If you are going to interview at the Modern Language Association this week, let me congratulate you on making the first cut in a tight market; you are obviously doing something right. I'm sure by now your graduate placement coordinator, your dissertation adviser, or some trusted mentor has coached you on the MLA interview uniform: dark suit, dress shirt or blouse, dress shoes, and a tie for men or understated jewelry for women. Seriously, you can tell who is interviewing at MLA by what they are wearing. The "MLA uniform," I have come to believe, is actually a good thing when executed properly.
It would take a lot of imagination for anyone to think of me as a fashionista. My main criterion for deciding what to wear on a daily basis is comfort. As I’m writing this, I am wearing a sweater I have had since the last millennium. But as the 2011 interview season kicks into high gear, I am consistently amazed at how many women I have seen who ignore the unofficial -- yet sacred -- MLA interview dress code, only to their detriment. How is it that so many smart women make dumb decisions when packing for the MLA?
Maybe men simply have an easier time with the whole clothing thing because they have fewer choices. Once a boy outgrows those adorable little sailor suits (that some mothers, not mentioning any names, insist they wear much longer than is really appropriate), a suit for a boy of 10 looks very much the same as a suit for a man of 30: pants, shirt, jacket, and tie. There are no variations on this theme. Some men may change up the color of the tie or shirt, but even a whimsical tie or a pastel shirt will not throw off the interview uniform. As long as he wears the basics, a man’s clothes will be an utterly unremarkable part of the interview.
Women, on the other hand, are in a completely different boat. It would be truly odd to see a girl of 10 in a businesslike pants suit. I’m not even sure if you can find such a thing (which is an interesting commentary on gender roles on our society, but that is a different column). For a woman, putting together business attire involves just about as many choices as putting together her dissertation committee. And each choice is just as fraught. Unfortunately, I have seen many an otherwise competent and capable woman brought low by these daunting choices, and her resulting attire says all kinds of things I'm sure she is not intending.
I know, I know. Academics are supposed to be above superficial things like judging people based on appearances or clothing. But the sad truth is we aren’t; we are mundanely human. And according to a whole bunch of studies, the search committee will have judged you (and you, us) in the first 30-60 seconds we were all in the room together, so it may be useful to you, the interviewee, to know what messages your clothes may be telegraphing when you are desperately trying to ace the opening handshake.
Let’s start with your shoes. Anyone who has been to MLA knows that it is a big conference, and whether you are on a search committee, attending sessions, or interviewing, you are most likely going to be doing a lot of walking. In a city. Often in the cold (though not this year!). While it is certainly inappropriate to come in your Wellies, teetering into the room on heels that are as stable as a university’s endowment sends the message that you might not be a terribly practical person. What does practicality have to do with your ability to teach first-year composition or an introduction to American lit? Maybe nothing. But it does make me wonder how helpful you will be on a departmental committee that has to plan an assessment project, or if you can be counted on to perform the day-to-day service activities required of faculty. If you cannot make practical choices in footwear, how practical in daily, non-cerebral tasks will you be?
At the same time, if you wear your comfy Birkenstocks, I may admire your allegiance to comfort (see second paragraph), but I am going to wonder about your ability to pay attention to details and see projects through to the end. Shoes, they say, complete the outfit. Not wearing the appropriate shoes to an interview indicates that you haven’t thought through your outfit in a holistic way. Again, this may or may not have any bearing on your potential to turn your dissertation into a monograph, but I’m certainly thinking about all the balls a tenure track faculty member has to keep in the air and wondering how you’ll manage all those details, keep a record of them, and put them together after six years for your tenure file. I’m thinking about the multiple projects you’ll be asked to take on, trying to decide if you can see them through to the end.
While your shoes send subtle messages, your choice of suit (or lack thereof) can scream. The problem arises, I think, because women’s suiting is so unnecessarily complicated; I will try to simplify: unless you have a trust fund, or, unless graduate school has been your second career, you probably do not own the kind of suit you need for interviewing at MLA. Graduate students live in jeans and khakis and what can best be described as “business casual” for their really dressy days. For the most part, professors, too, dress the same way. Usually only high-level administrators walk around campus in actual business attire. What this means, ladies, is that you are going to have to go to a store -- or at least a department within a store -- that you have not been in before and look for an actual suit. The great thing about these stores (or departments) is that they have people to help you.
If you cannot afford a new suit, don’t fret. Seek out high-end consignment stores; seek out high-end friends who don’t mind lending; check out thrift stores (believe it or not, you can find some great suits there, sometimes). I’m not concerned with who made your suit; Adorno, Armani, whomever. But by whatever means necessary, get a suit! By far, the worst mistake you can make is not wearing an actual suit to MLA. Wearing a blazer and a skirt or pants does not mean that you are wearing a suit. Suit pieces are designed to go together; separates are, as the name implies, "separate." When you come to an interview in a fake suit, I wonder if you are taking the position at my college seriously. Are you thinking that this outfit is good enough for an institution like mine because it is not a research-intensive school? Are you saving your real suit for your first-choice institutions? Are you really on the market this year or is this just a practice run?
My questions about your sincerity may same way off-base, unfair even. You may have put a lot of time and effort into picking out your jacket and pants combination, and you may indeed be very enthusiastic about the position at my college. But why take that chance? The men you will be competing with will be wearing a bona fide suit, and these questions will be moot for them. (Indeed, the one and only time a man came to an interview wearing khaki pants and a blazer instead of a suit, I found myself having the same doubts about his sincerity.)
The most important quality of whatever suit you decide on is that it fits you: the sleeves are not too long, your jacket falls to just the right spot on your hips, your pants sit exactly where they should on your waist and break exactly where they should at your shoe, or, if you are wearing a skirt, it falls to a flattering spot just above or below the knee. Most likely, you are going to have to spend a little money on a tailor/seamstress. Plan for this expense in your MLA clothing budget. It really is that important.
Please don’t make me nervous for you to sit down because your skirt is too short or make me avert my eyes when you lean forward because your blouse is cut too low. I’m not a prude. If you feel comfortable wearing your skirts short or your blouses low, go for it, sister. But in an interview for a position where you are going to be in a classroom of mostly 18 to 21-year-olds, know that I am going to question your professional judgment. If you are making it difficult for me to concentrate on what you are saying.... Enough said.
At the same time, don’t go so far the other way that your suit looks like it was borrowed from your much taller and larger older sister. If your suit looks like it could double as a sleeping bag, I may not question your professional judgment, but I might wonder about your self-confidence. Are your trying to disappear into your clothing, hoping that I won’t see you in there? Does the sloppiness of your outfit carry over into other areas of your work life? Are you really using your suit as a sleeping bag to save money on a hotel room?
Picking the wrong shoes or clothing for an interview can undermine your candidacy before you get a chance to answer a single question. The suit is so important because when you are wearing the right one with the right shoes, I don’t notice it. If you walk into the interview looking like the consummate professional, I don’t question your professionalism. I don’t wonder if you are the kind of person who sleeps through her alarm clock, turns grades in late, or constantly forgets to write things on her calendar. Paradoxically, when you have taken the time to pull yourself together meticulously, your clothes fade into the background, and I pay much more attention to what you are saying rather than what your clothes are saying. The best-dressed at MLA are the ones whose clothes I don’t remember at all.
Melissa Nicolas is associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Drew University.