Step-by-step menswear tips for building your professional wardrobe.
Universal rules of fashion aren't — choose the ones that fit your role in life. This series of articles looks at clothing choices for men in specific, individual careers, from undergraduate college student to high-powered financier and everything in between. Find the style and the menswear that suits you and your path in life!
Students leaving college for a career in the corporate world generally have their wardrobe chosen for them — their workplace will have an expected dress, and they will fill their closets accordingly. Those bound for the halls of academia face a somewhat less fixed world, yet still need to present themselves attractively, especially in the first, impression-forming days and on first meetings with their future peers.
Since dress can vary widely between individual programs and disciplines, and since everyone runs into the occasional presentation or interview that really counts, a grad student's wardrobe — whether custom-made by a professional tailor or pieced together from thrift stores — needs to emphasize flexibility, function — and a touch of style to stand out in the crowd.
The Grad Student's Style: Competitive Casual
For the most part, students in graduate programs will not be expected to wear a suit and tie every day; in most programs they will never be expected to wear a suit or tie for ordinary work or classes. Such a level of formality may even be frowned upon, depending on the institutional culture.
Yet academia is as competitive an environment as any corporate setting, and grad students are constantly exposed to visiting professors, industry representatives, and countless other potentially valuable contacts, none of whom will be impressed by blue jeans and a T-shirt.
Add in the inevitable formal presentations — to peers, to department heads, to budget committees, etc. — and the result is a wardrobe that has to look competitive without looking formal.
Daily Wear for the Academic: The Classic Dandy
Here's the good news — the most casual culture of academia and the strong tradition of eclectic individuality there allows you to play with the really fun parts of men's fashion. It's a little like Hollywood without the hundreds of publications dissecting what's in and what's not (and passing judgment on whether you are personally or not), so go wild while you have the chance.
Most men only get rare opportunities to play the dandy; for the young graduate student, a different sharp-looking outfit every day is not only appropriate but ideal.
The fundamentals of the well-dressed casual have changed little over the years, and a grad student looking to make the best impression would be well-served by sticking to the traditional interpretations. Where suits are too formal, wear dress trousers in varying colors with contrasting jackets or sweaters instead.
To be sure, a pair of khakis and a blue button-down are always appropriate — but why look like every other business-casual type?
Choose trousers in varied colors, even in patterns or textured fabrics (corduroy is alway an interesting textual note), and pair them with similarly-varied dress shirts, always opting for contrast rather than close matching.
Sport coats, worn open and without a tie, transform bland casualness into the very height of relaxed fashion — or dandy it up now and then with a bow tie, or a pin collar to add a metallic flash to your style.
To keep the coats from getting worn with too-frequent use (and to keep your style fresh), wear sweaters or vests over your dress shirts some days of the week; the latter can be either a knitted woolen vest or a more classic waistcoat for an old-fashioned effect. Alternatively, keep the suit coat but loose the dress shirt, and wear a turtleneck underneath instead.
Formal Academic Dress: Menswear for Presentations and Lectures
Inevitably, an aspiring academic is going to be called upon to stand in front of a critical audience and speak.
Avoid looking like most of the uncomfortable, sweaty-faced young men by having a comfortable (ideally tailored) suit that flatters your complexion and body type (several of my other fashion articles address individual body types and the choices that suit them best, and may be worth reading if you are considering buying that invaluable first suit).
Whatever other choices you make, it's impossible to put too much emphasis on avoiding black as a color choice — even if it normally suits your skin tone, black clothing makes people look awful under the greenish-purple florescent lighting that academic buildings invariably use.
Opt for a dark gray or navy blue instead; these timeless options will stand you in good stead behind a lectern or in front of a crucial interview alike.
Going tieless in your day-to-day attire is perfectly appropriate, but will make you look either overconfident or uninterested at a formal presentation, so be ready with a plain, solid-color dress shirt and a tie that goes well with your suit when it's time to speak publicly.
The bow tie has a stronger tradition in academia than elsewhere, and worn properly can make you stand out as a truly timeless gentlemen; a clip-on version will, of course, make you look like a clown, and should be avoided at all costs.
Alternatively, a simple woven tie in one color will be less distracting for the viewer, and can hold a solid knot (the Windsor remains the most even and attractive choice here), helping your tie look good even from the back of a large hall.
Simple details are the kind of thing that harried academics traditionally neglect, so add a few to your ensemble and you'll immediately surpass the appearance of most of the men in the room. A neatly-folded
A neatly-folded pocket square will be like a magnet for wandering gazes, a simple watch peeking out from under your cuff speaks of unusual preparedness, and socks that actually match the color of your trousers will probably be unique in even a large gathering of academics. Don't overdo the accenting, but do be sure to add little, personal touches to even your formal presentation outfit.
Personal Accents: Clothing with Instant Recognition
Realistically, just wearing a sport coat instead of an unadorned button-down dress shirt will set you aside from the vast majority of grad students, but why stop there? In the competitive world of academia, there's no disadvantage to being distinct.
Be the man that your advisor can describe for instant recognition: “Oh, he's the fellow from my lab that wears that sharp hat.”
Pocket squares are once again a shortcut to distinctiveness, since they tend to be even more underused in academic settings than they are in corporate ones; carry an actual handkerchief inside your pocket as well, and be sure to whip it out whenever the situation calls for it.
A pocketknife, a good fountain tip pen, and a dress watch will also all make you stand out as the man who came prepared whenever the need for one arises — and it does, more frequently than you might think.
Since day-to-day life is casual, be sure to play with decorative accents on your leather items as well as your clothing; detailed shoes, tooled belts, and even unusual belt buckles will give people something to comment on and fix you in their minds as a memorable character.
As with the rest of your ensemble, there's no harm in being a little different — academics are eccentric, after all — and there's a marked benefit in being someone more than another too-smart guy in baggy khakis when you have an idea to pitch.
Sample Wardrobe: The Graduate Student's Closet
At the end of the day, you'll be picking clothes to suit your needs and style (to say nothing of your climate), but the staples will remain the same. Here are some of the basics that every grad student should be thinking about:
Wardrobe Essentials – What Every Grad Student Needs
1 suit, gray or navy blue
1+ pairs dress shoes, black Oxfords for the first pair
2+ pairs casual leather shoes
belts to match each pair of shoes
5-10 dress shirts (more shirts means more mix-and-match options, and longer until you have to do laundry)
3-5 ties, including a bow tie if they suit your face and figure
3+ sport coats
5+ pairs differently-colored dress trousers (including both light and dark options)
2+ pairs jeans, preferably deep indigo or black
3-5 dress sweaters or vests
2-3 solid-color polo shirts or short-sleeve dress shirts (more if you live in a hot climate)
10 undershirts, either sleeveless or V-neck
10 pairs comfortable undershorts (briefs or boxer-briefs may be needed with close-fitted trousers)
10 pairs dress socks (matched to the color of your trousers – try to have at least two pairs per pair of pants)
1 simple, leather- or metal-band dress watch
Wardrobe Options – Stylish Touches for the Academic
1 classic navy blazer (gold buttons, etc.)
5+ pocket squares
1+ pair leather gloves (black and then brown are the obvious first and second choices)
1 quality overcoat, wool or leather
dress sandals, moccasins, or other relaxed footwear
3+ decorative belt buckles (nothing too huge, please)
cuff links, collar pins, tie clips, etc.