The Teacher Wears Prada

(Sorry about the lame title!)

Have you ever worn a Halloween mask? A mask somehow changes your personality. It allows you an extra layer of reality to hide behind and therefore gives you the ability to change the typical actions that define you. In a way, it frees you from your inhibitions and can allow your true desires to arise. But, if you wear a mask for too long, do you become the mask – or does the mask become you?

I used to dress business-casual, with an emphasis on the casual. However, when I donned a nicer shirt, nicer pants and a tie I felt like I put on a costume, one which would allow me to “seem” more professional. I wore a professor costume. Like a Halloween mask worn for the first time, I was uncomfortably conscious of the metaphorical “noose” around my neck. However, as time went on, the clothes became more and more comfortable to the point where now, I prefer the “smart” look I have made my own. I feel that I not only project an air of professionalism (but not superiority!) but I also feel more professional, more serious (but not less fun!). And, I think my students sense this too. In fact, the other day, I dressed “down” – wore a polo, and it was the first thing they mentioned when I walked into class.

There are a lot of things that affect both our teaching style and our teaching effectiveness. These include our training, our learning experiences, the teachers we had as kids, and even how much coffee (or for me, green tea) we had in the morning. So, what about our clothes? Can something as superficial as the clothes we wear influence our teaching? And if so, to what extent?

From research on this sort of thing, as well as my personal experiences, yes, the clothes we wear effect our teaching. Up until about two years ago, I dressed poorly, to be blunt. I wasn’t a slob. I didn’t look like a disheveled mess. I didn’t wear an oversized t-shirt and ripped jeans. But still, I had no sense of style, or of what kempt really meant. For example, a tie (how I hated ties!) was reserved for first-day-of-semester classes. It didn’t help that none of my teaching positions ever had a dress code. Some teachers put effort into their appearance, and others did not. It was always a mixed bag. In fact, the dress code at the middle school I worked for in Japan was so lax, that they insisted I remove my tie during the first day of class!

My current position also does not have a dress code. So, for my first semester, I wore my definition of “business-casual”. Some of my colleagues dressed this way, but one dressed more business and less casual, or “smart” as he put it. When I began noticing his clothes, I began sensing that the clothes sort of unconsciously projected a level of professionalism that I felt I did not give off. I looked at myself in the mirror and decided to try something new. I don’t like to admit it, but this was also me giving in to my wife’s gentle suggestions that I stop dressing like a slob.

And I feel the better for it. I feel not only like a better teacher, but also a more effective teacher. Although I may not want to, I command authority. That is, I seem authoritative on the subject matter that I teach. I seem like a person to be respected and who will respect you. I feel like students pay more attention to me. Am I imagining this?

The brief amount of research I have done says “no, maybe”.

  • Roach (1997) looked at the effect of Graduate Teaching Assistant’s attire and found that 1) there is a positive “strong moderate” relationship between attire and affective learning; 2) a positive “low moderate” relationship between attire and cognitive learning; and 3) a decrease in misbehavior as the professionalism of attire increases.
  • Dowling (2008) used an experimental and control group to test the effects of faculty attire and found no significant difference on learning.
  • Papa, Xu, and Oles (2012) hypothesized that casual dress would be better percieved in small workshops, but found the opposite to be true. Workshops where the workshop leader dressed more formally were rated more favorably. Interestingly, however, students stated they would prefer casual attire for both students and faculty. Apparently, preferences do not necessarily match perceptions.

The research here reflects our basic assumptions about attire, which happen to be just as mixed as the results. On the one had, professional attire create perceptions of a knowledgeable, respectable, organized instructor. On the other hand, dressing more casual creates a more relaxed atmosphere. A relaxed atmosphere is conducive to learning. At the same time, positive perceptions of an instructor are also conducive. So which is it?

The answer, I suppose, is to wear clothes that represent both. Teachers (instructors, professors) are not business people, nor are we construction workers. We have to be interactive and professional at the same time. So, it seems like one should wear whatever makes them feel comfortable, so long as they don’t dress like Mark Zuckerburg or Uncle Pennybags. Though I have smartened up my wardrobe, I would describe the attire as I wear most often as Hank Scorpio-inspired: a nice shirt, suit jacket and tie, as well as a nice pair of jeans. It’s business-casual in its truest sense.

What do you wear when teaching? Why? What effect do you think it has? Let me know in the comments!

Here is a related article with lots of interesting comments.


  • Dowling, W. A. (2011). The impact of faculty apparel in the classroom. College Teaching Methods & Styles Journal (CTMS), 4(1), 1-10. [link]
  • Papa, J., Xu, C., & Oles, D. (2012). The Effects of a Leader’s Attire on Group Members’ Perception of a Workshop. [link]
  • Roach, K. D. (1997). Effects of graduate teaching assistant attire on student learning, misbehaviors, and ratings of instruction. Communication Quarterly,45(3), 125-141. [link]

2 thoughts on “The Teacher Wears Prada

  1. Reading your post I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if Sapir and Whorf had looked at dress codes. ^^
    That said, I dress smart (and wear make-up) for conferences and things because looking more like an adult gives me confidence. In my real life I work with teens and pre-teens at a hagwon and there isn’t a dress code. They have never seen me with make up or a suit jacket, but I always wear slacks and a blouse. I have never noticed an effect on my students’ learning that correlates to my appearance, but I am well aware of an effect on my personal confidence that correlates to my appearance – which could in turn affect how my students perceive me, I suppose.
    I’m also very interested in what you said about learner perceptions and preferences. It makes me wonder how useful other types of learner feedback truly are.

    • Anthony Teacher says:

      Like you, I noticed an effect in my confidence rather than on student learning when I began to dress more professional. I still don’t wear a full suit every class, but a tie and dress shirt is a must for me now. Thanks for the comment!

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