Whenever I think about how university faculty members "should" dress, I remember a story that my maternal grandmother, Josephine Muscenti, told me about Guy Rossetti. Before his too-young death, Guy was a professor and then vice president of academic affairs at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. The Rossetti and Muscenti families were close, living near each other in western Pennsylvania, where they had arrived at roughly the same time from the same mountain hamlet in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Guy was the eldest of the Rossetti children. Toward the end of his life, Guy was in my grandmother's neighborhood and stopped by her house to say hello after work one day. I imagine that they drank coffee from her Corelle coffee mugs at the dinette table in her kitchen with the bowl of plastic fruit on it. But I know that at some point my grandmother complained about a problem she was having with something in the crawlspace under her house.
"I'll take a look at it," Guy said. Guy then went out to his car, opened his trunk, and pulled out a mechanic's jumpsuit, before proceeding to pull it on, right over his suit. He fixed the problem in the crawlspace and returned his jumpsuit to the trunk of his car, without so much as wrinkling his slacks. I have always loved the mental image. Now that I myself am in academe, I love the image even more. I love the juxtaposition that I imagine occurred when a university vice president covered his suit, the symbol of white-collar work, with a tradesman’s jumpsuit, literally covering the one with the other before proceeding to get his hands, but not his suit, dirty while helping out an old family friend.
When my grandmother told me the story about, Guy I had not yet begun grad school, and at the time was working for the federal government. My grandmother didn't tell me the story because she thought I would appreciate the image. She told me the story because she thought I should wear a suit more often. Why didn't I wear suits to work, she wanted to know. To her immigrant sensibilities, a suit symbolized success. It symbolized not having to engage in manual labor. It symbolized that her sacrifices on behalf of my mother and my mother’s subsequent sacrifices on my own behalf had paid off. Her point in telling me the story about Guy was that if Guy could wear a suit into a crawlspace, then I could wear a suit to the office.
At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to my grandmother’s unsolicited sartorial advice, but I found myself thinking seriously about matters of dress when I began my tenure-track appointment. I decided to err on the side of overdressing. I began wearing coats and ties to campus. And in short order I found that I enjoyed it; that what I had avoided for so long made me feel professional. I almost always wear a tie on days when I teach. (Although, I have to admit that even this is a compromise with my former nature. On days when I'm not teaching and don't have any meetings I usually slink into my office in a T-shirt and baseball cap, and one colleague has joked that on those days it’s like I've gone undercover as a student.)
I don't usually wear suits to work, but I'm no vice president of academic affairs either. As a professor, it would probably come off to some people as pretentious if I wore a suit to work each and every day. Some people might even think that the tie is pretentious. Perhaps that's not the case at some other types of academic institutions. For me, wearing a pressed shirt, sport coat, and tie is a way of projecting respect for my job, and respect for my students. It's a way of saying to my students and to my colleagues, "I take you seriously, I take my work seriously, and I don't take either for granted."
Some readers may think I'm going a bit overboard here. After all, many of us have been attracted to academia in part by its (seeming) eschewal of corporate values, and precisely because we don't want to participate in the cultural rituals — like strangling ourselves with neckties — that govern corporate life. I realize that. But at the same time, I know that many faculty members also lament what they perceive to be the reduced stature and respect for teachers and academics across broader American culture. I don’t know if, for a fact, academics are actually less highly regarded in our country than they once were. Maybe some smart social scientist could find a way to measure that. But I do know that many of us perceive that to be the case. Dressing like professionals, as Type-A and squarely pro-establishment as that may sound, is a step towards projecting the image of professionalism that many of us crave, and that we earn each day when we conduct ourselves professionally. Image matters.
Other readers will be quick to point out that men have it relatively easy. Slacks, shirt, coat tie, and done. Whereas for women, the choices of professional attire are far more various, and the boundaries between professional and casual wear are frequently much harder to distinguish. Those readers are right. It isn't one bit fair. Men have it easier in this regard. We have all inherited our conventions of dress from tradition, and the tradition in this case isn't fair. Also unfortunate is that women seem to be judged more harshly than men typically are when it comes to matters of dress. That too is unfair. But I think that the case for dressing professionally applies to everyone just the same, and to young male and female professors who are trying to establish themselves as professionals it especially applies.
I'll also be the first to admit that matters of dress are superficial. But in some cases, like this one, superficial matters matter. I believe that if academics want to be regarded and treated as the professionals that we so definitely are, then we need to return a bit to playing the game. We need to project an image of professionalism that is recognizable to the rest of our culture. When you show up to teach a class, to fulfill the responsibilities of a job that you probably worked very, very hard to get, and that a lot of other people would love to have, you need to project professionalism. There are many ways that we project professionalism, and dress is one of them. I’m not even arguing that professors should dress conventionally or conservatively. I’ve known a number of professors over the years who make a point of dressing quite unconventionally, but they are always natty, dapper men and women. So they still look like the professionals that they are, while maintaining their senses of individuality.
In my own field of rhetoric, it’s widely understood that the images we project through our writing, speech, mannerisms, and dress play a critical role in how we and our ideas are received by the people that we work with, the students that we teach, and the community members with whom we interact. I think that junior faculty especially, but all faculty, need to ask themselves, as shallow as it may sometimes seem, "What image am I projecting?"