Don’t Want No Scrubs: What Not to Wear to Work

by Eliana Osborn

I got into a bit of a binging situation with my streaming Netflix and consumed quite a lot of What Not to Wear. For those of you who don’t know because you have been living in a cave or under a cactus, the premise is that someone nominates a poorly dressed friend or family member for a vaguely embarrassing but ultimately redemptive makeover, including $5,000 to spend on new clothes. It is definitely not my most intellectual viewing addiction, but we’re all going to need a little honesty today.

Academics Edition

Professors made quite an appearance on WNTW. How-to articles often focus on appropriate attire for interviewing, but day to day clothes are not so great in the corridors of academia. I’m thinking of the ripped shorts, grubby t-shirt wearing member of my department, or the unwashed hair/lumberjack look favored by another. While such looks are quirky and seem to scream, ‘I’m so busy I can’t possibly worry about my appearance,’ they make me cringe.

Think of yourself as a student. Not the student you pretend that you were, but as a real student. Maybe a student who is the first to go to college, surrounded by people who look different and seem to have it all together. College has been sold to you as the goal, the place to get to after lots of hard work, the place that can help you rise to your highest potential. So now you are in college, terrified, walking into a class. The professor walks in looking like a homeless person. Yes, she may be a genius and you’ll figure that out later. But right off the bat that initial impression is not positive. It doesn’t give students much confidence.

Just because you can dress a certain way does not mean that you should. Good taste covers a variety of sins here: scruffy, short, sheer, or just plain tacky. Getting the job is not the only time where your appearance matters. Yes yes, I know, our society places far too much value on looks. I’m not talking about designer duds or keeping up with fashion trends If you enjoy such things, go for it. Looking polished and professional doesn’t have to take over your life. It does require a modicum of effort to ensure that you can communicate your content message without your clothes or grooming getting in the way.

What Not to Wear has some simple rules, but I’m going to go a step further here with rules that everyone can follow, even someone who spends all day in a lab, only stumbling out briefly for a class or two.

  1. The iron is your friend. If you hate to iron, outsource. Any piece of clothing will look better freshly pressed rather than wrinkled.
  2. Clothing should be from this decade. I know that there are exceptions, but unless we are talking about an amazing suit, most things you wear should be from the last ten years. I’m being generous here, so no complaints.
  3. If you aren’t sure, don’t wear it.
  4. If you can’t comfortably move around the classroom and gesticulate in a garment, don’t wear it.
  5. Try to look more polished than your students. That standard is different at each campus and in each area of the country, so you’ll have to do some recon work to figure it out. You want to look like an authority, not a peer, even if your age doesn’t warrant it.

Lest you think I can only provide rules for people in my own field, no worries. I’ve got some pointers for lots of other situations too.

Medical Field Edition

  1. Scrubs are for work. They are not ok for anything else except getting coffee on your way to work or milk on the way home.
  2. Plain scrubs are better than patterned if you hope to be an adult.
  3. Off the job, wear shoes that aren’t sad.
  4. Do not over compensate for living in shapeless scrubs at work by dressing provocatively for all other occasions.
  5. Hair in a ponytail is a valid choice. Hair twirled up in a pencil works less of the time. Having hair that can handle a long shift at work without getting in your face? Might be worth a spendy cut.

Marketing and Public Relations Edition

  1. Any skirt where you worry about ass cheeks is not going to work, no matter how great your legs look.
  2. Sheer blouses are awesome. Every day? Not so much. Wear a cami, not just a bra.
  3. If you can’t talk on the phone with your earrings on, probably not a good idea.
  4. Don’t start dressing like your boss. Creepy. Even if she’s got great taste.
  5. It has been said before but I’ll say it again: casual Friday means something different everywhere. Get two appropriate outfits and rotate them if you really can’t figure it out enough to trust your creative instincts.

Dating Edition

  1. If you have to take tiny steps, it is not a good outfit.
  2. If you would be embarrassed to be seen with your mother, don’t wear it.
  3. Décolletage? Fine. Worrying about areola? Too much boob.
  4. Even if you are doing something active, don’t dress like a teenager. Jeans and a T-shirt are fine, but aim for fitted.
  5. Wear good underwear, even if you’re the only one who’s going to see it. It will help your posture.
  6. No matching or even coordinating with your partner. Just don’t do it.

Eliana Osborn is a writer and part time English professor living in the desert southwest. She’s raising kids, obsessed with sunshine, and trying to stay out of home improvement stores for the sake of her finances.