“It’s Not About You: Dressing For Success at Work”

(Or as Barney Stinson might say, “Suit Up!”)

Over the past week there has been a flurry of activity on the topic of appropriate attire at work for Higher Education professionals. I have some strong feelings on this simply because I fear that we are disseminating untrue and potentially career-damaging information for new professionals regarding creating a professional image that helps them gain credibility and positions for career mobility.

These views represent my own personal feelings and I welcome others to share their own thoughts and myths on this topic.

Myth #1: It doesn’t matter what you wear in Higher Education because we work with students:

False—While the logic behind this is that dressing more formally creates a barrier between practitioners and students, appropriate attire clearly demonstrates that you hold a position of authority at the institution and can assist them in getting the resources and support they need. 

Students are but one constituency that we work with on a daily basis.  Parents, alumni and community partners are important stakeholders on college campuses. 

What does your professional image say to these partners? 


Myth #2: Encouraging professionals to “dress for the position that they want” is classist and is not socially just.

False—Jeans and sneakers can cost as much (or more!) than dress clothes.  Dressing for success isn’t about wearing Chanel, it’s about looking neat, polished and put-together.   Professional attire can be found at every price point.

How do you create a look that is comfortable, reflects your personality and demonstrates your role as a professional at your institution?


Myth #3: If I dress up at work then I am not being my “authentic self.”

False—there is no cookie-cutter mold for appropriate work attire—believe me, I would not necessarily fit into this category, either!  Be yourself, but showcase the best possible version of your professional self.  Every day you represent your institution, your department, your supervisor and those you supervise.  This is a responsibility that is not to be taken lightly. 

It isn’t about “you” in this respect.  You are receiving a paycheck to do good work and support students.  You are also an ambassador for your university in every setting and with every constituency you work with. 

Especially for our new professionals, many of you have the (good?!) fortune of looking young.  When working with older faculty and/or staff, don’t give them any reason to question your place in a meeting.  Don’t let your image distract them from your message.

How can we prepare new professionals to understand the culture of your institution and the importance of professional image?

 Follow me on Twitter at: @annmarieklotz  


About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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42 Responses to “It’s Not About You: Dressing For Success at Work”

  1. Yes!

    First, I love that you started with a Barney Stinson quote. I

    To answer your last question, I think programs like #SAgrow or any mentoring helps new professionals have those conversations in an atmosphere that is a safe and true. If you don’t have someone who you can ask about what to do in a particular situation without trusting their opinion, then it doesn’t matter what you wear – success will be hard to reach.

    Mentors, coaches, partners, etc. Find a community that will help you, guide you, push you, and pick you up when you need it.

    Rock on,

    • Thanks Joe! It isn’t often that I would repeat Barney’s quotes (in public!) but this one seemed appropriate!

      Couldn’t agree more about the importance of finding someone to assist with your professional image–this is often overlooked and it shouldn’t be! I appreciate your voice in this conversation 🙂 -AMK

  2. I think that part of the conversation missed the point. From a practical standpoint, your myths make sense. But I think we have an obligation to critically analyze how these beliefs came to be. When did “dressing for success” mean a suit and tie? Why are women criticized for wearing pants and not skirts? When we create barriers to access (be it by dress, education, etc) we need to make sure those barriers are legitimate.

    • Stephanie,
      Good thoughts here. I don’t by any means insinuate that every SA pro should come to work tomorrow in a suit and tie–I just encourage folks to know that we have an obligation to assist students, be a good representative of our schools and demonstrate a professional image. Not everyone understands the nature of our work so let’s not give them any reason to doubt our legitimacy. Thanks so much for reading nad for commenting! -AMK

  3. Courtney Reynolds says:

    love this! thanks for sharing, im passing it along! (:

  4. Excellent post! I could not agree with you more!

  5. Mike Severy says:

    Well done Ann Marie. I particularly like the questions you ask to provoke thought.

    I’d be interested to learn your perspective on the female equivalents of my dress continuum posted here: http://mikesevery.com/2012/01/12/dress-in-student-affairs/

  6. lizgross says:

    I absolutely agree with you, although
    1) I don’t always take the advice myself
    2) I see colleagues in both student and academic affairs that don’t care at all.

    I used to wear whatever barely scraped by as adhering to dress code. Often, top administrators on campus mistook me for a student. Dressing up changed that. Now that I’m a Director, it really matters, and I probably should be wearing suits to work more often. My main complaint re: suits is that it’s hard for a short, chubby woman to find a suit that fits well, even with a tailor. And I’ve yet to find a tailor. That being said, I’ve been told I look smashing in black pants and a blazer that I put together to “make a suit,” that cost no more than $75 total. I feel better in a suit, and I’m taken more seriously in a suit (or other appropriate business attire). Honestly, what made me think about this was observing TJ Logan – he’s got 1 or 2 suits handy wherever he goes, and he’s always dressed to impress.

    On another note:
    I approach this from a different perspective now that I’m a Marketing/Communications Director. Any given day, something could happen on campus that would require me to go on camera or live TV. Would I be happy to be “caught” in that day’s outfit?

    • Thanks Liz for reading and commenting. I love this last point that you make about if/when you are asked at a moments notice to represent the university–so true!

      I sometimes “make a suit” too. It isn’t about being “matchy-matchy” it’s about finding pieces that you feel good in–again, at any price!

      P.S. TJ does always looking smashing 🙂


    • I hear you that it can be tough for someone who is “not tall” to find clothes… I struggle with that challenge and living in a rural area with few shopping options does not help! I also have to “make a suit” from time to time, but I often see it as an opportunity to show a little bit of my creativity.

      • Thanks for reading, Heather! I have the opposite problem–I’m pretty tall! I tend to find a few good pieces that work for me and buy in multiple colors. 🙂 -AMK

  7. AMK,

    Great post. I appreciate you bringing your perspective and experience to this ongoing dialogue. For me, I always ask myself whether I am positioning myself to effectively advocate for the students I am trying to help. If I am in a room where a necktie will help people actually listen to, and hopefully hear, my points better, than I go with a tie. There are rooms, however, where a tie (or a suit) has the opposite effect, so I avoid over-dressing if it is going to hinder my effectiveness with certain constituencies.

    On the other hand, a larger question of authenticity seems to lay underneath all of this workplace strategy. In my work with undergrads, grads, and new professionals I try and urge folks to figure out their own personal balance of authenticity and strategy. Each one of us is going to have a different threshold for modulating our behavior while at work and I urge folks to add this issue of strategy vs authenticity to their consideration of “institutional fit” while on a job search.

    I know that I can’t be 100% authentic while at work…but I’m not trying to be. For me, wearing a suit, or not, doesn’t seem like a major authenticity issue. Dressing strategically doesn’t feel like I am violating a core personal ethic or value. Failing to be an effective advocate for low-income, first generation college students would make me feel inauthentic, so I do what it takes to make a difference.

    • Love this point “For me, I always ask myself whether I am positioning myself to effectively advocate for the students I am trying to help.”

      That is SO critical. If “selling out” by wearing a suit helps practitioners to do this, the return (on such a small investment!) is a huge win for our students!

      Thanks Vijay!

  8. Wonderful post. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and I struggle sometimes with the idea that as SA pros dressing professionally is not necessary. At times I feel that we sell ourselves short because we are in a field that works with students. I understand that despite where I work (a college campus) my image reflects my university. I know that it has a major impact on how I am percieved. A wonderful mentor (AMK) taught me the importance of the notion that “perception is reality” and I understand how that plays into my outward appearance.

    I think we set our students up for failure sometimes when we produce this image that jeans and tshirts in the office are okay (no offense to anyone that does this) but that is my opinion. A student then goes out in the world and is shocked at the fact that they now have to wear a suit and sensible shoes.

    The validity and definition of the term “dressing for success” is easily debatable but as you continue to mature and grow in this field…I doubt you will maintain the same standard of dressing as you did when you first entered. As I stated in the twitter chat…I want to sit at a certain table; a table with University presidents, VCs, etc…in order to do that I have to come dressed to play.

    • Thanks Bobbie!
      I love this point you make, “I think we set our students up for failure sometimes when we produce this image that jeans and tshirts in the office are okay…A student then goes out in the world and is shocked at the fact that they now have to wear a suit and sensible shoes.”

      We do have an obligation to teach/role model tips for success for life post-graduation and this is one (important) way to do it! 🙂 –AMK

  9. Michele Hilger says:

    Great post! And though I am not in student affairs, I think this is true in most industries. As a sales professional in the retirment industry, I don’t feel it’s appropriate on “jeans days” for me to dress down. I need to dress for my clients, most of whom came of age in an era when women wore skirts or dresses and men wore a coat and tie. You are absolutely correct in saying it’s not about “you.”

  10. Thanks for your timely post on this topic. It is an important topic that I think we sometimes do not discuss often enough– maybe because we deem other topics to be “more important” or because we fear being labeled the fashion police or whatever the reason. We need to talk about this more often, and openly, as peers but also with those we supervise, mentor and teach. Dressing appropriately is not about labels, it’s about being prepared and feeling confident 🙂

  11. Love the post and all the responses! I have always taken the position on dress this way, if I had to meet with the president, would I be comfortable with what I was wearing? If the answer was no, I better change.

  12. Norma Salcedo says:

    Thank you for posting this. On my first couple of days as a graduate student working here at KU I realized how annoying it was to have students confuse me for another student. I took the initiative to change my work attire to a more professional one. I noticed the difference in the way students treated me right away. It actually started many conversations because students wanted to know more about my role. My best days turn out to be the days I “suit up”!

  13. Melissa Robertson says:

    Agree and appreciate you helping to dispel the myths. For me personally, my mindset somewhat changes depending on how “put together” I feel on that particular day. If I know that I am putting my best self forward, I feel much more prepared to tackle what comes at me that day. Modeling this to our students is important.

    • Yes! And it’s that role-modeling piece that students will remember–not always what you said but how you lived/acted/demonstrated professionalism every day. Thanks for reading, Melissa! -AMK

  14. Shimina Harris says:

    Great post AMK! I am certainly looking forward to initiating this conversation in my department.
    Hope you are well!

  15. This is always a dilemma for me. I want to tell new professionals that jeans and sneakers should not ever be the norm for regular work (after hours I can understand, especially when you live where you work). On the other hand, I’m not wearing suits unless I’m at a conference or interview so I get that I’m not the best role model. I struggle between wanting to be polished but also wanting to be comfortable. It’s possible, but tricky. Plus, there will always be others who disapprove if you are not wearing a suit every day, no matter how fake or uncomfortable you are in it. Argh.

  16. Krissie says:

    AMK, I am in complete agreement with your comments about dressing for your next position. I dressed relatively casual over the weekend for some sorority-recruitment related events which required being outdoors a good deal of the time. So while wearing jeans, Wellies and the Panhellenic-logoed fleece, I was asked if I was a student by some of the advisors. While I appreciate the compliment that I look a decade younger than my age, it made me critcally think that in even moments that are supposed to be of a casual nature, how can I distinguish myself so I can be looked upon as a professional? Once I identified myself and that I worked for the office, the tone and approach of the advisors immediately shifted.

    • Krissie,
      Thanks for reading and for commenting! You are so right. I also think we were lucky to be at GVSU as undergrads where we had great role models in so many ways (professional attire included)! -AMK

  17. I have been mulling this topic over after reading through the chat yesterday (I was in a meeting and unable to participate live), and had a few thoughts that I’m not sure were addressed or if I missed them.

    I get the issue of class and privilege and its impact on attire and accessibility to attire. My question about that is: aren’t we all, by virtue of our current work, in roughly similar classes? That is, my background may have been different than many of my colleagues (I grew up in a military family so I’m sure I had access to some opportunties that others did not, and am sure that I was left out of opportunities that others had), but I’d argue that I earn about the same (within a specified range) as other assistant directors, and therefore have roughly similar opportunities to outfit myself in an appropriate way to do my work. I may be way off base here and welcome clarity from others who see that differently.

    Setting aside class for a moment, I think a real question that we can address, is where is the concept of “appropriate” learned? My wife and I were discussing this on our commute home (because we’re both higher ed nerds and that’s what we do), and she brought up this point about when and from whom we learn what we should be wearing based on the professional settings we find ourselves in. I think it’s partly by the examples of those around us, and perhaps from someone pulling us aside and letting us know when our wardrobe is working against us. I don’t think class is necessarily a part of that conversation.

    Finally, I had to wonder if we come off as shallow for passing judgment on a person’s ability because of what they are wearing. Someone made the point that as long as you’re doing your work, does it matter what you are wearing (I’m paraphrasing here) – I agree to some extent, although you won’t catch me showing up to work in sweats and a hoodie even if that helps me work more efficiently. I save that for when I’m working from home! I do think that the true measure of a staff member should be their performance on the job, not necessarily how they look while doing it. People can be dressed impeccably and still turn in a sub-par product, so I’m not sure that “dressing the part” necessarily means that person is anymore professional than another. As to the point about approachability, again I think that has more to do with one’s personality than their shirt. I’m no different in working with students if I’m in a shirt and tie (as I am today), than if I’m wearing a polo shirt in the summer, or jeans on a day I know I’m going to be working in the floor instead of behind a desk.

    It’s an intriguing topic for sure, I just hope we don’t put so much stock into it that we lose sight of the fact that it’s the work we do that should be how we’re measured.

    • I feel similar to Ann Marie on the question of Student Affairs professionals being in a similar economic situation. While our salaries may be comparable, there is so much more to it that just that. If someone had to take out student loans to fund their education, that may be eating up a lot of their current paycheque, as they try to pay that loan down. An individual may be contributing part of their income to family, so that’s a consideration as well. Just because we do similar work does not mean that we spend (or are able to spend) our earnings on the same things.

      On the issue of professional attire, to me, what you wear is a part of your brand. While a dress code is the responsibility of a department to disseminate to its employees, each individual should consider what they wear each day.

      It’s great to see so much rich discussion about this!

  18. Lots of good thoughts here, thanks Jeff. I guess the issue of “same” economic class is open to a lot of things–the cost of living, whether people have monetary support from their family/partner, student loans, etc. We decide to spend money (or not) based on both needs and what we value. I need to think more about this. Thanks for reading and commenting! -AMK

  19. Ryan Geelish says:

    I agree, great article!

  20. Ciji Ann says:


    I am inspired by your post. I agree with many of your points but found your last line to be the most powerful: “Don’t let your image distract them from your message.” This statement is empowering & a call to action. Take your professionalism into your own hands and represent your best self not only through dress, but actions & speech as well.

    As always, thank you for sharing!

  21. Pingback: Job One | annmarieklotz

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