Do clothes make the student?

I come from a more decorous time, when there were “school clothes” and “play clothes.” How you were dressed might get you a job – or bar you from it.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Students at Emory University’s School of Medicine are “expected to convey a professional demeanor,” according to campus guidelines.

I’ve been teaching college for many years, long enough to note the steady relaxation of attention in matters of student dress. I’ve long grown used to the torn jeans, flip-flops, shorts in the dead of the Maine winter, and ball caps worn backward. Still, I took note recently when one of my students showed up in pajama bottoms. I couldn’t help remarking, “Did you just roll out of bed?” 

His response: “Five minutes ago.”

I’m familiar with the school of thought that says that how students dress is irrelevant, so long as they’re learning. I deposit it in the same category as “Grammar and spelling don’t matter, so long as they’re expressing themselves.” Perhaps. But I also wonder about the wisdom of blurring the line between bed and desk. I should think that putting a thoughtful sartorial foot forward before entering a formal environment, such as a college lecture hall, is a sort of visible reminder to oneself (and one’s teachers) that impressions are important and that we have come together to get down to business.

I suppose that I come from a more decorous age, a time when there were “school clothes” and “play clothes,” and never the twain did meet. 

I grew up in a working-class family. My parents were World War II and Depression vintage and they came of age under conditions of poverty. Perhaps this is why “looking sharp,” as my father used to put it, was so important: In the world he knew, which sometimes looked as if it were coming apart at the seams, personal appearance was the one thing over which one had control – it might have made the difference between getting and losing a job.  

I smile when I think back on the occasions that my parents associated with needing to look presentable. Once, when I was 14 and my brother 12, my father announced that he was taking us into Manhattan (just a subway ride away) to see the debut of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” My brother and I were giddy at the prospect, but were momentarily deflated when my father directed us to put on our best clothes, including jackets and ties. “But why?” I begged, not wanting to change out of my comfortable jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers. 

“Because,” he said, “we’re going to New York.” 

I can still see the stars in his eyes as he uttered these words.

And then there was the “Sunday drive,” for which we also had to “look nice” because, if we were good, my parents would stop at Howard Johnson’s where, presumably, other people would observe us and assess the quality of our parental care based on our appearance.

So yes, I’m all for freedom of choice in matters of dress, and yes, I do want my students to be comfortable. But I also want to pay my respects to those students who believe that appearances count. 

I think of the woman – a somewhat older, so-called nontraditional student – I had in class a few years back. She was someone to whom science did not come easily: She worked doggedly for respectable grades on every assignment. But I was struck by how tastefully she dressed, day after day. 

When the course ended, I took a moment to mention this to her. “You always looked so nice,” I remarked. “As if you were ready to take on the world.” 

Without missing a beat, she answered, as if it were self-evident, “I’ve waited 12 years to return to school, and I dress up to remind myself to be serious about it.”

And, I might add, she seemed perfectly comfortable to me.

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