Best Dressed: Can we ditch business dress?

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A recent heatwave got me thinking: business dress is not comfortable when the temperature begins to soar. Why do we insist that students and teachers alike forsake comfort for the illusion that smart clothing equals professionalism?

The ‘Scruffy’ Teacher Problem

Since the supposed 2014 ‘clampdown on scruffy teachers‘, every school I’ve worked in exemplified the importance of business dress in their school. This dress code applied to staff and students alike. The theory is usually justified with a suggestion that ‘smart’ clothing reflects the high standards that a school sets for its students and encourages students to take pride in their appearance too.

On one hand, a suit gives off an air of professionalism. At least, in theory. On the other, it’s just window dressing. It’s par for the course. It’s what schools want inspectors to see when they walk through the door – and no one can blame them.

In The Real World…

As soon as students leave secondary school their clothing options widen massively. Some former students might never wear a suit again outside of interviews or special occasions. Even most modern offices have done away with ‘smart casual’ in favour of ‘plain old casual’. For students who’ve taken on apprenticeships or a trade, they’re even less likely to don a suit day-to-day.

It begs the question: why do we promote business dress at school when it’s not an accurate representation of reality for 95% of the population? If little else, the notion feels old fashioned.

It’s about perception, obviously!

Now we circle back to one of the big reasons behind business dress in the first place: professionalism. Or the perception of it. Some would argue that a scruffy teacher commands no respect in the classroom, their students will see the lack of effort in the wardrobe department as a lack of discipline and follow by example. That’s not exactly fair and any and all teachers know that if a student is going to misbehave, they care less about your shirt and tie combo.

Growing up, the head of my secondary school by no means wore what one would expect to see a headteacher wearing today.  By all accounts, her dress sense ranged from ‘hippy’ to ‘your best friend’s mum’. Despite her unusual sense of style, she was absolutely terrifying, competent but definitely not ‘business dress’.

There’s also the Ofsted problem. Despite suggesting they weren’t prescriptive in their approach to ‘appropriate’ teacher garb, the words ‘business-like’ were contrasted with the word ‘scruffy’ in the news. This created an impression that a teacher is scruffy if they’re not at their sartorial best. In response, schools very quickly remind any and all new teachers that their policy is ‘business dress’ for staff.

When I talk about moving away from business dress, I’m certainly not advocating that a teacher ought to rock up in flip-flops, baggy cargo shorts, a tatty graphic t-shirt (although I know a few university lecturers who totally got away with this during my stint as a student). What I’m asking is the following: Are a pair of chinos (heck, even appropriate chino shorts in hot weather) and a plain t-shirt scruffy? No. It’s actually quite smart and it’s a damn-sight more comfortable than a full suit, tie and blazer on a hot day.

…but do students even care?

This is, of course, the trickiest part to answer. Schools, policies and anti-bullying campaigns often cite clothing as a flash-point for bullying among students and there’s perhaps a good reason to ensure that students have a reasonably level playing field when it comes to clothing options in schools.

However, do students care if their teacher is wearing a suit? Does business dress command respect by the very nature of appearance alone? In my experience, probably not. On the occasions I’ve dressed down but kept it reasonably smart, students haven’t made comment or behaved differently as a result.

The only noticeable difference was the fact that I felt comfortable all day instead.

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