Horrible College Fashion: Both Professors And Students

I told the kid about to take exam that if he could write an essay successfully justifying why he chose to wear his unusual hat and kept it on indoors, I would give him five extra credit points. It was a black, bumpy, skull-grabbing thing that appeared to have been extruded out the backside of some angry fowl.

He did not write the essay.

I told one student that I wanted to ask him a question but that I couldn’t look directly at him because his vivid florescent green sweater hurt my eyes. The sweater had a zipper in the front, which was open to reveal a wrinkled “message” t-shirt (which I couldn’t read). But aren’t all t-shirts message shirts today?

This is relevant because as another student was handing in his exam, I told him, “I hope you studied, else your t-shirt is going to be accurate.” It read, “Colege. The Best Seven Yeers of My Life [sic].” He chuckled, but did not admit to studying.

Just in case you thought I had any compassion, I can tell you that I asked another student how long did it take him to get just the right angle on his baseball cap? It was neither front-to-back nor back-to-front, nor, even, side-to-side. If I had to guess, I would say the bill was rotated about seventy-two degrees to the right of his nose. He, too, just chuckled.

I asked a similar question to another young man whose hair was gathered in the center of his head, spiked up Mohawk style and glued there with copious amounts of grease. I told him that I worried he would not have time enough each day to fit in studying and sculpting.

At the beginning of the semester, a veteran professor told me to pay attention to the students’ dress. She said that in the first week, all the females would be primped, painted, and pretty, and that the males would be wearing “their best t-shirts.” But by Thanksgiving, even the females would come class directly from bed, clad in either pajamas concealed by coats or the same sweatsuit. The males would be wearing whatever t-shirt was at hand.

This professor was wrong only in the timing: it is not quite Thanksgiving, but the standard of dress could hardly sink lower. It is kept to an artificial high only because of the weather, which is turning chilly, thus forcing the students to at least wear pants.

Is it the students’ fault that they dress so badly? Or have they learned their bad habits from their elders? Kerry Soper says that it’s because of professors’ that students have no sense of fashion. Soper has compiled a guide to faculty fashion that is required by all academically interested readers. He envisions icons which students could use to best describe each sub-genre of professorial dress.

For example:

The Espresso Cup. The student here is saying, “I can see that you have a coherent style going on there: an array of black and gray clothing that has a vague, critical-theory hipness to it. And good job on finding the right kind of severe glasses and retro haircut to fit the look. Personally, I find this aesthetic dull and pretentious, but it is fun to see you strike self-conscious poses at the whiteboard, like some kind of morose poet in a Sears catalog for existentialists.”

The Cassava Root. The student is acknowledging that “you do, indeed, seem to be a well-traveled, open-minded, and culturally sensitive person, with all of that colorful clothing you wear from various ethnic traditions. Your pale skin color and Midwestern accent place you somewhere north of Des Moines, but from the look of that dress, you may also be an honorary member of a West African tribe. Way to go.”

I am happy to report that some schools are attacking this problem directly; but so far, only in China. The Nanjing government issued Fifteen Etiquette Recommendations for Nanjing Primary and Secondary School Teachers, all seemingly directed at female instructors, of which some are:

Laziness is no excuse for wrinkled clothing; Clothing that reveals the breasts, shoulders, back, midriff, or thigh should not be worn; Outer clothing may not be too thin or translucent; Scoop necklines cannot be worn; Skirts may not be too short; Clothing that wraps the body too tight is inadvisable…They may not wear heavy makeup or oversize jewelry, may not have long fingernails, and may not dye their hair in strange colors.

As much as the male students in these classes will regret these edicts, they are probably for the best. The first stipulation alone will help guide students on the proper path, so that by the time they arrive at college they won’t look live they’ve fallen of the back of a truck and left to lie in a damp ditch for four days.


  1. Speed

    Rather than rules and exhortations, schools should implement the following …

    “We will be taking students’ pictures throughout the school year at random and unpredictable times and (public) places. These will be posted on the internet with the student’s name. Forever — which is a very long time.”

  2. Speed

    Perhaps your students have a stylistic Tourette’s syndrome — a tic expressed in dress and personal hygiene. Inappropriate garb, gear and costume resulting from the stress of learning. Or maybe they are trying to moderate their attractiveness to the opposite (or same as the case may be) sex to free up time for video games.

    Unfortunate professorial dress results from a lack of imagination and creativity. Are tweed jackets and elbow patches still common?

  3. Guy

    Honestly, when I was in college (all those years ago, in the *shudder* early 90s), it was more of a rebellion for me to wear whatever I want. 12 years of Catholic school indoctrination saw to that. Wearing a uniform every day, which consisted of little more than prison garb gray pants and a dazzling choice of white or off blue shirt, pretty much turned me off to “dressing” up, and that’s stuck to this day. It got even worse in high school being forced to wear a tie all day.

    I would have written the essay, btw. 🙂

  4. Ken

    Things could be worse…at least they bathe, at least every so often. Right? RRRrriiiiggghhttt????

  5. Mike B

    I was an undergrad in the ’70’s and a grad student in the ’80’s. I don’t recall puting any thought or planning into what I wore during my undergrad years. Although I do vaguely recall an influx of the “preppies” in my later undergrad years — a cohort of “Greeks” who really seemed to care about how much money they spent on clothing, and that the labels were on the outside, not the inside (Izod, Polo, etc.). I recall findng that extremely objectionable, despite being Greek myself.

    Grad school was a little different, primarily because it came after I’d been in the “working world” for a couple of years. I made an effort to be presentable, and shaved every day (mainly because by then I needed to. As an undergrad, I could skip a day here and there and nobody would really notice).

    I don’t recall finding the dress of any of my students too objectionable throughout the ’80s. Sure, there were a few sore spots, like the guy who wore a white v-neck undershirt to class everyday; sometimes clean, sometimes not. And girls who wore fuzzy slippers to class.

    Probably the most unerving thing that every happened to me with a student was this quite attractive young lady I had in Finite Mathematics class. She was always impecably dressed, and always sat in the center of the front row. When she turned in her homework, she must have sprayed a bit of her perfume on it. So I always knew when I was grading her paper. She was also the only student I ever had who sent me a thank you note.

    I have no idea what ever became of her, but I’ll bet she was successful.

  6. Ari


    I admit to having been a rather plain dresser in college– mostly short-sleeved collared shirts and jeans. California absolutely destroys sartorial vision, considering how often you’re studying on the grass in December amidst 74 degree weather.

    Alas good weather, I knew thee well.

    That being said, I daresay that primary and secondary school standards won’t do a thing. I present my evidence:

    Here’s a primary/secondary student group in their uniforms:


    A group of primary students in the traditional Japanese garb known as “flu freakout mask:”

    Now, finally, a group of young Japanese college students:


    Matt, I daresay that I agree with Guy. I think it’s just young people being… young people.

    Not everyone is blessed with your sartorial countenance. Give them time. They’ll be polo wearing office drones soon enough.

  7. Wade Michaels

    I’m glad you at least pointed out the professors who are guilty of this. During undergrad I had a professor for my “Fundamentals of Higher Mathematics” course (proofs, induction, etc…) who wore the exact same khaki shorts, Teva sandals, and never-washed ten-year-old, black AC/DC t-shirt. I’m not sure he showered either.

    He came to class five minutes late every day, walked directly to the blackboard, pulled out a 3×5 card from his back pocket, copied the contents to the board, and walked out. Total time in class, less than five minutes. We never had homework, and only three exams. I never heard his voice once.

  8. Doug M

    This goes back decades.

    I was a slob in college. My professors were slobs. I remember one who wore plain white T-shirt, Blue drawstring drawstring sweats and ‘Berkies’ every single day. The only aspect of his outfit that changed was to add socks.

    In my father’s day (class of ’60) students were required to wear ties, which they would wrap around and uncollered shirt to simultaneously flout and comply with the rules.

    Maybe it is time to go back one more era and wear caps and gowns. They are comfortable, low maintenence and people can wear whatever they want underneath.

  9. Ari


    All I gotta say is… wow.


    Ew. Socks and Berkies. Gross. Scratch that. Berkies. Gross.

    Also, I remember watching Sunset Boulevard for some sociology of media (believe it or not, a remarkably interesting and challenging class) course I took in undergrad. The professor made a point of pausing at a scene with UCLA undergrads all wearing suits and nice blouses, and then commenting that although he himself couldn’t demand that, he often wished that he could.

  10. bob

    In my youth the craze was to dress like a beatnik. Beatkniks were supposed to be cool, so anybody could dress like one and think they were cool. At least the sweatshirts and turtlenecks were clean, I think.

    Later, hippies appeared on the scene, and the widespread belief was that being a hippie was a way for ugly people to be cool, kind of an extension of the beatnik idea. The style went from a little sloppy, to real sloppy and dirty. Of course, while I was working nights at a broadcast station and hitting classes during the day, these lovely people were pioneering community drugs and sex. Those hippie chicks probably weren’t too bad if you were stoned, too.

    Why do old, balding hippies try to keep a ponytail?

    I don’t know where today’s fashions come from. My kids are out of college, but they at least had me fooled about what they wore. One went to school in Florida. In Florida college kids barely wear clothes at all.

  11. Bernie

    It looks like you need a gig at a real school: USMA
    There is no cutting classes. There are no sloppy or strange clothes or smells. They also will call you “Sir” and mean it.

  12. Bruce Foutch

    As a California public school student in the late sixties, I wore jeans and long sleeve, button-up, two-pocket plaid shirts. Sometimes with the then currently popular hiking boots or sometimes with cowboy boots. I almost forgot the goose down filled vest I wore during what we usually referred to as ‘winter’ (any non-sunny day under 60 degrees F between November and March). Oh my…

    However, it seems dress codes do exist – just not at public schools*


    “BJU bases its dress codes for men and women on the application of the principles of modesty, gender distinction, appropriateness and distinction from the world.”


    “The Dress Code is based on the theory that learning to use socially acceptable manners and selecting attire appropriate to specific occasions and activities are critical factors in the total educational process. Understanding and employing these behaviors not only improves the quality of one’s life, but also contributes to optimum morale, as well as embellishes the overall campus image. They also play a major role in instilling a sense of integrity and an appreciation for values and ethics.”

    *One public school exception:

    “Illinois [Illinois State University’s College of Business] is apparently the only public undergraduate business school in the country to implement a dress code for students, says Brenda Lovell, vice-president and chief education officer for the Assn. to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.”

    And, Florida State University makes an attempt to educate students to “Dress To Impress” when looking for a job following their studies.


  13. Ari


    UCLA career center will tell students to dress well.

    However, I learned something very quickly in my jobs. Dress based on the situation. I love wearing a nice suit and some nice French cuffs. Alas, I work in technology. You know how I’d look if I showed up to a meeting dressed how I like dressing?

    Out of place.

    I know Matt will probably chide me for this, but when many million dollar deals or on the line, you don’t let fashion get in the way of fitting in.

  14. Jade

    I hate to tell you but some of the professors that I had were just as guilty as the some of the students you described. One math professor wore some of his breakfast on his beard. Yuk! I have to tell you though … it was quite distracting … Cleanliness just wasn’t in his foremost thought (I guess he was preoccupied with the mathematics???).

  15. I doubt that forcing rules on the students would amount to much. Here is what Richard Feynman had to say about his gown as a grad student at Princeton (from the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”):

    Every night we wore academic gowns to dinner. The first night it scared the life out of me, because I didn’t like formality. But I soon realized that the gowns were a great advantage. Guys who were out playing tennis could rush into their room, grab their academic gown, and put it on. They didn’t have to take time off to change their clothes or take a shower. So underneath the gowns there were bare arms, T-shirts, everything. Furthermore, there was a rule that you never cleaned the gown, so you could tell a first-year man from a second-year man, from a third-year man, from a pig! You never cleaned the gown and you never repaired it, so the first-year men had very nice, relatively clean gowns, but by the time you got to the third year or so, it was nothing but some kind of cardboard thing on your shoulders with tatters hanging down from it.

  16. MrCPhysics


    You’re doing what the older generation always does–bemoaning changes they can do nothing about. Curmudgeonliness does not become you…please aim your intellectual weapons elsewhere, it’s way more enlightening and entertaining.

    It’s not surprising that people our age don’t relate to college student fashion. My parents and grandparents didn’t relate to what we wore, either.

    These same kids will be wearing $1200 dollar suits after the graduate and go to work. At least some of them, anyway.

  17. Back in grad school they wouldn’t give me a parking permit. I had to hike a mile and a half to class. It rained every day and so I wore rubber boots. The other students laughed at me, but when the college needed someone to appraise the timber on the properties bequeathed to them, the Dean came to me. Told me I was the only one he trusted to do a competent job — his faculty had none of the necessary experience. Oh yeah, it was a forestry college.

  18. Hmm

    perhaps it is because I am sartorially challenged, but I never had a problem with college wear just wore the universal jeans with an oxford shirt, clean and not too wrinkled. it is a fairly simple style which fits into about 99% of college life, which helps a lot for those of us who have problems understanding style, we’ll never be really stylish but neither will we be out of style. I did sometimes receive complaints about 4 identical grey sweaters I added during the winter (being sartorially challenged I was unwilling to risk any other color) but those were about the monotony of my dress rather than it’s inappropriateness.

  19. Briggs

    Mr CP,

    I’m 45 and have not quite reached codger-hood. Curmudgeon-hood, yes.

  20. PJ

    @James Gibbons:
    I’ve actually heard that story about how belt progression became a thing in martial arts. Typically people would wash their gi but would never wash the belt. So if one were to walk into an academy you would look around and notice that the newbies would all have pristine white belts and they would get dirtier and dirtier until you meet the master whose belt was basically a tattered string.

  21. Maureen

    When I was in college, I didn’t really notice anything about how I dressed, except that I did try to keep a stock of really nice-looking T-shirts, and a stock of decent Sunday clothes. But I didn’t wear jeans and a T-shirt every day, because we still were pretty influenced by preppiness. (Not that we were preps, but Oxford shirts and decent blouses and pants were pretty common.) I was a skinny kid, so my major fashion concern was determining the difference between “fits” and “makes me look like a stick in a bag”. (And of course, staying warm enough in the winter, as frostbite is annoying.)

    It’s hard to find stuff like that, these days. I keep trying to find a decent Oxford shirt that fits, and doesn’t assume that I have eight acres of breast and want to show cleavage, but haven’t succeeded. (And I can’t wear my old ones, because I’m not a skinny kid anymore.)

    They say the preppie look is coming back, though I think they really mean “the demented Japanese schoolboy in a uniform look is coming in”. Still, there’s a chance that I may get my Oxford shirts back, and that makes me happy.

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