“The soul of a man is in his clothes.”

Shakespeare’s quote challenges us to consider – if not how much we judge others by the way they dress – how much first impressions count.

Is our dress sense an issue for the way others perceive our professionalism?

When I was a young teacher it was very fashionable to wear what was then known as ‘army surplus’ gear. I wore various combinations and shades of battle green shirts, baggy khaki trousers trousers with bulging pockets and bomber jackets. I thought I was the ‘bee’s knees’.  It wasn’t Paul Smith and I can’t remember drawing many compliments, but on the other hand I certainly didn’t get any complaints – no one ever suggested it was inappropriate dress code for a teacher in a school.

Recently I met a group of young new teachers at a teachers’ centre and the contrast was stark. Some looked as if they had come from attending first job interviews at the offices of international banks, while others looked as if they were dressed to hang out in Starbucks.

I am not for a moment suggesting the way people dress is linked to their competence to practise their profession, but perhaps we have entered an era where we can’t get away from superficial perceptions affecting our attitudes. Let me offer these scenarios as a way of reflecting on the issue of perception:

Imagine you are on trial for a very serious crime (you are innocent of course..!) but your long-term liberty clearly depends on the skill of the barrister defending you. You are about to have your first briefing meeting with him…

He walks in to the room wearing a Gap t-shirt and baggy, sagging pants clinging to his lower waist, a pair of trainers open at the laces and a reversed peek cap on his head.

Are you happy with this man representing you to a jury of your peers?

Here’s another:

You have an appointment to meet the surgeon who is going to discuss with you the highly complex and very delicate surgery she will need to perform to remove a tumour threatening your life.

She enters the consulting room – clearly having just come from her lunch-time gym session – wearing a leotard, tracksuit, leg-warmers and trainers.

Got any issues with that?

Tell me what they are then…


29 thoughts on ““The soul of a man is in his clothes.”

  1. I believe that it’s important for a teacher to appear different to the children rather than ‘down with the kids.’

    Teachers should have made an effort, be smart and presentable. That doesn’t always mean a suit, but ‘office casual’ at least. That reflects the profession as just that, a profession. I believe that is important if you want to have any sort of authority in what you are doing.

    1. Thanks for that LittleMissPip. But let me put another side to this: it’s summer time and very hot. You want to wear a top which enables you to work effectively and comfortably as, say a nursery or primary teacher – but it’s skimpy t-shirt which reveals your arms, shoulders and is also very low cut. Do you think your ‘authority’ is undermined by that choice?

      1. I don’t think anyone can pratically work in a low cut top – you are forever trying to protect your modesty! Plus you can still look professional in ‘vest’ tops if you dress it up right. I have a perception of primary and nursery teachers having a more relaxed relationship with their students anyway, coming from spending all day every day together rather than the couple of hours a week you get with secondary teachers. But I don’t have experience of that to back it up.

        In my opinion if 99% of the time you are in the professional attire, rare days when you are more ‘casual’ won’t much difference. On those really hot days for example, the school uniform may become relaxed as well (being allowed to take your ties off example), putting everyone in the same boat and changing the usual boundaries.

        Being seen out in town on the weekend in casual dress is an akward one as well as children see their teachers as real people – which of course they are not! 😉

  2. Alan, both of your scenarios are about meeting someone for the first time. In that kind of case wearing a suit is a sign that you’ve gone to a bit of trouble and are therefore taking the case seriously. But would you expect them to stick to the same dress code for every meeting?

    Apply that to a school context – would you take more trouble when meeting a new class for the first time? Then dress down a bit after youve established a rapport…

    Consider also the school uniform policy – you cant really turn up in a hoodie when the kids are all wearing jacket & tie can you?

    As far as your army surplus fashions are concerned, Alan, I reserve judgement until I’ve seen the photos 🙂

    1. Some good questions there David – but I’m still wondering whether dress codes are ‘work related’ or ‘relationship related’ (or perhaps both?) and while I take your point about rapport I’m not sure that ‘professionals’ can take their ‘clients’ for granted in assuming that once a more relaxed relationship has been established, they can ‘dress down’. Could the teacher in your example plausibly dress smartly while the relationship with the class is established and then one day start wearing a ‘hoodie’? I’m not sure…
      And as for photos of my ‘army surplus fashion’ days – those photos have all been long since burned…!

      1. When I say ‘dress down’ I wasn’t thinking of a hoodie – maybe just going without a tie for example. Think of ‘dress down Fridays’ at work. It’s a matter of fine judgement., and its possible to go too far in either direction.

        I remember we had one teacher who always turned up in a business suit & it was seen as a bit of a joke. However he got away with it because in other respects he was seen as pretty cool and able to establish a good rapport with the students.

      2. Thanks David. The whole idea of ‘Dress Down Friday’ is an interesting one… it reminds me of a scene from the Larry David show ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ where a guy goes to meet his lawyer to write his will and the lawyer greets him in slacks and an open neck shirt and explains it’s “Dress Down Friday”, to which his client replies: “In that case, it’s “Pay Down Friday” too..!”

  3. I always feel sorry for male members of staff when this argument hits the staff room. I generally go for comfortable but professional clothing – not suits, but skirt/trousers and a vaguely tailored type top/shirt rather than jeans/leggings and a t-shirt. As a female teacher that allows me to be comfortable whatever the weather, and it’s not difficult to stay cool without revealing too much flesh which I don’t think is particularly appropriate in any workplace. However in order to be considered ‘professional’ men tend to have a shirt and tie imposed on them, and I’ve heard plenty of stories of male teachers being told off for being just a little too casual (i.e. they weren’t wearing a tie) which I don’t think is at all balanced.

    I do think it’s only fair that we apply the same sort of standards to teachers as we do to students, but then I’m not a huge fan of restrictive uniform policies either…

    1. Thanks Mandared. Yes, ‘shirt and tie’ is an interesting example of perceived professionalism isn’t it? I’m reminded of the case of the (now) British Prime Minister David Cameron wanting to wear a smart, fashionable but open neck tailored shirt for his first appearance as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons. He was trying to express a certain image of course, but his ‘spin doctors’ soon warned him off that idea..!

  4. Alan you questions are ones that have caused many discussions and arguments, at least that I have experiecned. I believe that although there is some merit to the argument one must look partially professional, I strongly disagree with the notion or belief that there is a look for being a “Teacher”.

    I disagree for a couple reasons, but the most personal one is that regardless of the attire I am in, physically I do not fit what is seen as a “Teacher”, especially an elementary one. I either go from Gorilla in a suit, to bouncer to Oil Patch worker.

    In my humble opinion I believe that your duties and responsibilities during the day should dictate your dress. I would not expect a high needs/Special education teacher to dress the same as an high school English teacher, nor in the same attire as a Physical Education teacher. As with our students I believe that context should play a role in the decision you make every morning about what you are going to wear.

    1. Thanks Shawn – good comments, and I’m glad those questions have caused discussion and argument – in my view that’s the way we construct our values, so thanks again for your comments.

  5. As an English teacher who models himself on a cross between Dr Who, a victorian gentleman scientist and a Tom Ford model, I can safely say sartorial concerns are paramount.

    Yeah I’m exaggerating slightly there, but I do believe that what you wear is an important aspect of a finely crafted persona. As a teacher, you’re kind of a artificial, even though (paradoxically) your students see straight through to your core. As such, you have to realise that what you wear is more than image and actually a referrent for who you are. It sets the tone.

    Case in point, just today, I played a charity teachers basketball match at lunchtime, then had to teach a bunch of yr 13s period 5. I was in sweaty t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, when I’m usually in slim fit trousers, tailored blazer, bright shirt, tie and pocket square. The lesson sort of couldn’t get past it. I started them off, went to get changed, came back with coffee and my clothes on, and all was well.

    I realise I sound like a terrible clothes hourse here, but I’m not, I promise. My kids are used to it now, but I like to think my smart/ creative wardrobe approach is still a key aspect of my classroom managment. Pardon the facetiousness, but I’m basically 90% outfit.

    -Unseen Flirt

    1. Excellent post Unseenflirt – thanks for that.
      When I was a teacher people would ask me “Alan, what do you do for a living?” and I’d say “I’m a teacher.” “Really..?” people would say… “you don’t dress like a teacher…” and I’d say “Yes, I know… I spend a lot of money making sure I don’t dress like a teacher..!”

      1. Exactly! That’s the right attitude I think.

        I read somewhere that we should dress for the dress you want, not the job you have. The job I have is a slightly overworked, marginally underpaid deliverer of curricula, classroom administrator, mother, mentor and scholar. The job I want is a carefree inspirer of young minds. In some small way, my wardrobe helps realise this.

        ps: please excuse all the typos in my last post – been drinking.

        -Unseen Flirt

  6. Alan,
    Your question is one that I think about daily. I am a 23 year old male high school math teacher just starting in the profession (right now student teaching). I feel that I have to dress in a shirt and tie sometimes sport coat everyday just to set myself apart from the students. If I were to wear even a nice polo with khakis I would look to similar to the students. I have tried this a couple times this year of just wearing a polo or a nice long sleeve sweater without the shirt and tie underneath. The students barely recognized me at first and the respect and classroom management was affected. I have found that the most casual that I can dress now is in a nice pair of dress pants and a button up collared shirt without the tie. This is the lowest that I have been able to go in my wardrobe to maintain control of my classroom.

    I also feel that pre-service or first year teachers need to dress to impress the administration. Especially in the times that the U.S. is going through economically and teachers are being laid off by the thousands. If I was an administration and I had two new teachers both teaching the same subject and one of them came dressed in a shirt and tie everyday and the other came dressed in a t-shirt. I would personally be more inclined to keep the one dressed professionally if their practices were nearly equal. Even if the shirt and tie guy was slightly worse I would probably still keep him because it would give the school a better appearance that this is a place to learn.

    1. Dear Jacob, what a fascinating post – thank you for taking the time to write it. You raise a couple of really interesting aspects of this issue, first, your feeling that the students changed their own behaviour towards you as a result of the way you dressed and second, your own perception of the way others (such as new teachers you might employ yourself) might be perceived as representatives of the school. None of us want to “judge a book by its cover” – but it’s hard not to as the stakes get higher. Thanks again for your terrific post.

  7. I am inclined to agree with this – whilst I don’t wear a full suit every day, I never wear anything non-tailored (even my summer linen suits are tailored so they don’t look like beach clothes) Whilst for male teachers it can be a case of having to wear a shirt & tie, it might not be the worst thing in the world for there to be a stricter dress code for female teachers. My first placement was in a very strict Catholic school who had no qualms of laying down the dress code, and I didn’t have a problem with that. A lot of it had to with modesty, which is a problem a lot of schools seem to have with young student teachers.

    A lot of it also has to do with attitude of mind – on mufty days, I have always struggled more to retain my classroom presence. I think it all comes back to the students expecting us to be the teacher – they look for us to be set apart from them in appearance as well as behaviour.

    1. Thanks for that Mrs LEJ – it’s good post. It’s interesting the way some teachers think that students expect us to be “set apart from them in appearance as well as behaviour” and some teachers think the way to “connect” and establish good teaching relationships is to dress and communicate in ways that the students “identify with” (see some of my Twitter responses to this for example). I’m wondering… how much of our judgement on this depends on the social context of the school and it’s students? (to go back to your “strict Catholic school” point).

  8. If it’s any comfort kids always change behaviour on non-uniform days, regardless of what the teacher is wearing. I get the impression from students that they quite like their teachers to be a bit boring – not too fashionable or interesting, and not too weird either. I did visit one school that had no uniform at all, and the atmosphere of the place was spectacular – I’d love to work somewhere that clothes weren’t much of an issue, although I agree that some degree of modesty is appropriate.

    1. Hi Mandared, that’s interesting, but I’m a bit confused… on the one hand, you say you think the kids prefer slightly boring (dressed) teachers but the atmosphere in the non-uniform school you visited was spectacular…(?) Say more.

      1. I just think kids like the stability of knowing that their teacher isn’t going to surprise or disgust them by trying to be too fashionable – I get compliments from students when my clothes match well or have an attractive pattern, but anything slightly unusual and they just think I’m weird and don’t understand ‘fashion’ as well as they obviously do (hence ‘is that a blanket miss’ for my warm-looking skirt!) 😉 The non-uniform school that I visited had no uniform at all for the students, and most were in jeans. I don’t remember the teachers being dressed any differently from anywhere else that I’ve visited, but the whole atmosphere of the place was incredibly warm and welcoming – the uniform was definitely only a part of that, but it really did feel like somewhere that everyone was working together rather than anything being imposed from on high (although standards were very high and it’s a very well thought-of school). I like that as a general principle, not just for clothing 🙂

  9. After reading this blog it has got me thinking. Alan you said during the week that we are part of a profession. Surely that profession therefore requires us to dress for it. As teachers we want to be respected by the children we teach and also we want to give a good impression to parents.

    I recently visited a school and as I walked into each classroom the teachers were wearing very casual clothes and I had trouble identifying who the class teacher was, who the teaching assisstant was and even more worrying who a parent helper was.

    We need to make good relationships with children in the classroom but that does not mean we should dress in a way that is fashionable to them so they like us. Through my own experiences I have found that a teacher must keep to a style. I wore a scalf whilst teaching one day and for the first five minutes children spent their time putting their hands up to tell me they liked the giraffes on it.

    I think in the profession of teaching people should think closely about what they will wear. Clothes should be covering and smart in school but that does not mean we all need to walk in wearing a suit.

    1. Thanks for that Laurielou – you make a lot of very interesting points. As you say, the balance between dressing ‘to impress’ and dressing for ‘practicality’ is a careful judgment both for the ‘professional’ person involved in practising their work and for the way their ‘clients’ may perceive them. Good Luck with that one – and all the other things you will face in the coming months and years.

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