In high school, we dreaded finals week every semester. But although it was horrible and filled with unnecessary anxiety, it was also somewhat exciting, because it was a break from our strict dress code. It was the one week where it was completely acceptable to dress the way we felt—exhausted, stressed out and maybe even a little bit gross. As teenagers, that was a really big deal. The girls donned sweatpants and ditched their makeup, while the boys opted for athletic shorts and T-shirts. Everyone embraced the simple joy of slovenliness.
Fast-forward a few years, and we’ve all gone our separate ways. Having grown up in Athens, I chose to get away for college. I now attend the University of the South, an old school in Tennessee steeped in tradition. One of the oldest and most peculiar of these traditions is the one we call “Class Dress,” which is basically an unwritten dress code, understood by the whole of the student body.
That's right: a dress code, in college. It sounds crazy. I realize that. Still, I’d like to think that growing up surrounded by the more, uh, casual UGA sartorial habits while attending a university with a glorified dress code has given me an interesting perspective on what the age-old expression of “dress for success” truly means. Drive down Milledge at any point during the school year, and you’ll see everyone wearing pretty much the same outfit: Nike shorts and tennis shoes for girls, and whatever the boys happened to roll out of bed wearing. Add rain gear if necessary.
Although I typically wear a dress to class, I am in no way under the impression that I am making better grades than my peers at schools without dress codes. In fact, who’s to say that their comfort level isn’t actually improving their grades? That being said, the rub is this: the way you dress does, in fact, speak volumes. It’s how you present yourself to the world. Regardless of how motivated and driven you may be, if you dress like a slob, you will probably be perceived as one.
I understand that when you’re one of 300 dozing in an auditorium while pretending to take notes, no one, let alone your professor, will notice the way you are dressed. However, when meeting one-on-one with the man or woman who determines your grades, maybe it’s best to ditch the dumpy ensemble and look a little more put together. The same goes for job interviews—even though the business world is much more casual than it has been in the past, you still only get one chance to make a first impression.
Years ago, men and women alike wore suits on a daily basis. Suits! Much like the academic world, the business world’s version of “dress for success” has changed drastically over the years. The onset of “Casual Fridays” has devolved into “Casual Everyday.” And that's OK. The most important thing is knowing what is acceptable attire for your situation. If you’re in a position where you greet the public and need to project a professional image, for the love of God, don’t wear sweatpants. If you’re working somewhere more laid-back, wear what makes you most comfortable and what you'll do your best work in.
As for that dress code: while we may look like total nerds getting dressed up for class, I think it gives us a better handle on how we need to project ourselves once we’re out of the college bubble. Because, in the end, it all boils down to knowing your audience. You wouldn’t wear those Nike shorts to a job interview, would you?
I really hope you said no.