It's not easy to dress like a grown-up in the academy. Conditions vary, hours are long and irregular, and salaries encourage instructors to conserve rather than replace. This has led me, over time, to develop an "office kit" to cope with the daily challenges of "dressing like a professor."
Dedicated walking shoes: I keep a "dedicated" pair of shoes at work: brown Rockport walking shoes. I chose a pair that looks enough like dress shoes to get by, and they are amazingly comfortable for walking and standing all day. They take shoe shine, so I keep one of those Kiwi sponge-top bottles of instant polish in a desk drawer. I also keep a couple of spare pairs of shoelaces there, in case of a midday shoestring blowout. A dedicated pair of shoes, kept at work away from the wintry elements, makes my work shoes last longer.
Shoe care again: When I change shoes, a little Lysol gets sprayed into the pair I'm removing, bowling-lanes-style. Yes, I wash my feet. It's a small office, and I'm like the proverbial frog in the pan of water: if I think I'll notice when things start to get smelly, I'm fooling only myself.
Good, curved hangers in the closet: I remove my blazer or suit jacket several times each day. Also, once a week, I go straight from work to teach Taekwon-do in the elementary schools, changing out of my work clothes before leaving and packing out out my suit or blazer and pants. So, I always keep several hangers in my office closet: not cheap wire hangers or even the plastic ones, but the nice curved ones that come with a suit or blazer. These keep the shape of the shoulders properly, even when I'm carrying my suits and blazers around or hanging them in the car.
Lint brush and soda water: I like a real lint brush more than the sticky-paper kind, because my principal enemy is chalk dust. A six-pack of soda water with a dedicated clean handkerchief stands ready to take out small stains (including the spot of blood on my collar that I missed in the bathroom mirror that morning).
Change of shirt and tie: This is a work zone. There is coffee, soup, mustard, chalk dust, toner, ink, and every manner of hazard. I haven't yet had to draw on the dress shirt, slacks, and necktie that I keep hanging in the closet, but I'm always glad to see them there.
Climate control: Three words: brown cardigan sweater. Great for relaxing in a drafty office, and in a pinch can substitute for a forgotten blazer.
Casual clothes: This may be overkill, but I like to keep a set of season-appropriate casual clothes (jeans, long-sleeve tee) folded in a drawer, just in case I want to go somewhere after work without looking like like Ward Cleaver.
What about the adjuncts?
For several years, I shuttled between schools as an adjunct, walking and taking public transportation. None of the schools had an "adjunct office." What can the vagabond adjunct do to reduce wear and tear on the work clothes that he can't afford to replace?
- Resist the temptation to "dress down" as an adjunct: having less real power, the trappings of power are more important to you, not less…they are just much harder to maintain.
- Wear walking shoes instead of dress shoes. Even "comfortable" dress shoes are murder as the miles rack up, and they also fall apart under hard use. If you can't arrange a change-of-shoes routine, then plan to go through your walking shoes annually, especially if you walk to work or take public transportation. When you buy a new pair, keep the beat-up ones for casual use.
- Wide, padded shoulder straps that won't cut into the shoulders of your blazer or suit jacket. Consider a backpack with a hip-belt suspension system, which will take the weight off your shoulders altogether. (If you protest that you'll look like a dork, I'm afraid that I have bad news for you.) This will also save your back, and since you don't have health insurance and don't have time to be laid up with spasms, seriously: consider the hip belt.
- See if a friendly office secretary has a place for you to keep your wet boots, umbrella, and coat while you're on campus. Or, if s/he can wrangle you a commuter locker, even if those are reserved for students. Similarly, is there a safe place to keep your large and heavy books on campus when you don't have a reason to drag them home? The less you have to carry everything all the time, the easier it is to keep the clothes on your back unrumpled and in good repair.
As a man, recognize that I enjoy my culture's relative clarity and stability concerning a man's "uniform" in the academy. I would especially love to see women instructors round out my suggestions for the "kit" in the Comments. Thoughts from anyone? Improvements?
[Dress Like a Professor: The Office Kit was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2013/10/17. Except as noted, it is © 2013 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]