• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Dressing for Success … or Not

Too casual?

September 2, 2015

This week both my children and I go back to school. I’ve always liked the Back-to-School transition. I may sometimes complain about losing my summer, but in truth, the hustle and transition to the first days of school have invigorated me. As a young child, I loved the newness of everything: new pencils, a new lunch box (Scooby Doo, the Jetsons, Josie and the Pussycats), and, of course, new clothes. I loved especially our ritual of selecting the perfect first-day-of-school outfits.

My parents had always taught me the importance of first impressions, and our first day outfits were meant to convey both the respect we children had in presenting ourselves to our teachers and that we had parents who cared about how we left for school. Taking first day of school pictures in front of our house was our last ritual before we headed off. I have kept similar rituals in place with my children for our first days of school.

It is with some surprise and disappointment, then, that I have been looking at first day of school photos from my friends on Facebook in the last week or so. I’m glad to see the picture ritual hasn’t disappeared, and the kids look like they have new lunchboxes, but the clothes seem all wrong to me. The children look as if they are dressed for just another day of summer. Many are wearing tank tops, shorts, and T-shirts. In other words, they look ordinary. Did I somehow miss the bulletin that we have forsaken the first-day-of-school outfit? 

I’ve noticed this with my college students as well. They don’t exactly seem “dressed for success” as my mother would have said. They show up to class wearing tank tops, shorts, T-shirts, and sweats.  Have the millennials given up on impression management?

I polled my friends and colleagues and found that I seem to be the outlier here. Casual attire is the new trend. In fact, a friend of mine said that she’s noticed this trend not just at schools, but also in the workforce. She interviewed applicants for a job who looked like they were headed to the beach after the interview, flip-flops and all. She hired one of these casual dressers anyway because, despite their inappropriate attire, the candidate seemed perfect for the job. This problem is so pervasive that a website offering advice to job-bound millennials cautions them not to dress too casually for interviews.

Others have observed the too-casual attire elsewhere. Many blogs feature people complaining about the lack of formal dress in churches and synagogues. Even in jury duty, courts are sending people home for too-casual attire. I suppose we should expect this now that the first-day-of-school outfit is disappearing. Why would it occur to 18-year olds to dress up for an interview if they have never been taught to dress up for key transition events?

I’ve been trying to assess the root of this change. As a media scholar, I’m trained to be sensitive to how cultural shifts may be connected to shifts in media environments. As we are immersed within more social media, websites, and peer-to-peer networks, we are losing the conditioning of hierarchical structures. Is this now extending to clothing, where we no longer see our dress as a sign of respect to a superior or for our social status?

I would like to think that this trend indicates a lack of interest in fashion and more acceptance about what people wear, but I see no evidence of this. In fact, some parents have told me that their teenagers still want to dress cool and in new clothes for the first day of school, but they want to look as if they are not.

Certainly, I’m not going to argue for more emphasis on clothing and fashion. Anyone who has spent more than a day with me would recognize how hypocritical that would be (let’s just say I am not known for my keen fashion sense), but I would like to advocate for the importance of acknowledging dress for key events. I still think the “first day of school” should be one of those moments.

Therefore, in defiance of the too-casual trend, I am going to wear my own first-day-of-school outfit when I teach this week. My children will go off to school knowing that dressing up for the first day sends a signal that they recognize this is an important event, and that feeling should be connected to the time when they meet their new teachers. What you wear is an indication of how you feel about an event and the respect you have attributed to it. What have you observed about casual attire in your own lives?


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