How To Dress For Grad School If You Want Your Brilliant Self to Be Taken Seriously

My tortoise-paced ease into my graduate folklore program has taught me many things. One is that "socio-linguistics" will never sound sexy, in any context, ever; another is that dressing for grad school means "dressing for success." Grad school is all about geeking out about your passion, especially if your field gets no sexy points from the "real world." Except that, like the real world, grad school has drama, too. In a realm that celebrates nerdom, fashion still has a place. Very much so, in fact — especially when you're a woman and especially when you're in a scholarly program, like an MA or MFA (versus a pre-professional program).

One of my friends, a female Russian history student, says the following:

Other female academics and I often complain about the absurd double-standard: Women are expected to be professional, attractive but not too attractive because then we’re either begging for sexual harassment or we’re trying to use our body to get ahead. But, beware, if you look too frumpy, you also will never get respect or that position you want. In short, women can never win. Men, however, can dress as frumpy as they wish because that demonstrates their intellect.

I say, learn the rules before you break the rules, fight from within, and all those other sayings hold true here. You're in grad school to learn, research, create, and contribute to your discipline. Haters gonna hate regardless of how brilliant and focused you are, but if you play by more or less the fashion rules of the corporate world, maybe, just maybe, you'll be taken seriously. Concentrate on producing your best work, shop secondhand and on-sale, and save your Gwen Stefani outfits for your off-campus life. Rebel in more meaningful ways.

Here are a few typical grad school fashion situations and my easy solutions for them:

1. Class presentation

Try: Cuffed Knit Blazer, $25, Forever 21

Step up your day-to-day class outfit with a blazer that makes you feel as confident as a Kardashian, but looks a lot less flashy. You've spent hours researching and thinking about your topic, so don't question your authority on it. Don't distract your professor or classmates from your authority, either. Your pants don't have to match your blazer, but why not make your life easier? Keep your hair, jewelry, and makeup simple, too. If you'll be standing during your presentation, opt for the cushy shoes. You know those Q&As can go on forever sometimes — especially if you have this guy in your MFA.

This outfit: Anne Klein blazer; Mossimo camisole; Route 66 black jeans; earrings from the Met store

2. Library study session

Try: Printed Tunic, $16, Zara

The most important thing about your study session outfit is lettin' it all hang out... in a classy way. You might not leave the library for hours (or days), so keep it loose and layered so you can warm up or cool off accordingly. Don't go too slubby, either. You want the librarian to trust you with that first edition whatever.

This outfit: H&M tunic; New York & Co. sweater; vintage bracelet.

3. Academic Conference

Try: Route 66 Boots, $10, Kmart

Pull all the biz pro stops with modest cuts, conservative colors, sturdy fabrics, and subtle makeup. Keep the focus on your research — not your #babeness. Make sure there's a spot to wear your requisite name tag, too. Extra credit for a smart but understated binder, briefcase, and/or laptop bag. 
Extra extra credit for packing a backup blouse because, hey, coffee spills do happen, especially if you're drinking and shaking hands at the same time.

This outfit: Ann Taylor Loft blazer; vintage dress; artisan earrings

4. Walking through campus

Try: Notched Collar Walker Coat, $180, Macys

And don't forget to bundle up as you trek across campus! North Face jackets are for undergrads and hiking trips. On TA duty? Never fail in a classic tweed and lux scarf. There are only a few weeks 'til spring, you say. Psh. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but you'll be buried under final papers then. The real sunshine comes when you turn them in. Until then, stay cozy, Smart Stuff. 

This outfit: United Colors of Benetton coat; pashmina scarf from a NYC street vendor.

Images: Helen Stoddard

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