a dressing down


Unwashed hair and pokemon pyjamas not wanted here. Why? It isn’t professional and your students deserve better.

That’s the abbreviated version of a recent advice column in Insider Higher Education. The advice is directed to academics teaching online, academics working from home.

There’s been a lot of understandable heat about the piece on social media. Lots of people have pointed out that it’s really hard to combine home schooling, parenting and working “normal hours” and students need to cut their lecturers a bit of slack. Others have queried the idea that “professional” is something that relies on appearance and that it’s the quality of teaching that matters. The gendered nature of the article has also been noted – the disappointing appearances were highly feminised, as were many of the issues in the responses – women bear the brunt of additional parenting and domestic labour.

There was also a strong cry for evidence – what made the graduate student writer think that unwashed hair and PJs were even happening? Was there really a slip in standards as was alleged?  

But the mention of pyjamas in the article somehow made me think of times in schools where teachers don’t look as expected – and contra to this article – it is actually all OK. Better than OK in fact.

What I am thinking of? Well –

  • World Book Day. Teachers and leaders come to school dressed as their favorite book character. WBD is a chance to be a bit imaginative and show something about yourself that might not be obvious. It’s a chance to have a bit of fun, to play a part, to teach as if you are the Gruffalo, to run a staff meeting as Jo from Little Women.
  • Casual day. The kids come without uniform. Maybe the staff wear school uniform or they too adopt much more casual clothing than usual. Everyone’s a PE teacher in trackies. Well. It’s all a bit more relaxed isn’t it. We see each other as if we are not at school, but at home, on the weekend, at the supermarket.
  • Melbourne Cup Day. Typically a short day. Frocks and fascinators. Florals. Stappy high heels. A chance to dress up and reveal our glitzy selves. A bit of glam inserted in the usually business-like school. It’s OK to party now and then. (Ditto school socials.)
  • School camps. Yes the pokemon PJs and bedhead hair are on show at the school camp, as school becomes an everyday/everynight affair. And yes teachers and leaders wear slippers and no makeup too, just like grownups at home.

It’s not like these divergent clothes days happen all the time. They are exceptional and extraordinary – as well as welcome.

Contra to the chiding of the IHE article, I reckon school students really love seeing their teachers out of professional clothing now and then. Rather than seeing them as unprofessional, they see teachers as having personal as well as professional lives, teachers and leaders playing and working out, teachers and leaders as parents, teachers and leaders as ordinary.

And my hunch is that school students are likely to forgive the occasional online lapse in business like appearance during the pandemic, and be understanding about their teachers doing the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps that is because they are exposed now and then to teachers and school leaders dressing differently. Perhaps also school students just have stronger relationships with their teachers than university students do with their lecturers. Whatever the reason, I find it hard to imagine the “unprofessional” critique coming from school students.

Perhaps I am just kidding myself. Perhaps not. What do you think?


Phot: Preston Manor staff: Brent and Kilburn Times March 7, 2019.




the power of the image


Last week Amanda and I were in the same place at the same time. Yippee!

And we were able to do two pilot interviews. One was to see how it was interviewing by video. The other was to see what an interview with a retired head/principal would yield.

We aren’t going to tell you who these two people were, as our ethics protocol is that people and their data are anonymous. But we’re really enormously grateful for the help at this time, as we learnt a lot. We thank our two anonymous women leaders for their time and generosity.

Here’s one of the things we found out.

The retired head brought a whole load of photos of herself at various stages of becoming a leader. These were official school photos of all of the staff taken at the same time as the annual student class photos. We hadn’t asked her to do this, but she brought them because they showed the point she thought we would be most interested in. Her initiative was sooooo helpful.

The retired principal – let’s say RP1 for the moment – had been told when she was a Deputy that one of the reasons she wasn’t successful in job interviews for the top job was that “she didn’t look like a leader”.

Her first photo illustrated what this un-leader-like look was – spiky hair and bright prints. Now we do have to remember that this was the early 80s and her look was fashionable and, at the time, hardly outrageous. Yet it wasn’t apparently conservative enough. Over time, she modified the look, smoothing down her hair, and opting for more tailored clothes in block colours and patterns.

The Deputy who was successful in an interview wore, according to RP1’s school photo, had a different style. This was epitomised in a school pic where she was wearing a dark maroon shirt with a tied loop at the neck – not a pussy cat bow, but something that definitely referenced a male tie. Her hair was “normal” as was her clothing, whereas in previous photos she stood out from the crowd, being just a little different from the other women in the staff picture. Now she fitted right in.

Later however, when RP1 was a principal, she showed us how she was able to modify her look again. Make it less conservative. This was in part through an asymmetric haircut, often with a noticeable red streak. There were still sometimes the pearls she had adopted when going for principal interviews, but now accompanying tailored, fashionable clothes, often black.

While Amanda and I of course knew that many women leaders did modify their appearance in order to become acceptable to conservative interview panels, we were really surprised how telling the changes were when presented as a sequence of chronological images.

The changes RP1 showed us were not just changes in fashion, but a re-fashioning of a leader image to “fit” the job, and win it. We had tangible evidence that an unwritten dress code, known colloquially as “twinset and pearls’, was strongly in play in the past, determining who would get promoted, and who wouldn’t.

Amanda and I are now very keen to do a lot more work with photos and see what else we can learn. Visual – image based – research has begun.


Photo by Cornelia Ng on Unsplash

Who are we dressing for? How do colleagues influence wardrobe choices?

When we began this project, we had some expectations about the reasoning behind the wardrobe choices being made each day by women leaders. We asked participants who they were dressing for – we wondered if it was students, parents / communities, or staff, or someone else. We have written a little bit about this in the past, but I was speaking with some people over the last few days about this project and the question came up – ‘so who is telling people to dress a certain way?’ and it has been on my mind.

We have written in the past about some of the theoretical frames / lenses that we’re working with to analyse the data from our survey. For example, we wrote at length about Fred Davis’s work in critical fashion studies that explores the way wardrobes form part of a set of markers of group identity.  We know from his work that there are accepted markers of a certain identity that can be seen through clothing. Dress, fashion, and wardrobes serve an important role in communicating identities and people outside of those groups do generally read those identities markers correctly (e.g., you aren’t wearing a suit to go to work as a lifesaver at a pool).

Davis discussed the way changes in circumstances influence our identities and, in turn, the way we form and communicate these identities and identity shifts through our fashion and wardrobe choices. We heard a lot about this from our participants, and we have written about this in the past too – how changing roles often resulted in a changing appearance or wardrobe.


Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash

We expected that women in our study would tell us that they dressed for their students first – we anticipated a pedagogical aspect to their clothing choices, particularly for leaders in secondary schools. We were somewhat surprised to see that students ranked last in the responses of who people were concerned about – first was staff, then parents / carers and the wider community were close behind, and finally students. We asked for elaboration on these comments and found some common themes. We’ll write about this in the future, we suspect, but I wanted to share some of the themes of responses here. To keep this manageable, I’m focusing on the responses of people who were thinking of staff members when they made their choices. Some of the key points included:

  • Dress codes were seen as helpful here in taking the guesswork out of wardrobe. Less time and energy had to be spent in deciding what was the ‘right’ choice.
  • Again and again, we see people responding that they want to be seen by their colleagues as being ‘professional’. We did ask what ‘professional’ looked like, and have written about this a lot on this blog – check out our tag here. The balance for many of our participants, though, was in hoping to appear both professional and approachable.
  • There are associated value judgments coming through, with people wanting to appear smart, not ‘too old’ or ‘too young’, not too feminine, creative, authentic, stylish, and wanting to be taken seriously.


There were comments throughout about judgments according to wardrobes – both positive and negative, implicit and explicit, and the elusive challenge of the unwritten rules of ‘appropriate’ and ‘professional’ wardrobe choices.

We think this idea of ephemeral rules that aren’t always clear (and maybe you don’t know you’ve made a misstep until after you’ve made it?) is interesting and one that’s worth exploring further.

Have you had this experience? We’d love to hear from you.

Keeping your cool in a heatwave… leadership wardrobes in the summer.

Something that came up with relative frequency in our survey responses was the particular challenge presented by wardrobes in the Australian summer.
With a heatwave set to hit this week, and many states still with a few days of school left before breaking up for the end of the year, it seemed timely to write about the challenges participants reported facing in trying to balance ‘professionalism’ and comfort / keeping cool.

For our international readers, many of Australia’s schools will be hitting temperatures well above 40 degrees C this week, with some remote areas anticipating temperatures closer to 50C. There are still plenty of schools that don’t have air conditioning (and won’t for 10 years) so kids are trying to learn in sweltering temperatures, and teachers and leaders are having to work in the same spaces.

There is an argument to be made about the occupational health and safety implications of this, and this is the space where the research literature tends to reside. For example, research has examined the implications of PPE / safety equipment and safety clothing while working in hot temperatures.
But this isn’t quite the same issue. The recurring issue here is related to what we have written about on this blog before – the unwritten rules about what is acceptable ‘professional’ clothing and presentation.

I did some searching to see what advice is out there and it’s just about exactly as I had expected. This one is a personal highlight – the advice for women to wear dresses that are ‘flattering’ and in ‘soft, friendly patterns’ is quite representative of the sorts of advice being given freely online.

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I’m not entirely sure that this advice from Glamour magazine hits the mark – how to dress for work in the summer… perhaps in a different climate (imagine a sweltering Brisbane afternoon with this SUIT on).

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Given what we’ve written in the past – that ‘professional’ clothing for women leaders is expressed as being dark and heavy trousers, suits, and stockings, we can see how this might pose some issues for the Australian summer, as noted by the participants in this study. The rules being largely unwritten then complicates issues further – what is appropriate and what isn’t? How do you decide?

Australian teachers and leaders who still have a few very hot days left – we salute you! Stay hydrated.



The politics and the costs of looking ‘right’ for women leaders

We’re getting a little bit political in this blog today – but never fear, reader, it does all relate to school leaders.

Some of you might have seen the recent reporting and public commentary surrounding an article about the estimated cost of American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) haircut, which a writer estimated to be around $300 (with a tip included). This number didn’t surprise me in the slightest, nor (I imagine) would it have surprised many women. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can read more about this here, here, and here.

American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently been the face of a heated discussion about the costs associated with having the right ‘look’ as a leader.

The article written about AOC’s haircut was written with a point of comparison included, which contrasted AOC’s hair with a prominent American male politician who would spend $20 on his own haircut – this is comparing apples and oranges at best.

The cost of looking ‘right’ is something we’ve talked about in the past and it’s something that keeps coming up as being a really significant issue for women leaders – clearly, regardless of their field.

This is also not the first time AOC has been put under intense scrutiny for her style – she’s a young, powerful, progressive politician who has certainly ruffled a few feathers in the political landscape. Indeed, her political achievements are incredible – she is the youngest woman ever elected to congress and as a leader, she has become one of the faces of the progressive political movement in the United States (and watched closely by people worldwide).

There are ongoing comments from the media, the public, and other politicians about her clothing and appearance. Previous efforts to stir up outrage have included complaints about a specific blazer of hers, as well as a cover story where she wore clothing from the magazine’s stylist (as would happen in the majority of cover stories).

Attacks often include the notion that she is supposed to be progressive and fighting for progressive causes, which she does while still meeting the standards of appearance that she’s held to. (Examples also abound of other political women being attacked and criticised for not meeting these standards as much as for meeting them.)

Ocasio-Cortez is deliberate about her wardrobe and styling choices, and uses her clothing to convey parts of her identity, and to convey messages. For example, she comments on why she wears what she wears or how her hair is styled when it’s interwoven with meaning.

So why does this matter for school leaders?


The good thing to come out of this is that it has really sparked a more open conversation about the standards of appearance, wardrobe, and dress that women leaders are held to. It has also reinforced the inequity faced by women in these positions in terms of financial cost and the time it takes – I myself am often overdue for a haircut because I can’t find 4 hours to sit in the chair at once. Some great articles have been written that highlight these issues, and they do reflect comments from our participants as well that spoke to the frustration they felt in relation to these issues, and the ways women are held to certain expectations about their appearance (and the associated financial implications of those expectations).

Finally, another issue has been addressed in some of these ongoing articles, when the cost of hair and beauty treatments are criticised (let’s not forget that these are highly feminised professions). Hairdressers are trained and highly skilled professionals and, as I have already mentioned, I’m rarely in the chair for less than 4 hours when I have to get my hair done. They deserve to be paid fairly for their work.

I’ve been really pleased to see the articles that are arguing for recognition of this as an important part of the cost of living – we need to shift the conversation away from these costs, towards a discussion about WHY people feel the need to meet these costs if they don’t actually want to. The implicit and explicit expectations to have the RIGHT hair, to look RIGHT, continue to have financial implications for women.

Do you think this is comparable (perhaps not quite on the same public scale!) for women leaders in education? We’d love to hear your thoughts.


Pain and discomfort: ‘fitting’ ourselves into a picture of leadership?  

Some of the women in our study talked about how uncomfortable their clothes were. They described the way they constricted their movement, they pinched, they puckered, they were tight in the wrong places, and they forced people to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions.

Women in our study described their work wardrobes as ‘an imposition’. ‘Not comfortable’. ‘A prison’.

They wrote about the anger and frustration they felt at having to dress a certain way to fit the image of a school leader.

‘I am torn between wanting to look good, be respected,
but also angry that I have to do this a certain way

This is not new information. We know that a lot of women’s clothing isn’t traditionally made for function – see: the lack of ‘real’ pockets in most things. There’s something worth exploring, though, in a shared set of experiences that mean women are contorting themselves, are putting themselves through pain and discomfort, and have restricted movement while undertaking their work in order to meet a sense of what a ‘professional woman leader’ might look like. There was even a recent story in the media about a company who are designing comfortable workwear, with the founder citing similar challenges to the women in this study.

We wonder where this idea comes from – who sets the (often unspoken) dress code? What are the discourses and norms that surround women school leaders’ wardrobes and appearances that mean this is seen as a necessary discomfort in order to do it the ‘right’ way?

And in a more generative question, perhaps, we wonder how this might change?

What do you think? We’d love to hear from you in our survey or on twitter (@chalkhands; @ThomsonPat). Share your thoughts!





Leadership Uniforms – Taking some of the (guess)work out of it?

We’ve written before about the challenges women leaders have described regarding finding the ‘right’ clothes and about habitual clothing. Data from our project has reflected the time and energy that women invest in cultivating their wardrobe – and every single morning as they make daily choices about what to wear, and getting ready for work. We think those choices serve as a constant building and rebuilding of leadership image and identity for women in our study.

I’m reminded of Naomi Wolf’s comments about women spending so much energy on all of this stuff; energy that we could otherwise be using in our careers, in pursuits of happiness, and so much more. I then return to the idea of aesthetic labour. How much time, energy, and money is spent on getting the right look, or the right hair and cosmetics? Those aspects of aesthetic labour are reinforced by careers and image literature that emphasises the various forms of labour involved in cultivating the ‘right’ image (see, for example: Cutts, Hooley, and Yates 2015).

A few years ago, I stumbled across an article written about a woman who had a work uniform with the intent of removing that element of her life – she, like so many of the ‘great leaders’ we hear about, wore the same thing every day, freeing up her mind to be focused on other things (though Unlike Zuckerberg or Jobs, it didn’t involve hoodies or jeans and sneakers…). I was inspired by this when I moved to Melbourne and felt like I needed to mark the next chapter of my career – and my move from Queensland to Melbourne, where everyone told me I needed to wear black to fit in. Away went my signature floral dresses and out came pantsuits and matching shirts in different colours. It did save me time in the morning, and the lack of choice made things incredibly easy – until I got bored and broke out my ‘real’ wardrobe again.

Our participants had a collective uniform, with only a few exceptions. They wear blazers, ‘smart’ clothes, ‘professional’ clothes, suits, dresses, and trousers. High heels. Carefully maintained hair and carefully chosen accessories. Though only a few people spoke about a uniform in the same sense as described above, there seemed to be a limit to the types of clothing that was regarded as being professional and smart. Dark colours, tailored clothes (often from expensive brands), clothes that were seen as “safe and repetitive”, in the words of one participant.

Participants spoke about resenting feeling the pressure to buy these clothes – generally expensive, generally not worn outside of their working lives, and generally not remotely close to their weekend style which seemed to veer in the opposite direction – jeans and sneakers, flowing dresses, and comfort.

We wonder: do you have a work uniform? Do you feel limited in the types of clothing you can choose from to wear to work? What guides your decisions when buying new clothes for your work wardrobe?

We’d love to hear your thoughts in our survey … where we only need 9 more people to make it to 400 participants! Please feel free to send it on to any women you know who are aspiring, current, or former school leaders.



Cutts, B., Hooley, T. and Yates, J. (2015). Graduate dress code: How undergraduates are planning to use hair, clothes and make-up to smooth their transition to the workplace. Industry and Higher Education, 29 (4):271-282.


making expectations visible

We’ve recently found some information about wardrobes and leadership on Urleaderline, a website hosted by the Executive Leadership Centre, Lamar University, a public university in Texas. So these are serious people who ought to be offering pretty sensible evidence-supported advice. Yes?

Read on and decide for yourselves.

(The following are Suggestions Provided by Female Administrators)

When Interviewing for a Job:

When dressing for an interview, the following guidelines are suggested:

  1. The key word is conservative – feminine but modest and business like.  There should be nothing that is distracting e.g. loud colors, tight fitting, too stylish, revealing, etc. *
  2. Clothes – Jacket with slacks or skirt and modest blouse/sweater.  Slacks should be trouser-like, not tight.  A skirt should be below the knee, not tight and worn with hose – no bare legs.
  3. Shoes – Medium heels to give height, but no stilettos.
  4. Jewelry – Conservative/classic style, not gaudy or trendy.
  5. Hair – It should look neat and like you didn’t have to spend much time getting it that way, i.e. no “glamour” styles.  During the interview, keep it out of your face and “still”, i.e. don’t adjust it by brushing it back with your hands, putting it behind your ears, etc.
  6. Make-up – Conservative not “glamorous” make-up you would wear out at night.

When on the Job:

  1. Looking like one of the guys is important.  If the guys at the meeting will be in a suit, wear a suit.  If they will be in a jacket and slacks, wear that.  If the men will be wearing khaki pants and a golf shirt, wear something similar.  You do not want to draw attention to yourself by your clothing.
  2. Along that same line, always avoid highly feminine clothing, short skirts and loud prints.  This encourages your male counterparts to see you more as a woman than as a professional.
  3. Never wear blouses or shirts that are tight, low cut or draw attention to your bosom.  This presents a negative image.  Our country still has a separate set of ethical and moral standards for males and females.  You may not think it is fair but it is what it is!
  4. Don’t wear dangly earrings or cheap gaudy jewelry.  This is distracting and will not project well, especially on television.
  5. But don’t sacrifice “looking good” because you are trying too hard to follow these rules.  Research continues to show that attractive, professional, appropriately dressed females are more successful than those who are not.
  6. The younger you are and the more attractive you are, the more important the attention to your outward appearance.  Your clothes should convey your professionalism, not emphasize your youth and looks.
  1. Clothes:  Conservative suit, dark solid colored or pinstripe.  A conservative sport coat and slacks are acceptable but a suit is better.
  2. Jewelry:  Watch and no more than one ring (other than wedding band).
  3. Hair Style:  Regular haircut – no razor cuts or other special effects.
  4. Facial Hair:  None is best.  A short mustache or chin whiskers might be acceptable but you can’t go wrong by being clean shaven.
  5. Shoes:  Either black or brown (depending on the color of your clothes) and they should be well polished.  Your socks must be a solid color and match your clothes.


We assume that these two lists, written in 2016, are intended to make explicit what might be taken as the usually hidden expectations of school leaders.  There’s a lot we could say about them. But for starters, here are just some of our questions:

  • We are curious about how it is possible to be feminine but not a woman.
  • We wonder whether it is possible to avoid being seen to have a bosom.
  • Why should we try to look like one of the boys? Why should they not try to look like us?
  • Why does the binary opposite of professional appear to be woman?
  • Why do you have to choose between professional and woman?
  • Why do women need to have “height”?
  • And if the principal is meant to be visible, why are women principals told not to draw attention to themselves?
  • Why are there more rules for women than men?

And we are VERY interested in whether these rules hold true even within – as well as outside –  the US, where they were generated.

What do you think?



Oh and yes, I failed these rules regularly. Too much jewellery, T shirt (mostly tight T shirts at that). No jacket. Clearly too much time at the hairdresser. Just as well I’m moderately tall as I’m pretty sure I was wearing flat shoes that day.