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.




not looking enough like a leader

Leaders are always under scrutiny. They can be critiqued not only for what they say, but the way they say it. And the way they look is also often up for comment.

Women leaders seem to come in for much more critical public commentary than their male counterparts. Think of the mainstream media on Thatcher’s bouffant hair, Julia Gillard’s blazers and buttocks and Hilary Clinton’s hair and pantsuits. Angela Merkel recently commented that “It’s no problem at all for a man to wear a dark blue suit for a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times in two weeks, that leads to letter-writing from citizens”. This was, she suggested, a double-standard.

Social media heightens the focus on women in leadership positions. The comments made by the public are often abusive and misogynist. Sometimes they even include rape and death threats.

The latest target of sexist derogatory remarks is Derbyshire’s Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann. Appearing on national television to explain emergency actions taken to prevent a dam collapsing, at least some people thought her hair more worthy of comment than the multi-service rescue response she was very effectively coordinating.

Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann’s hair was called scruffy, a toilet brush and a sign of lapsed standards.

While school leaders are always conscious of the fact that students, staff and parents may be scrutinising their appearance, most do avoid appearance-based trolling. The risk is always there, of course, that some kind of sudden media attention might bring unwanted and unwarranted comments. It’s too too hard to imagine a Rachel Swann style troll attack happening to a headteacher/principal.

Writing about the way in which media chooses to comment on women leader’s appearance, Amanda Hess from Slate Magazine said

In the United States, male politicians are set up with a pretty uniform dress code—dark suit, necktie, nondescript dress shoes—and it is never news. This is a code that evolved at a time when women did not run companies, states, or government agencies. By the time they migrated out of the kitchen and the secretary pool, women had no default uniform that would help them blend seamlessly into these male-dominated worlds. How every powerful woman chose to navigate that sartorial minefield became a reflection of her individual decision-making skills and thus code for her worth, her politics, and her feminism. Even seemingly mundane choices were seen as statements: Minnesota state Sen. Ellen Anderson was the first woman to wear pants on the Senate floor—in 1993. Hillary Clinton’s uniform of pantsuits (you know, a suit like a man wears, but for a woman) spawned endless think pieces. These wardrobes became the subject of political fascination not because the clothes gave any actual insight into these leaders as individuals, but because they reinforced the fact that they were women first and people second.

Hess’s argument might equally apply to women other than politicians. Her text might also speak to some of the hidden work that women leaders do – we must make ongoing choices about how we will represent ourselves to our communities, potentially critically communities. We are judged on the basis of those choices and they become code for how well we do our jobs.

How can we present ourselves as leaders first and foremost? What kind of wardrobe becomes over-masculine or too girly or too young or too dowdy or too unchanging or too fashionable or too boring or too much like my mother or too sexy or too tasteless or or or  – and therefore draws attention to gender rather than the job we are doing?

Many of the respondents to our survey referred to the need to dress to meet a public ‘gaze’ and we are very interested in this. We wonder what more when can find out when we finally get to have actual conversations!