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.
+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, with statement flats.