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DeWitt Scott received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.



Fashion and academia have never really blended together. Somewhere in the history of academia the notion arose that dressing fashionably, or even nicely, was not really important. Professors and scholars are notorious for being sloppy dressers who are too focused on the life of the mind and advancing their fields to put any care into how they dress. Any professor who gives attention to the details of his/her wardrobe risks being perceived as unserious or even narcissistic.

It is time to put this nonsense to rest. Professors who take the time to dress well are no less serious, intelligent, talented, or committed than the scholar who walks around campus looking as if he/she has just rolled out of bed. It is time for a new era. This journey in corrective dress can begin in graduate school. People often mistakenly believe that in order to dress well one must have large sums of money. Nothing can be further from the truth. Dressing in a way that says “I not only care about my appearance, but I care about the way I present myself to my students, colleagues, and constituents” can be a simple, cost-effective process.

Below are a few tips graduate students can consider to upgrade their professional wardrobes.  Unfortunately, as a male I only have insight on the male perspective of dress and wardrobe. I would be a fool to make suggestions about women’s appearance or dress when I have no experience in that area. These tips do not require a major adjustment to a student’s bank account or lifestyle, just a simple recalibration to the way one thinks about their clothing.

1. Give some attention to your hair. The particular hairstyle you sport is less important than your grooming and care of the actual hair. Taking an extra five minutes in the morning to attend to your hair is an investment that can pay significant dividends. Clean hair that is neatly groomed can send the message that you care about yourself and pay attention to details.  Having bed hair for the entire day is not some kind of virtue. Even if you have no hair, a nicely shaved head can do wonders. Even if the rest of your wardrobe is immaculate, disheveled hair can ruin the entire look.

2.  The thrift/resale shop is your friend. Brooks Brothers and Men’s Wearhouse are nice, but save those outlets for after graduation when you have secured your first job. While in graduate school, the thrift store can help you upgrade your wardrobe quickly and affordably. Thrift stores and resale shops often carry clothes that are previously worn but well-kempt. Often, the clothes are actually name-brand but are out-of-season or donated. Who cares? All that matters is the manner and confidence with which you wear them. Start with button-down shirts in white, light blue, classic blue, gray, and lavender. Follow with two pairs of khakis and two pairs of dress jeans.  There is not a need at this point in your academic career to stock up on suits. Just two simple sport coats (navy blue and charcoal) will do. Three neckties and a few pairs of dark socks should complete the wardrobe. With this combination of items a man can create at least 35 different looks. A radical estimate on thrift store price for the total of these items is roughly $40.

3.  Invest in an iron. The old hang-your-shirt-up-in-the-bathroom-while-you-shower method you mastered in undergrad should stay in undergrad. It is time to own an iron and put it to good use.  Irons aren’t expensive, but the most popular argument against using one regularly is “I don’t have time to iron every morning.”  Understood. A more efficient or effective procedure it to pick one evening per week (preferably Sunday) and iron all the clothes you intend to wear that week. Ironing five outfits can take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, so maybe you can do this while taking a break between writing or studying. Time spent searching for sufficient outfits on weekday mornings will be saved because you will have picked out everything on Sunday night. Saving time and saving yourself embarrassment from wearing crumpled jeans and wrinkled shirts make an iron a valuable resource.

4.  Wear a watch. It sounds minor, but I cannot overstate how significant this accessory is. A watch can say a lot about you. In today’s technologically advanced civilization no one actually needs a watch.  But having a watch signals that while you may embrace the new age, you still have respect for some traditional things. Even more impressive is if your watch does not relay the time digitally, which is almost eccentric these days. Wearing a watch can also be a modest way to enhance your wardrobe.

5.  Consider a shoeshine. Having your shoes shined is not as popular as it used to be, but I can personally attest to the wonders it can do for an outfit. Many of us wear our shoes until they deteriorate and then seek a new pair. I have learned that occasional maintenance can allow our shoes to last a lot longer and save money in the long run. You can choose to have them shined or you can shine them yourself. In either case, the upgrade to your wardrobe will be noticeable immediately. As far as cost, I have never seen a shoeshine that costs more than $4. One shine every 5-6 months is affordable and beneficial.

Small steps toward upgrading your wardrobe can go a long way in terms of how you are viewed, respected, and acknowledged in higher education. There are some accomplished scholars in the academic community who succeed at research and dressing. Be a part of the new wave and take a step in the right direction. Step your game up!

What are some recommendations you have for improving dress in academia?  Do you believe one can be a serious scholar and sharp dresser at the same time?  Why or why not?


[Image by Pixbay user Unsplash and used under a Creative Commons license]

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