated by all the bullshit women have to deal with, which is often reduced by presenting an unflappably professional and together face to the world. Dressing nice is often a crucial part of constructing that kind of persona.

It's all tradeoffs, is what I'm saying, and no matter what you decide, you'll be doing some things wrong and other things right. Only you can tell if the department chair was trying to be your mentor, or if he was being an ass, or both.
posted by jsturgill at 8:54 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Academia is the Land of Petty Politics. But each department is its own little kingdom in that land, with different laws, ruling bodies, and ancient feuds. We can't really help you navigate this issue, because we can't tell you what the petty politics of your specific department are.

Who you really need to talk to is a more experienced woman in your department. Is there anyone who could act as a mentor to you? Someone you trust to give you good advice and to guide you? That's who you should ask about this. And, yes, it is STUPID that women in academia need to turn to other women for style advice. And it is STUPID that a woman's wardrobe is such a minefield, even in professions where wardrobe is specifically not important! But, that's how it is. The female professors in your department will know all about the issue -- it'll be something they've been dealing with for countless years already. They can help you assess how you're presenting yourself to students and colleagues.

In the end, you can wear whatever the heck you want -- you could work in a wedding dress, even, so long as you're not in a lab. And, if you're good enough, you'll succeed regardless how you dress. But the stupid fact is, how you dress may make it harder for you to succeed.
posted by meese at 9:05 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

One (somewhat less likely) possibility is that his comment on your attire reflects his perception that you're aloof and believe yourself to be a little too good for your department.

If that is his perception, it could be totally unfair and be based wholly or partly on sexism, but it would still be worthwhile to realize that he has that sort of perception of you, justified or not.
posted by MoonOrb at 9:06 AM on March 21, 2012

Are you more dressed up than most grad students? Yes. Is your idea that you should dress up for being a grad student likely to get the results you seem to want--to be taken seriously as a professional? Probably not, to be honest.

Professors like to think of grad students as students, not as young professionals. I think that instead of looking like a super-focused, high-energy person, you are going to be likely to come off as more of a tryhard striver, which is not what professors in general dig. Also, as a woman, your clothing choices are always going to come in for more scrutiny than your male colleagues', which sucks, but it's true.

But should he have commented on it? No, he was being an ass. But if you want to move past his assitude and think about whether his comment is accurate, that's something to introspect about.

Based on my own experience as a grad student and as a university administrator, I think that dressing that much more formally than your peers or your superiors isn't going to get the payoff you expect in terms of respect from them. That said, if it's important to you to dress this way, keep it up.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:06 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Probably more than dress is attitude. So if you project confidence and self-respect, whatever you happen to wear, that (and busting your ass on work, of course) will probably take your academic career further, all else the same. So do what you do, but just be aware of the games everyone plays in life.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:09 AM on March 21, 2012

Back in the days of yore, a large part of my day was spent dragging out old tomes and digging through cases that were giant dust refractories. As soon as I would wear something decent looking, it would be covered in the sands of the pharaohs. I finally gave in and figured out that khaki and blue jeans were that color for a reason.

I sincerely hope it's a little more climate controlled now.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2012

Don't let this guy get in your head. You dress fine.
posted by spaltavian at 9:14 AM on March 21, 2012

According to her posting history, ootandaboot is a linguistics grad student, so all the comments about lab safety are not relevant.

I think there are two questions here. First, are you wearing clothing that is appropriate for a person in your job? Second, is your appearance having an affect that you should be concerned about on your relationships with your colleagues?

I think the answer to the first question is clearly yes. Your clothing is clean, modest, and at a level of formality that is well within the acceptable range for your job. Basically, you'd probably be overdressed in a suit (though some academics wear suits all the time) and underdressed in ripped jeans (though some academics wear those, too), but you're fine almost anywhere in between.

As for the second question, I think you do, as people have mentioned, need to gauge the culture of your department. Just as ripped jeans guy might be judged negatively for his appearance if he was a part of a business casual department, there's a possibility that someone is judging you negatively if your department's style is closer to the ripped jeans end of the spectrum. If the comments only come from one guy, and that guy is known for being inappropriate, I wouldn't worry about it. But if you have close friends in the department (faculty or students, male or female, doesn't really matter), I might consider telling them about the comment and asking whether anyone else is saying anything. Not that you should have to let your style be dictated by others' opinions, but so that you'll know and be able to make an informed decision about how you want to dress. It's possible that everyone except this guy thinks you look professional and impressive, and it's possible that no one else cares, and it's possible that people think you're uppity and a snob, but you won't know until you confide in someone and find out.
posted by decathecting at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have always been under the impression that free dress code was part of the pay package for academia.

We had a professor in undergrad (a large, sculpted man) that would wear metallic mesh shirts and black leather pants half the time. He's a world expert on death and dying, ain't nobody going to tell that man how to live.

It was always lovely to see him speaking in the courtyard to the photography professor that primarily wore a pressed tuxedo.
posted by nickrussell at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2012 [11 favorites]

There can be significant variation between faculties and within faculties. In my (mostly engineering) dept many wear formal shirts and smart casual trousers, some go for polos and jeans (some are more field oriented). Our senior managers always wear suits. Next door the biologists are generally casual through to 'slept in hedge' and managers suit up only for special occasions.

I take the perspective that if I am going to be dealing with anyone relating to work I go for shirt and trousers, up to suits for prospective students & parents. My credibility in developing a partnership drives me to want to act professionally, and I am dressing to try to maximise that. Everyone I ever do business with has a suit or equivalent on and so I wear one, or a step below one as I judge necessary. I can believe that credibility can sometimes lie with dressing as my biologists do but I do not think that often applies to me. Trust your judgement if you think staying smart is to your benefit.
posted by biffa at 9:23 AM on March 21, 2012

That sounds about like what my typical outfit in grad school was. I was also working in an office as a grad assistant and frequently got compliments from my supervisor. She appreciated that I didn't dress like a "grad student" - so keep doing what you're doing and don't worry about the curmudgeon.

I think you should dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident.
posted by fromageball at 9:28 AM on March 21, 2012

To answer your question, you like you dress similarly to most of the women in my grad program where I think I might be the only woman who didn't get the pearl studs + pashmina memo before arriving. I think it really depends on the university and the department culture. Your wardrobe sounds fine.
posted by smirkette at 9:39 AM on March 21, 2012

I think you're probably fine. BUT -- do be aware that it "feminizes" you, and be aware of the rest of your behavior accordingly.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2012

One possible reason to not dress formally would be if you're older than -- or look older than -- the average person in your field and there's a chance of age discrimination. It doesn't sound like that's what's going on, though.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:02 AM on March 21, 2012

The "it sucks but it's true stuff" stuff is ridiculous to me. I know plenty of female grad students and professors (in the humanities) who dress very much like you-- in fact, I know undergrads who dress like you. I dress a lot like you. Maybe it's a regional thing, but if the alternative is to lose your sense of self-respect and lower yourself to the level of insecure people, I can't see how you could make that work. (Yes, I'm being a little truculent, but I've had plenty of good experiences with male professors in my current state of fashion.)

Also, this reminds me, last winter I dressed up in a blue shirtdress, black boots, tights, and a white scarf, and my boyfriend said I "looked like a grad student." So it really probably is highly dependent on where you go to school.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:25 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

One reason not to dress "businessy" would be if the only other women in your building who wear skirts and (low)heels are the administrative staff. If there are enough other women in your department that they've established a vibe for female academic clothing, that's usually fairly different from what female admin assistants, HR types, finance/purchasing specialists, etc tend to wear.

Not that it sounds like Dr. Clueless has paid a lot of attention to women's clothing, or is particularly eloquent at explaining his point of view, so his is not the advice I would take. But do look around the department and make sure that "woman wearing skirt" does not mean "ask her to make copies".
posted by aimedwander at 11:45 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

The "it sucks but it's true stuff" stuff is ridiculous to me.

It is true that women's clothing choices are scrutinized way more than men's clothing choices. And I can speak directly to linguistics as a discipline on that, too, at least at my husband's graduate school. He had a colleague whom I think was taken less seriously because of her self-presentation, which was "business casual" for her native country but read to many of her colleagues and professors as "dressed up."
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:49 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not in academia, but relevant to the discussion, yesterday I read this piece by an academic who was told she shouldn't wear high heels. It seems this policing how women dress in your field is a (totally crappy) thing.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:16 PM on March 21, 2012

Sounds like the professor is trying to enforce a group norm on you. Your clothes are making you stick up, and his instinct is to hammer you so you're flat. There are sexist elements, but this is so much like what I've experienced at work - mostly at the hands of other women.

I worked in an insurance firm with a dress code - a notch or two above business casual. That worked for me, because I had acquired a work wardrobe by that time during my previous experience as a temp. I never knew what sort of environment I'd be farmed out to, but dresses and skirts were always appropriate in the office jobs I had. And this was true at the financial company - except on Fridays. My problem was that I had no casual clothes to wear on Fridays. My meager paycheck had to go to living expenses and work attire - there was nothing left over, or instance, for jeans (which are ungodly expensive, you know?). So there I was on Casual Friday looking the same as I did on Dress Code Monday. And my female supervisor and female co-workers gave me ENDLESS SHIT about it!

I also worked as the admin assistant in a two-person office. I had the same problem there. My boss wore skirt suits, expensive leather shoes and gold jewelry. I had my work wardrobe of skirts, and she HATED it. Was constantly begging me to dress down, because (and I've got to credit her with honestly here), "I need you to make me look good. That's your job. When people walk in here, they need to know RIGHT AWAY who's boss."

So I think the correction you're experiencing is about this guys' need to compel you to conform to the culture you're in. He probably thinks he's doing you a favor by cluing you into what's appropriate in his world. This attitude is medieval and it sucks.

I say - dig in your heels and don't change a thing! Don't worry about intimidating people who don't matter. You're an inspiration to people who do! :)))
posted by cartoonella at 12:30 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience of academia, lots of people have lots of opinions about everyone around them, and they tend to voice the opinions. Most often they do so behind the back of whomever they're criticizing. There's a lot of boredom, jealously, cattiness, and awkward social skills.

Yesterday my department chair commented to me that I looked "fancy", like I was going on a job interview. I replied that I didn't really think that was a bad thing, and he said "Well, in acaDEmia....." in a tone that conveyed very clearly that he thinks it is a bad thing.

I mean this in the nicest way: Don't assume you know what he was thinking. From what you told us, he didn't actually say that you dress too nicely for academia. He commented that you looked "fancy" that particular day and that you looked as if you were dressed for an interview. His "in acaDEmia" could have meant that it's definitely not a good thing for colleagues to be gossiping about your looking for another job.
posted by wryly at 12:36 PM on March 21, 2012

Can you get a second opinion from someone in the department whose opinion you trust more?
posted by en forme de poire at 12:41 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a professor but IANYP. I agree 100% with Sidhedevil.
posted by sesquipedalian at 1:54 PM on March 21, 2012

Also you need to disregard the advice of people who are basing their replies on non academic experience. Dress codes do exist in academia, but they are different. They vary by department and discipline. Realise that yu are making a statement by dressing significantly more formally than other graduate students, and thi about what that statement is. Reverse snobbery is real. Think of an academic department like a Bizarro Office and you will have a start.

That said I don't have specific advice for you, and the professor's comment is insensitive to say the least.
posted by sesquipedalian at 2:01 PM on March 21, 2012

I feel compelled to point out that, from what I can read, ootandaboot is not dressing 'significantly more formal' than other students - just more coordinated (although I hope ootandaboot corrects me if I'm wrong). Her department chair said she looked 'fancy' (which could mean anything in academia - I had a professor once ask me, "Hey, are you dressed up for something special?" because I had ironed my hair that day). Her description of her dress is barely one step up from jeans - shirt dresses and sweater dresses are casual wear everywhere except undergraduate programs.

By looking 'put together' (and, probably, wearing dresses), ootandaboot may stand out. But that doesn't mean she's inappropriately formal. I will agree that standing out can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on department. Of course, as a female graduate student in a mostly-male department, 'standing out' may be inevitable.
posted by muddgirl at 3:04 PM on March 21, 2012

I work in an academic context (staff, not faculty) and I agree with the above comments that you sound a) very well put together and b) that while perhaps your department is more or less formal, it is inappropriate to comment on your outfit like that. I am not that much older than my student workers and whenever I dress up in anything approaching business proper they think something's gone wrong. (I have one black suit and the one time I wore it they thought I was going to a funeral.) Our college is, obviously, quite low-key. On the other hand, if I don't wear clothing that reads as business casual (i.e. tailored jeans but with a scarf or pin; a skirt with taller boots-- very much along the same lines as your outfits) then the professors I speak to assume I am a student at the college instead of a staff member. As a graduate student at one of the big English universities, the culture went substantially more towards well-dressed and formal; the one time I wore gym clothing to the library to pick up a book I got a number of stares and raised eyebrows. On the other hand there was still a great bit of variety in execution, there were just no sweatpants at lectures. It is more important to me right now that I be seen as a competent member of the staff than to match the more-casual older members of my department.

If the men in your department ever wear khakis and a button-up shirt or anything more elaborate on the fashion ladder, you are absolutely not breaking some sort of department milieu. Just because your chair might be more used to the male spectrum of fashion doesn't mean you have to resort to pants to fit in, if they make you less confident. It seems like perhaps he's simply unaccustomed to business casual options for women, and is overreacting to your personal style.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:04 PM on March 21, 2012

I this is department-specific (and outside of academia, office-specific).

Of course that's an inappropriate comment and he was being curmudgeonly, but it's also very possible that he and others form impressions of you based on how you present yourself. If you dress noticeably above how your colleagues dress, they will notice this.

People make judgments about things they notice, and where personal recommendations matter so much, people's judgments matter. It sounds like your department chair's is negative. I would quietly find out what other people think -- most importantly, your advisor.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:10 PM on March 21, 2012

I was in academia. For a grad student in the departments I was in, OP would be considered slightly over-dressed. Hell, for a professor she'd be considered uber- fashionable (not negative, but she'd stand out). The only time anyone has ever cared to make a statement on the fashions of grad students, in my experience, is when it was linked to departmental culture; that is, this person doesn't seem to be fitting in, and sometimes hygiene, fashion, and comportment were mentioned as reasons why. Group norms, and all that.

I'd love to say that looking nice isn't going to hold you back, but one of my mentors in grad school told me straight up that my youthful looks were going to be a problem -- not a big problem, but a problem. She was right. It's not the reason I'm not in academia anymore, and my anecdote is not meant to discourage you from dressing whatever way makes you feel comfortable, confident, and capable. Just be forewarned are probably always going to be people who don't get it, don't respect it, don't like it, whatever. It's kind of up to you what norms you're willing to conform to, I guess, and when.

There will also, always, be people who cheer you on, think you look great, and wish they had the guts to dress that sophisticated in what is normally a (potentially overly) casual scene. I'm one of them.
posted by sm1tten at 5:18 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have had older male professors tell me this too. I have also had other male profs tell me that I should wear skirts more often. I have had them tell me I need to try to look older to get more respect from students. I have told them I need to try to look younger so that senior people will want to help and mentor me. In some fields, in some universities, academics police the shit out of women's dress choices.

You have to ignore them as much as possible.

It is possible that your prof's advice might be correct if you are applying for a job in the department you are currently in. Our dept recently hired someone who gave his job talk in bare feet and a torn t-shirt and were deeply suspicious of the guy who showed up in a suit. On the other hand, they gave another job to a woman who dressed extremely chicly and wore makeup, and one person in the department even commented that she was glad the "best turned-out woman" of the candidates got the job, because "if you put that much care and attention into your appearance and have understood the unspoken rules of femininity then you are clearly a thoughtful person with insight and attention to detail in general."

The point is, you can never know exactly what will be "right" in terms of dress and appearance in academia. The best you can do is to either (a) try to figure out what the department culture is where you want to work, and try to emulate that or (b) do your own thing and tell everyone to fuck off out of your business.

I think the latter is more satisfying.
posted by lollusc at 7:13 PM on March 21, 2012

Your department chair, who is male in a mail-dominated field, doesn't understand that women in male-dominated fields often dress a notch up to help being taken seriously. It's sexist and unfair, but like you say, it makes you feel grown-up and more confident.

Except in this case, she is clearly not being taken seriously. Also, dressing to make yourself feel more grown-up and confident, if it's seen as over-dressing in context can, paradoxically, make you seem immature and insecure. (I work in a lefty non-profit, for example, where people signal their commitment and professionalism by wearing old jeans and political t-shirts, no joke. Only the secretarial and administrative staff dress business casual.)

I think you should just keep your eyes open and get a sense of the culture in the department. If the norm is a little schlubby, then obviously you are going to stand out. It's up to you whether you care about that. Your chair might be a jerk, but what he's told you is useful information.

Clothing signals all kinds of things about belonging and status. I think people should dress how they want to, but it's always good to know what the consequences of that might be--even if those consequences are the result of irrational, sexist, backward, old-fashioned social mores. Always better to be going against the grain on purpose than out of ignorance.
posted by looli at 9:45 PM on March 21, 2012

I may be taking this differently than most, but I would interpret this comment as nothing more than a sarcastic/ironic insider reference to an acknowledged norm - a gruff/elitist way of saying "aha, fancy shmancy, not goin with the flow here are ya!" but at the same way not necessarily a critique... If that makes sense. I would have responded in kind with something pointedly lighthearded, sarcastic or witty - the Oscar Wilde quote mentioned above would suit perfectly.

When I was an undergraduate, my departments (English and Political Science) were mostly full of very casual, eccentric, checkered-converse-and-suede-blazer types. My friends and I would joke that we could identify serious students of different majors in the rec areas by their clothes, and it was mostly true.

One time I was taking a seminar course with a similarly curmudgeonly/inappropriate professor; during a chat he once mentioned that he had been "pleasantly surprised" that I was actually "smarter than I looked." I inquired oh, I come off a dunce then do I? He said oh well, you know, you just look like "one of those girls." I presume he meant the fact that I was young, blonde, wore makeup and dressed somewhat contemporary. I literally laughed out loud, and responded: "you have no idea that I actually consider that a compliment though, see; I work in retail (grimace) and have been trying to pass as "one of those girls" for YEARS. I never realized I was finally succeeding!"

This resulted in a raised eyebrow, a gruff chuckle, and an odd sort of student-teacher camaraderie that lasted the remainder of the year. Sometimes you just have to brush it off with a certain flair... Just try not to take yourself (or your style) too seriously.
posted by celtalitha at 11:29 PM on March 21, 2012

So much food for thought here, thank you everyone!

A couple small follow-up points in case anyone else is still stopping in to comment:

I'll ask the one long-established female professor in the department to give me her honest feedback.

The people most likely to compliment me on my style are my fellow female grad students -- I believe these comments to be genuine, and these young women are by no means schlubs themselves. My statement about "a notch above the average person" was actually intended to refer to something more like "the average person at the grocery store on the way home". I still fall at the polished end of the scale, but I don't think I stick out like a sore thumb except maybe in my fondness for heels.

As a point of comparison, the male student sitting next to me at the time was wearing a shiny silver paisley vest under his black suitcoat. I assume this didn't merit comment because his otherwise-formal black suit had tan suede elbow patches on it (I am not making this up!).

My style is actually already the result of an attempted compromise -- left entirely to my own tastes I would dress like Joan Holloway all the time :)
posted by ootandaboot at 11:34 PM on March 21, 2012

I am an academic and I wear a lot of weird clothes and have done throughout my career. (weird = lots of vintage/thrift, trendy, formal, whatever I feel like wearing, from skinny jeans and platform shoes to full 70s brocade dresses). I have gotten all kinds of comments on my clothes in every office I've ever worked in, both in and out of academia, and I don't think it has hurt my reputation one bit. The idea that a single comment means that you are not being taken seriously is unfair. I wouldn't worry about it and continue dressing however you want. I do agree, however, that more academics are low-key, frumpy, or quirky than biz cas/stylish dressers. (My mentor, who is hugely successful, dresses like she's going to Burning Man and it's just seen as one of her quirks.)
posted by alicetiara at 10:01 PM on March 22, 2012

Well, as a student in some sciences I could see where dressing too nicely would be a negative thing. Short skirts aren't going to be safe in a chemistry lab, and you can't scurry up a rock face with your rock hammer in heels, and you can't throw on your hip waders to take a sample of that slime in the middle of the lake... So, even though those activities may not be taking place on a daily basis, looking like you're not actually ready to do those kinds of things might be bad. But if you're inside a school building all day, and it sounds like you are, skirts and heels really aren't of any practical concern like that. So he's probably just intimidated because it actually looks like you've got your shit together.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:46 AM on March 31, 2012

Are you doing any teaching? One win/win approach might be to reply, "Sadly, some students ("especially from the X school" where "X" is the school your department hates) seem to take me more seriously when I dress more professionally."

It might be a moment to bond by shaking your heads together at undergraduates. It might open his eyes just a bit to the double-standards women have to deal with in academia without pointing the finger straight at him.
posted by straight at 10:22 AM on July 20, 2012

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