Dressing to impress: Suits may not be so suitable in front of students

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In this post, Dr Ben Marder, a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business school, along with PhD student Sebastian Oliver, share their findings of a study that explores the effects of academic dress and relationships with students in lectures…. 

If you Google ‘why do academics…’ then the autofill function will suggest ‘dress so badly’. Compared to the world of corporate fashion, Google has a fair point. Many answers to ‘why’ this is the case have been suggested, but how this perceived ‘poor’ dress sense affects our relationship with students is unknown. This blog presents initial findings which support that, in universities such as Edinburgh, dressing to impress (students) does not mean wearing a suit.

Scruffy jumpers, worn tweed, a somewhat charity shop chic. These are common stereotypes of academics’ fashion choices, a dress sense that would be frowned upon in most corporate environments, and considered ‘bad dress sense’ by others outside academia. As always, haters will always hate, but what is important is finding out what our students think. In other words, does the way academics dress impact the relationships with their students? We provide initial insights into answering this question.

Common sense and a wealth of research into workplace fashion suggests that if you dress more formally then you will be perceived as more competent but at the same time less warm. But Higher Education is very different to other industries. University academics arguably have inherent perceived competence shown through multiple degrees, and they work in a space that encourages free and, to an extent, non-conformist thinking, which leads us to question the general dress rules of other industries.

As the first part of a multi-study series, we (Sebastian and myself) ran a large pilot study where we compared over 1000 ratings by students of photos of academics who dressed to different levels of formality. In general, our findings support the status quo: that yes, more formal attire gives a higher perception of competence and a lower perception of warmth. But this is not the case if the student went to a high ranked university. For those students, no matter how their teacher dressed, competence perception remained the same, though warmth increased when they dressed more informally.

 We propose the reason for this is that the prestige of the university automatically signals competence that can’t be undone due to bad knitwear. In other words, academics at highly prestigious universities need not use formal dressing to make students think they are competent; they do already (whether or not the academics feels this themselves). Though not as clear cut, our findings also support dressing down for academics at lower ranked institutions is favourable because, in doing so, perceptions of warmth appears to increase more than competence decreases. Furthermore, no gender effects were found either from the presented academic or the student rater. Throughout the analysis, we controlled for seniority and age of the faculty.

In essence, our findings show that, at high-ranked, prestigious universities, such as Edinburgh, if we want to be seen as more approachable – a characteristic that is key to fostering positive relationships with our students (included in student-staff evaluation surveys) – we should keep our formal attire in the wardrobe for weddings.

Ben Marder

Ben is a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business school. He is head of year four and course organisation for undergraduate dissertations. Ben’s research expertise is in social media and has published in using technology as a support mechanism.

Sebastian Oliver

Sebastian Oliver is a PhD Student in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include: consumer behaviour, social media, internet marketing, artificial intelligence, and digital technology. Specifically, he is interested in the ramifications of various digital technologies on both society & business management.


  1. I found this blog fascinating Ben and Sebastian. Earlier this year I was in Moldova undertaking work on an Erasmus funded visit, which included a formal day of presentations where I was one of the speakers/guests. Prior to the trip I had been suffering from a sore foot and my physio had recommended I wear a supportive walking shoe/trainer. So I found myself dressed smartly but wearing what looked like black trainers. I noticed many of the women were wearing very formal high heels, gold shoes or designer shoes and I felt very under-dressed. Later in the year I was in a Danish university class of business students who were discussing the impressions formed by what people wear for work and a Moldovan student in the class spoke of how they have expectations that people dress very formally. When I told her my story about wearing trainers, she said, people probably judged my level of competence detrimentally because of this. My current research explores the importance of student-staff relationships on student engagement and so I am encouraged that perhaps they perceived my warmth if not my competence! This all leads me to suggest/ask, I wonder if the effects you are measuring are perceived differently by students from different countries?

  2. I also find this very interesting Ben and Sebastian. I too wonder how this differs across countries but also across different colleges/faculty. As an economist, I have taught in both both business schools and economics departments that were in colleges of liberal arts. I always struck by the difference in dress: business school faculty almost always being more formally dressed than liberal arts. Your study offers an explanation way: the business faculty (most often) are NOT interested in being seen as “warm” but instead want to demonstrate competence (or I would suggest: conformity) where the liberal arts faculty (generally) want to encourage open discussion and individual thought. Thus, I believe your research demonstrates business faculty are making a huge mistake. We need business leaders who do think unconventionally if we are going to address climate change, inequality, and other pressing issues. The impact of your research should be widely discussed.

  3. This is an interesting debate outside of academia too – with employers who recruit our graduates and certain sectors will have a tendency to smart v smart-casual v casual eg Finance v media OR Client facing v non client facing roles. Never been a great fan of employers having dress down/casual days as pretty artificial/gimmicky. As Careers Consultants we visits employers and invariably dress smart because if we really don’ know what the dress code is (though more and more employers are telling us in advance and smart -casual seems to be the norm – but what does that mean is another debate)

  4. It’s an interesting topic in the world of work too with debate about what constitutes work attire – with smart v smart casual (however defined and that can be challenging to interpret), client or non client facing, sector (banking v media v academia v Google type organisations v IT). Even within the university i suspect more traditional work attire for some of our supporting services (finance/HR) I think there is still a culture in some organisations to have a dress casual Friday (as long as not meeting clients) which i think is a weird concept for one day!
    Interesting on the warmth v competency angle and i agree that students would assume the competency (or expert?) angle from someone ‘teaching’ them.

  5. Same as the others – I find this fascinating! My very first ‘guidance’ meeting when I was an undergraduate, my tutor heard my degree programme and said “ahh, you’re one of the woolly jumper crowd”. Anecdotally I’ll say in animal science you’re judged very much in the opposite direction at times. If you’re not dressed ‘practically’ you’re not as competent in the field. Some colleagues and I once debated the wearing of nail varnish as scientists, and this was not coming from a health and safety perspective 😉

    Fascinating blog, thanks 🙂

  6. Hi Ben and Sebastian – really interesting observations in your article and the comments above. I have used your blog to explain to one visiting student that we don’t have a formal dress code in the Business School .. for students! Expectations vary across the world, but as a graduate of the International Teachers Programme at LBS I was taught that in some countries a lecturer’s dress is not interpreted as signalling warmth, distance, or competence, but simply respect for the audience. That’s a tough interpretation to go against, so formal attire might simply be seen as the safest option?

    Great to see this reflected on and debated above, and beautifully presented.

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