Another view - Time to get smart - or unsuitable dress sense will get you clobbered

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

"I have never known an issue to agitate people as much as this. They feel it is a slight on their professionalism."

So said Nick Varney, the University and College Union official. Was he talking about slashed budgets, long hours or frozen pay? No. What was so agitating his members was the lecturer dress code.

This time it is Birmingham Metropolitan College that's hit the headlines after a lecturer was sent home for being too scruffy. The college has recently reissued its guidelines, which require teachers to wear a business suit or a smart skirt and blouse to work.

Personally, I'd rather not wear a suit in the classroom, so I suppose that just leaves me with the skirt option. Whether the Birmingham Met managers would - so to speak - wear that one, I'm not sure.

But why do college lecturers so often react angrily to being told what they can or cannot wear while teaching? Maybe they see it as an attack on their individuality and sense of self. Or perhaps in an already over- regulated workplace, it's just one more "target" they don't care to meet.

Even without the intervention of the bosses, deciding what to wear for work is no easy matter. When you're in front of a class, all eyes are on you. If you wear the same shirt you wore last week, they notice. No doubt they'll assume you haven't washed it. Every stain comes under scrutiny. When the plumbing in the men's loo kicked back at me the other day, I made a point of telling my class about it. I wasn't having them thinking I'd just wet myself.

I am also aware that as I have got older I have become more conservative in the presentation of my professional self. Back in the Seventies, I let my hair grow long and thought nothing of wearing my Levi's to work. If you wore a suit - aka "the interview suit" - everyone instantly assumed you were looking for another job.

But now there's a little voice in my head that says jeans are too casual. There is also the question of age and appropriateness. Mutton dressed as lamb is a sexist judgment normally reserved for women, but sadly the concept can just as easily be applied to men. Prancing into class in those classic Levi's now would no doubt produce a range of responses - from "Who's he kidding?" through to "What a saddo!"

The same goes for the hair - only more so. If you want a visual confirmation of this, go on to Google Images and punch in "Neil Young". There's just something innately unattractive about long, lank locks on the over-50s male. A jaunty ponytail doesn't fool anybody either. If you're bald, you don't become magically not bald just because your few remaining strands are gathered up in an elastic band.

These may be some of the no-nos for men of a certain age, but what are the yes-yeses? My college advises teaching staff to go for the smart-casual look. In pursuit of this, I ran my chinos and open-necked shirt past Mrs Jones recently. "Hmm," she said, "you've certainly managed the casual bit."

I suspect some of my students take a similar view. About a year ago, it was decided at my workplace that all students - and staff - should wear visible IDs on a lanyard round their necks.

I felt it was an imposition at first, although I've changed my mind since. In protest, I taped an alternative mugshot on to my pass - of a smartly dressed chimpanzee, complete with collar and tie.

For several days, no one noticed the difference. Then a sharp-eyed student spotted the forgery and burst out laughing.

"What made you pick it up when no one else did?" I asked.

"Well," she said, "I knew it couldn't be you because I've never seen you in a collar and tie."

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