The Fashion Magpie Academic Style


I had a lovely note from a fellow alumnus of Georgetown University’s Graduate Program in English Literature the other day, and she ended it with the following query:

“Clothes are often on my mind, but dressing for an academic audience has been a particular concern lately as I face the horrors of the academic job market. Right now, I am a visiting assistant professor, but I will be going on a campus visit for a tenure-track position this January. I am looking for an outfit (or several!) that suggests bookish but sophisticated and does not compromise style in favor of academic frumpishness (bleh!). I also struggle with looking my age; I’m 31, but could probably pass for 22 or so (probably, in part, because people mistake petiteness for youth– not a real problem, I know, but one that can be annoying when trying to “act the part”).”
I loved this inquiry, as I contemplated a life in academia at one time.  My abbreviated response is below:
“My first thought was that — were I in your shoes — I would probably dress very similarly to how I dressed when I was in the throes of running my business.  My husband and I called it “the entrepreneur’s uniform”: dark wash jeans, a blouse/button-down (currently lusting after this and this, though a staple like this gets a LOT of wear — I own it in white and black! — and don’t be afraid of the old Canadian Tuxedo a la this, which can make quite a statement when paired with tidy flats), and a crisp blazer (J. Crew has some great ones, though I aspire to own a Veronica Beard), paired with statement-making shoes — depending on how far you need to walk across campus, a chic driving loafer in a bright color or a crisply pointed flat in an awesome print, or a flashier mule?  I feel as though the dark wash jeans project youth and approachability, the blazer says “I’m here to work,” and the shoes and blouse say, “I also have a point of view.”
If jeans aren’t right for the classroom/for your meetings and interviews, reach for a dress in a bold print or with an unusual detail — like a flared sleeve or a zipper down the front or a midi length (I have a red shirtdress just like this that I never cease to get compliments on) — basically, something that reads: “I have a perspective.”  Avoid monochromatic sheath dresses!
I also immediately thought of DVF.  I own a small fleet of her dresses, which are perfect for nailing the professional but artsy/chic vibe, and they never go out of style.  I love this and this.  Both would work with black tights and booties (dying over these, but these are good lookalikes) in the winter or a simple cap-toe flat in the fall.  Alternately, something like this would be fun with a huge statement necklace.  Finally, this is very Jackie O. and would look fetching with some pointed toe flats (I still wear these all the time, but I also love these).
I guess when it comes down to it, I would use the start-up world or the art gallery world as points of inspiration — don’t be afraid to dress “sharp casual” (imagine you’re the CEO of a company — project that confidence mixed with casualness as you amble across the academic lawn to give an epic lecture wearing a pair of flashy shoes and perfectly-fitted jeans!) or artsy in colorful print.  I would avoid anything that could look childish — sneakers, t-shirts, jean jackets — and pay attention to cut (nothing too slouchy or baggy — you want to look tailored).”
I marinated on this for the next few days, pondering what specifically I might wear to an important academic interview/campus visit.  The truth is, you should wear whatever makes you feel the most confident — the best advice I received from a public speaking coach I had before delivering a talk in front of several hundred attendees at a conference a few years ago.  I typically feel most empowered in a well-cut, feminine dress and a pair of statement flats or heels.  (I prefer the look of heels, but would hate to be wobbling along behind a professor around cobblestone streets.)  To that end, I went on an imaginary shopping spree and came up with the following list of possibilities:
+This floral shirtdress — the print is loud and fun, but the cut ladylike and demure.
+For spring/summer, I love the subdued drama of this shirtdress.  The buttons and sleeves make a major statement, but the cut of the dress is pure elegance.  This dress achieves a similar effect, but is probably a bit too short for a professional encounter.
+This — it has a ladylike Oscar de la Renta vibe to it.  Tone it down with some pointed-toe flats.  You’d need to really feel out the environment before going for a statement piece like this — but if you feel it’ll fly, this would be a knockout.
+This patterned dress.  Tucker has a bunch of great prints that nail the look for less.
+This, with statement flats.


  1. I just left academia (best decision ever), but when I was on the job market – and on the other side, when I was on hiring committees – conservatism was key. Obviously, this depends on your field (I was in education), but I’d caution against any statement pieces. A simple skirt suit with maybe a fun blouse or accent jewelry – a clean professional look, especially if you get mistaken for younger (which I often was). YMMV, of course, but many academic circles are still sartorially on the more boring side – plus, you don’t want to draw attention away from your interview. Good luck!

    1. Great points — to R.B. — please read above ^^. I feel like there may be more latitude in the Lit Professor domain (it’s just an arm’s reach away from art/art history, and…well, if you don’t have an eye for style there…?!), but erring on the side of caution if you’re unsure makes complete sense.

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