What Should You Wear?

Brian Taylor

February 01, 2002

Question (from "Renee"): I'm a female biologist, and an adjunct in a department where the male science profs dress like standard academic geeks (T-shirts, baggy pants, running shoes), but the women dress more formally. I try to blend in with them, since I want to be one, but a three-hour lab in a skirt and heels is killing me. I also hate having to wear expensive clothes while I dissect a frog. But I'd rather get on the tenure track than foment a revolution. Is there anything I can do?

Question (from "Zena"): I'm a grad student in management at "North Coast State," aiming for an academic career. I'm also a butch dyke (my preferred term), and I absolutely refuse to wear makeup, skirts, or any other "ladies' wear" endorsed by the patriarchy. Thus I wear my one custom-tailored, double-breasted suit, oxford button-down shirts (but no tie, except on dates), and loafers. Will I have job problems?

Question (from "Mrs. Hobo"): My hubby, back in grad school after 15 years, is a sartorial horror. He teaches in faded jeans with torn knees, or bloodstained hockey jerseys, or smelly Motley Crue T-shirts. He's an adjunct, which is like auditioning every day, but he won't believe that image and "fit" do matter. Someone who's too scruffy to be brought to dinner with bigwigs won't make it, and I know this isn't the time for "I'm messy, disheveled, and don't look professional, but get over it, I gotta be me!"

Answer: Oh, the vexed problem of what to wear. "Do I look fat?" and "Does this make my butt look big?" -- the fashion questions that real people ask -- seem so very simple, compared with the academic desire to be employed, comfortable, and scholarly, without somehow selling one's soul to Yves Saint Laurent who, having recently announced his retirement, no longer wants your soul. Alas.

Most new and wannabe academics have settled the "What to wear" question for job interviews. At last month's Modern Language Association convention, Ms. Mentor found herself in a roiling sea of graveyard green, deadly black, and toad brown. Of course job candidates do not want to risk being risqué or flamboyant, and they do not want spilled coffee to show on their clothes. Yet Ms. Mentor does wonder whether creativity can survive among people who look like they are cloning each other. Often she could not tell the women from the men. This can be liberating or dispiriting.

Ms. Mentor no longer insists, as she once did, that women candidates will do better if they wear dresses or skirts -- preferably long, so that they needn't worry about revealing Victoria's secrets. But women interviewing at conservative religious institutions may assume that pants will be frowned upon. Tattoos and piercings may also be turnoffs, but a spot of color -- yellow on a tie, a turquoise pin, a red scarf -- makes a candidate memorable. Senior professors sometimes sport electric-blue polyester suits or skirts made of men's ties -- but those are only for the eccentric, secure, and tenured.

Ms. Mentor's correspondents don't yet qualify for that.

Renee, however, has good political instincts. She knows to take her cue from those in the job she'd like to have, and she knows that a fashion revolution can't be started from below. She may even be worrying too much -- for high heels can be risky in labs, and rare are the science bosses (mostly men) who even notice whether a woman's suit is vintage, chic, or cheap. But lucky Renee needn't really start a revolution, for the dignified, professional, and always-in-style garment already exists. "Hie thee to a lab coat," Ms. Mentor advises, "and worry no more."

Zena sounds more sure of herself, but she, too, knows that clothing can make the woman. Can she wear her tailored man's suit everywhere? Probably, if she stays within the Northeast and the West, and especially in big public institutions. But if her job nibbles come from smaller schools or the more conservative Midwest and South, then Zena may have to choose: "My clothes -- or my career?"

Hobo, meanwhile, seems to be traveling down a rapidly narrowing road, for people do indeed make snap judgments based on dress. Hobo, oblivious to the campus culture, will come across as unserious, undisciplined, and uncooperative -- deadly deterrents to getting good recommendations and mentorings. His unmade-bed look may also harm his teaching, for if students are snickering at his shirts, they're not listening to his palaver. He is catering mightily to himself.

Ms. Mentor does not mean that anyone should slavishly follow the fashion sense of the entrenched faculty, but "I gotta be me" can mean "My self-esteem, which is dependent upon my clothes, is far more important to me than getting hired in a career for which I've been training for some 20 years."

Ms. Mentor would rather just put on a skirt.

Question: I was offered an interview and then it was retracted, supposedly because of a hiring freeze. This is outrageous. What can I do about it?

Answer: Nothing.

SAGE READERS: Ms. Mentor's mailbox froths with mid-winter grievances. Yes, they are treating you unfairly and unkindly. Yes, there are not enough jobs, and yes, it is wrong that so many senior professors are not mentoring their students. But no one stops students from forming their own writing and study groups and mentoring one another. Ms. Mentor urges her readers to think, "What can I do?" rather than, "They victimized me again." In this life, we control only our own actions.

Ms. Mentor also reminds correspondents that her specialty is exposing the secrets of academic culture -- gossip, feuds, insider language, power plays. She will not advise you about bureaucratic or mundane matters, such as deadlines and negotiations, nor will she be your personal search engine for information about salaries (yes, you are underpaid. Who is not?). But you will improve your life, and placate Ms. Mentor, if you check her archive and use your own research tools. Ms. Mentor is not your mama.

Nor is she in charge of student evaluations, about which she has been receiving many a melancholy tale. Adjuncts have been thrown to the wolves over a few percentage points; even tenured faculty members are being browbeaten to raise their scores. She welcomes more anecdotes and especially success stories (if there are any). Anonymity is guaranteed, and details are scrambled to conceal the stellar teachers as well as the ... emerging ones.

Ms. Mentor rarely answers letters personally, but she endeavors to cover most themes eventually. She will not open attachments, and she will not be rushed. She is the soul of dignity and discretion.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle. Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press by calling (800) 445-9880.