How an academic gets by on a dozen items of clothing in a four seasons climate

This casual post, unlike others on the blog, has nothing to do with bi/multilingualism in K-12 education (hence it doesn’t come on a Wednesday). It’s just a musing for graduate students, who may find themselves having to dress like professors to teach and attend conferences well before they have the financial means to do so. This problem is especially bad for people living in four seasons climates, whether in the Northern or Southern hemisphere. So, how to build a complete professoring wardrobe over the course of a four-year PhD, on a limited budget? This is what we will be analyzing this week, as I procrastinate regarding my move to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (four seasons), where I will be joining the Linguistics faculty in August as Assistant Professor of Sociolinguistics.

The 12-item wardrobe is one I built up over 3.5 years, from the second-to-last year of grad school until the present—two years after my PhD graduation. I wish I had compiled it over the course of my 4-year PhD. The wardrobe relies on two principles:

  1. Don’t think about what you’re going to wear in the morning.
  2. Use the strategy of a private school uniform: a few very high-quality items which, even if used weekly, daily, or every other day, still look academically presentable. These items can be purchased at a discount through “secondary research” (researching online being something PhD folks are good at) or by “primary fieldwork” (at the Value Village).

The wardrobe consists of 10 items that can be washed, tumble dried or hang-dried, and ironed with a mini hand steamer (which can fit in your carry-on luggage to a conference):

  • Five white button-down shirts that are slightly different (Monday to Friday). These do not need to be expensive, but should be sturdy. Study up on how to wash whites. 😉
  • Two neutral-coloured pants to be worn on alternate weeks.
  • Three additional layers that come off and on as the months go by: sweater, blazer, and wool coat. Thus, you can have (i) shirt-pants, (ii) shirt-pants-sweater, (iii) shirt-pants-blazer, (iv) shirt-pants-sweater-blazer, (v) shirt-pants-sweater-coat, or (vi) shirt-pants-sweater-blazer-coat. The sweater—cleaned weekly—should be of the wash, hang dry, and steam iron variety. The blazer can be dry cleaned at the end of each fall/spring semester, and the wool coat every 1-2 years. This keeps dry cleaning to a bare minimum, e.g., fall=blazer, spring=blazer again, summer=coat (if necessary).

That’s 10 items of clothing that must match. The white shirts go with both pants and with every combo of additional layers. (My pants are black and navy blue, my sweater is black, my blazer brown, and my coat bright red.)

The other two items in the 12-item wardrobe (not including small winter accessories like a toque, scarf, and gloves) are very important daily items:

  • Unkillable” boots. These are 100% leather boots that can be walked in comfortably over long distances and are still presentable in the classroom if polished. They should ideally be brown or black so the appropriate polish is easy to find. They will last a decade or more. Whenever you polish them, they look almost as good as new. When the soles get worn, you can get them re-soled.
  • A sturdy backpack appropriate for teaching, or an “unkillable” 100% leather bag. After a couple years of Assistant Professoring, you can trade the former for the latter.

You can accumulate these high quality, long-lasting items during graduate school by using a few opportunistic tricks.

First year

At the start of this academic year, I recommend investing in a sturdy new backpack that will last 5 or 6 years. Day hiking backpacks that are not too flashy-looking and don’t have too many “hanging bits” are best for this purpose.

You can buy a secondhand wool coat at the thrift store or through classifieds. If you want a brand new wool coat, explore the clearance section of a good quality clothes store the summer before your PhD. You may get a better price because it’s out-of-season. This coat can be worn in your first winter.

Personally, I find it’s better to buy things physically by taking the bus to the mall and then walking around to check out deals every few weeks. Delivery costs waste money. Grab a coffee and do your writing there while you’re at it. 🙂

Second year

This will likely be the first year you attend your discipline’s flagship conference, presenting as a member of a research team. This is the year to get a white button-down shirt, a pair of pants, and a sweater. (As my friend Ha Ngyuen and I discovered, no one cares at AAAL what’s on your feet if you’re a grad student.) You can cheat by asking your immediate family—a parent, friend, sibling, or significant other—to get you one of these items for your birthday so you don’t need to buy all of them. Again, they don’t need to be expensive, just sturdy and presentable even after regular wearing. Also, they should be machine-washable, tumble-dried or hung-to-dry, and quickly straightened by a steam iron.

Third year

This is likely the year when you present your own work at the discipline’s flagship conference. Wardrobe mission is similar to the second year: get yourself (or have your loved ones gift you) another good quality white button-down shirt, another pair of pants, and this time, a blazer. For the blazer, because it’s more expensive, you can go the thrift store + dry clean route instead of buying brand new. Or try and buy out-of-season at a store for a major discount. It’s best to get a fall/spring blazer, which can be worn almost the whole year round.

Fourth year

This is the year of your interviews! With luck, you’ll be tramping around campuses on two- or three-day visits as a finalist for an Assistant Professorship, the lowest rung on the tenure track. Hopefully you’ve saved up, because this is the year you get your “unkillable boots.”

If you get the job, congrats! Now you’ll need to procure exactly three more white button-down shirts. The good thing is that they’re available any time of year, and you can always find a sale on them somewhere. They’re wash-and-wear, match everything, and always look presentable… and the extra things needed to clean them (whether you’re into lemon, vinegar, baking soda, peroxide, or bleach) are quite cheap.

…and beyond!

I wear somewhat of a uniform as an Assistant Professor, as the picture at the top shows.

The good thing about this wardrobe is that it never grows too much, and it is easy to move with you if you change institutions. A selection of it can fit in a small suitcase for a conference, along with your steam iron, sleeping clothes, toiletries, etc.

If something gets old/worn (or if you can no longer fit in it due to too much dim sum), just replace it with another of that thing… and these things last long. White button-down shirts last 2-3 years, pants and sweaters 3-5 years, a blazer 5-10 years. Hence, you’ll likely only replace 1-2 things a year, most likely just a shirt, pants, or sweater. The “unkillable” leather shoes and wool coat should each last a decade or more, and the leather bag can last your whole career (as many faculty illustrate). So this is how to survive on a dozen clothing items that are always presentable, wash-and-wear, opportunely priced, and fit you and each other well, in four seasons weather… if you don’t mind “uniform style.” 😉

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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