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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Clothes Make the Man

We’ve all heard the expression “clothes make the man.”  But do clothes also make the professor?  Especially if the professor looks young enough to be a student, or is female, or a person of color, or LGBT, or some combination of the above?  And am I the only one, at the start of yet another school year, thinking about this?

One of my favorite quotes from an article I wrote about appearance and the law, Cross Dressing and the Criminal, comes from Allison Lurie.  In The Language of Clothes, she wrote:  “For thousands of years human beings have communicated with one another first in the language of dress.  Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting, or at a party, you announce your sex, age and class to me through what you are wearing—and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires, and current mood.  I may not be able to put what I observe into words, but I register the information unconsciously; and you simultaneously do the same for me.  By the time we meet and converse we have already spoken to each other in an older and more universal tongue.”  

Given the importance of this first impression, am I the only one that obsesses at the start of the school year about what to wear on the first day of class, down to what color tie to wear?  And I’m curious.  Given that professors who don’t naturally look professorial—I think you know what I mean—often have to do extra work to command respect and authority, is it mostly those professors who worry about clothing and first impressions?  (In the extreme, are we the ones that take Rogers v. American Airlines and Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co. personally, and keep Dress for Success and its targeted variations in the back of our minds?) And here’s my final question.  I’m still relatively young, and I don’t like trousers with elastic waistbands.  As I get older, will I succumb and actually find elastic waistband trousers appealing?  Not that I have anything against waistband trousers . . .

Posted by Bennett Capers on August 20, 2009 at 08:44 AM | Permalink


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» Should Law Professors for Dress for Success? from ProfessorBainbridge.com
It's back--the annual start of school debate over what law professors should wear to class. Bennett Capers began the discussion, noting that: We’ve all heard the expression “clothes make the man.” But do clothes also make the professor? Especially if t... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 22, 2009 5:41:48 PM


I am someone who stresses over my appearance a lot so I can definitely relate. I was always one to show off my new outfit on the first day of school and I always try to wear name brand when I go anywhere. I am just very self conscious about that kind of stuff.

Posted by: Blake Daniel | Jul 29, 2019 3:36:47 PM

well, as I sit here in my Hawaiian shirt, jeans, checked Vans with no socks, pretty much the same outfit I wore to class a few days ago, I feel more whimsical than serious about this topic, but here goes. Back in the 1970's, when I was a brand new legal services lawyer, after I got to know my clients, I started to ask them what they thought about the different ways lawyers dressed. Some of them liked their lawers to dress formally, because that gave them confidence that the lawyers took their role seriously. Others (a majority) liked their lawyers to dress informally, because that made them more comfortable. Rarely did I find anyone who cared very much. Ultimately, I concluded that while what I wore did create a first impression, it was an impression that had a very short life, and a half-life that lasted only until I started talking. So, I continued to wear what I wanted, which included bright ties. Last semester, in court, I asked for a continuance before a very conservative judge (in style, not politics. He granted the continuance and, in a very serious tone, before a crowded courtroom, said, "and, for the record, that tie is awesome."

Posted by: Bob Solomon | Sep 4, 2009 12:57:24 PM

Oh, hell, just put together a 'uniform' of light blue and white lands end button down shirts, simple rep ties, and chinos - switching to cords in the winter - and decent navy and Harris tweed blazers (patches on the elbow of tweed blazer only when they're worn through - patches on a new one is declasse) and don't ever think about it again. Penny loafers.

Otherwise, wear suits good enough for a partner at a major law firm in your area.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Aug 24, 2009 7:40:23 AM

Agree with GJELblogger - a "form-over-substance" perspective is a more damning quality in a law professor than a rumpled appearance. The above posts read a little like a transcript of a workshop at a jury consultants conference, or a curriculum committee debate. What nonsense. The best teaching method, as a friend once put it, is the "triumph of content." That's all good students are interested in, and it doesn't matter what you say to bad students

Posted by: RJC | Aug 22, 2009 9:49:40 AM

What matters infinitely more than your dress is your ability to command the classroom from day one. The professors I respected in law school were often dressed casually, and would even invite students over to their homes for casual dinners or parties--they were very much our friends. But they also raised their voices when students were chatting or being disrespectful, and they told us what was expected from us--that we had to work hard and want to learn for their teaching to be effective.

I was also a teaching assistant for an undergraduate economics course when I was in law school, and I learned that students didn't care if I wore jeans and sweatshirts, as long as I knew the material and demanded that they pay attention and work at understanding the material themselves. So I guess I'd say from both the student and teacher perspective, clothing matters little compared to your presence in the classroom.

Posted by: GJELblogger | Aug 21, 2009 2:06:48 PM

Alafair, whether you have on a suit or a sweater, you always look great. That's the important thing. And to all, great comments. I'm especially curious to see how Dave's experiment with shorts and sandals turns out. If only I had a leg injury. . .

Posted by: Bennett | Aug 20, 2009 7:03:29 PM

Bennett, you work with me and therefore know that I long ago gave up my struggle to "look" professorial. With a closet full of clothes that now (non)suit me whether I'm teaching or seeing friends for dinner, it's hard for me to believe that when I first started, I actually wore pantyhose. I also wore suits, even though the only ones I owned had already fallen out of date in the two years I spent at a business casual firm between the courthouse and the classroom. I honestly don't know whether students think any less of me now that I wear sweaters and skirts, but I do think I'm a better teacher now that I've learned to incorporate my true personality, clothing and all, into the classroom.

Posted by: Alafair Burke | Aug 20, 2009 5:38:38 PM

My first move when I started teaching was to buy some new suits, and I wear them (without ties, because I hate ties) every time I teach in order to make clear how seriously I take the endeavor, and also to try to distinguish myself from the students. (Not that I'm offended when this happens, but I think the prof/student confusion can create overfamiliarity and lack-of-gravitas issues). Never having done it any differently, I've never had the opportunity to test whether teaching in suits makes any difference.

But this semester I've been forced into a test case. A leg injury will require me to wear a cumbersome brace for the next couple of months, so I'm going to have to teach in a polo shirt and (cringe) shorts and sandals. I'm really not thrilled about this, but I'm interested to see if being noticeably young _and_ casually dressed (albeit not by choice) makes some kind of impact. I'll report my findings in a few months...

Posted by: Dave | Aug 20, 2009 3:25:43 PM

When I go to conferences, at the hotel or even airport I often amuse myself (and try to amuse my companions) by playing "spot the law professor." This involves looking at folks I don't otherwise know or recognize and deciding that they are, in fact, law professors. While I don't always find out later whether I was right or not, in those cases where I do, I'm right far more often than not.

Still, I can't exactly define what "the look" is. Dress more business-formal than most folks (including, say, history or phiolosophy profs), but often not as formal as lawyers or actual business people. Something -- facial hair, hair style, jewelry -- not really formal, but not really counterculture or super-stylish. Some sartorial expression of the tension of looking serious/professional/dowdy and having the relative freedom of academia.

Let me stress, I'm no different. But there is a look, and I know it when I see it.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 20, 2009 3:15:20 PM

I discuss faculty attire in my book (The Organized Lawyer, Carolina Academic Press, 2009) because I think many students seek guidance on what attorneys "should" wear from their professors. There was also a great article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a year ago, entitled "Frump and Circumstance," which comically raised the very serious issue of a perceived division between style and substance in the academy. I don't mean to sound harsh, but I don't think it shows any degree of nobility to ignore one's appearance in favor of a sole focus on scholarly pursuits. I think it's possible -- and preferable -- to demonstrate a degree of effort in both. Also, this can be done on a budget and with minimal effort.

Posted by: Kelly Anders | Aug 20, 2009 2:27:39 PM

This brings to mind one of Twain's finest insights: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Some of the issues you consider, though in a broader sense not limited to the professoriate, are well and humorously discussed in Paul Fussell's "Class" and "Uniforms." For my first day of class, I go for the full-on suit and tie, cufflinks and tie chain, and freshly shined shoes. Sartorially, the class goes downhill from there in a sort of slow motion strip tease that, fortunately for all involved, stops at business casual. But I think it's unquestionable that first impressions are important, especially when teaching first years who are just building their schema for law school.

Posted by: David Cleveland | Aug 20, 2009 2:26:54 PM

This is something I've been thinking about ever since I started running into former classmates and finding that I can guess which ones of them have recently started teaching by their facial hair. It seems that nearly every young male new professor must at least consider the option of growing a beard. Since that wasn't an option for me, I went with a dowdy pearl necklace instead when I showed up to teach my first class as an adjunct last year. And not only did I agonize over what to wear that first day, I also planned out a way to put my wardrobe on rotation so I could be sure not to wear the same thing two classes in a row. Didn't help that I was dealing with hard-to-come-by maternity wear for most of the semester. Then again, nothing says "I'm probably at least a little older than you" than a pregnant belly, right?

Posted by: Lindsay Wiley | Aug 20, 2009 2:17:27 PM

Wonderful post.

I don't think anyone looks "naturally" professorial. It's almost a contradiction in terms. To cultivate a certain appearance -- just like cultivating a certain manner of interaction with one's students, colleagues, a particular manner of self-expression, and so on -- is to work at something entirely unnatural -- the behaviors, dispositions, and outward appearances of being a professor, as various as those may be. That's what makes it so wonderful and special -- it's artificiality, cultural embeddedness, and particularity (not to say its peculiarity). No one wants to see "natural" man (or woman) leading a class, and with good reason. What could be uglier?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Aug 20, 2009 9:24:05 AM

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