Appearance vs Dress

One of the ideas we’ve been reading about is the difference between appearance and dress.  

We know that people communicate aspects of their identity through their wardrobes. We’ve written at length about this on the blog so far – how leaders might take on certain fashion styles and how we might be able to see markers of leaders as a group through their fashion choices.

Dress and choices

One thing we are very aware of is how complex this research topic becomes when considering the fact that none of our choices are made in a vacuum. Dress is an assemblage of clothes, makeup, hair, accessories, piercings, tattoos, facial hair, perfume (…and the list goes on). These are all choices we make, to varying degrees.

For example: There was a recent conversation on twitter that Pat and I were interested in about teachers and leaders with tattoos.

I (Amanda) got a tattoo of a Harry Potter symbol after taking up my PhD because it marked the end of my Master’s research (partly on the use of Harry Potter in English teaching). I did think carefully about getting it in a visible place because ‘what if I ended up back in a school?’ but in the end made the decision to go ahead and get it. (The only regret for this decision ended up coming after reading The Cursed Child, but I digress – that’s another post for another blog).

Based on the twitter chat we saw, even though tattoos are vastly more common than they have been in years gone, there’s still a lot of apprehension about teachers and leaders having visible ink. The same went for visible piercings – this is clearly an ongoing discussion with The Guardian writing about it not too long ago.

Appearance as a broader construct  

One of the other points of consideration in a study such as this is how appearance plays into the choices we make as part of our dress. Dress is one part of appearance – for example, we can cover up tattoos, but appearance also includes our body type, our skin colour, and other aspects out of our control. A search for the two terms brings up sites that use them interchangeably and together, but this reading (referenced below) made it very clear that the two are distinct.

We are exploring some of the amazing research out there about the politics of hair and appearance for women of colour who are school leaders (a really powerful example can be found here [this is an open access thesis]) and we also see discussions about this in the mainstream media and, for example, how the politics of hair impacts on students in Australian schools.

So what does this mean for this research? At the moment we’re aware of the distinction between dress and appearance as something we need to keep in mind when analysing the data and working with the literatures. We’re starting to work through how these more complex and nuanced challenges for leaders can be explored sensitively and appropriately in our forthcoming interviews.


Adomatis, Alyssa, and Saiki, Diana. (2010). Lookism. Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Global Perspectives. Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora (eds)DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/9781847888594-EDch101518




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