Professional Dress: The Suit-speriment

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about a little experiment my colleagues and I conducted regarding professional dress. To recap, many of the graduate students in the University of Maryland’s ethno/musicology division have teaching responsibilities, and we were noticing an increased discussion about what we wear while teaching classes and taking classes. The idea of business-casual attire had come up a number of times, and I wanted to know what would happen if we all dressed in such clothes for two weeks, although some kept the experiment going a bit longer.


Professional attire is something I remember first thinking about before attending my first SEM conference.  I remember looking for some advice on what to wear, and I came across a funny, thoughtful, and helpful blogpost by Savage Minds (The link is currently down but their post “Conference Chic or How to Dress like an Anthropologist” is worth a read).  As some people may be traveling over the summer for conferences, I thought it would be good to address our experiences from the project.

Eight of us participated in all (seven are pictured above). Here are a few of our initial observations about wearing more “professional” attire: what that meant to each of us, how we achieved it, how it changed our routines, and how we felt during the process. In the coming months, I will share some of our other experiences from this suit-speriment.

1.) “Professional dress” is anything but uniform.

Each of us took the experiment in a slightly different way, beyond having to ramp up our level of business-casual-like attire. Particularly for the women who participated, figuring out what “business casual” even means was a challenge. Rachel (musicology PhD) did a web search for business-casual attire for women before beginning and noticed that meaning varied widely from website to website.

I decided to wear suit jackets and pants throughout the experiment, but I wore fairly informal shirts underneath at times. Hyunjin (ethnomusicology PhD) wore more collared shirts but sometimes opted for a sweater jacket. Nate (ethnomusicology PhD) wore bow-ties on several occasions. Most everyone stayed away from jeans and many wore a good number of collared shirts, but there were some varying ideas of what it meant to dress “professionally” for an ethno/musicologist. 

2.) We all tried to prevent too many repeat outfits.

All of us applied different tactics to make sure we had “enough” clothing to wear new and varied things throughout the experiment. Some students, like Nate, had acquired a business-casual wardrobe from previous jobs, so he found the transition to be pretty smooth. Rachel looked carefully at her own wardrobe to put together pieces that worked cohesively and within a more professional frame than she had dressed in previously. Anne (musicology MA) noted that she was able to put together enough outfits for two weeks but going over that would have been challenging.

Victor (ethnomusicology MA) and I went shopping at a thrift store after the first week to pick up some extra clothes. By his own admission, Victor didn’t necessarily think much about clothing prior to the experiment and wanted to have some spare, matching components for outfits. Both of us felt that we could use some more “professional” wear, beyond the two week period, for future conferences and teaching.

Overall, variety was a concern many of us had, perhaps because previously we were able to mix and match more casual pieces with more formal ones, and now our casual clothes had become weekend-only.

3.) Freedom to dress as you want is underrated.

When we were discussing how it felt to make choices about clothes, one participant said, “I started getting irritated that other people didn’t have to follow that rule too,” which resonated with me—I remember feeling a bit jealous of my colleagues who were coming to class in t-shirts and jeans. Nate noted that his biggest takeaway was from this was how great it is to be able to throw on whatever we want (something that we can do most of the time in our particular learning/teaching environment) and go to campus.

The idea of a “professional” wardrobe is an interesting one to me. While we approached this project in a fairly light-hearted way, considering practical issues when wearing different kinds of clothes, there are, of course, a lot of serious issues at play here: the fact that the professional ideal often comes from the business world, that suits and all their components can cost quite a bit of money (making them harder to access for people with less income), that there are less suit companies making clothes specifically for women, and so on.

In general, I think many of us do not want to contribute so much to the structures at play; we want to wear clothes that destabilize such hierarchical systems. But at the end of the day, we still exist in such systems. For me, I don’t think of clothes as being that important, which leaves me with two contrasting questions: “Why does what I wear indicate how professional I am?” and “Why not wear certain clothes if others will see me as more professional in them?”

How our professors, students, and colleagues reacted to our suit-speriment is the subject of another blogpost.

How much do you think about how you dress on a day-to-day basis? What do you find to be the norms for academic wear in our field? Are these things we should be disrupting, or things that we should be embracing? I would love to hear your comments and experiences.



2 thoughts on “Professional Dress: The Suit-speriment

  1. Alice,
    Great sociological work!

    But I feel like you didn’t really comment on the fundamental question of the experiment: How did dressing affect your behavior and other people’s perception of you. Isn’t that really the question? Did you act differently when you dressed in a suit compared to a t-shirt and sweats. Personally, when I don’t shave, and don’t wear decent clothes, I’m more prone to several things: getting on a train and riding like a hobo, writing a song in the style of Leonard Cohen, becoming an ethnomusicologist, joining a militia, etc.


  2. Interesting topic to think about in the context of graduate school. I never tried to dress business casual, but I did make the rule for myself to never wear jeans. I especially tried to look more professional on the days that I taught, because I think it’s important to look respectable in front of your students if you expect them to respect you as a teacher.

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