Last year, I wrote about achieving what I broadly referred to as the “college professor” look. Grounded more in beloved stereotype than classroom fact; tweeds, corduroy, tortoise shell glasses and leather dispatch cases rounded out this idealized look. While more inspiration than practical, this style embodies classic Ivy League charm and actually blends quite well with the current trend toward tailored clothing.
Having so dispensed with the hypothetical, I felt suitably up to the challenge when one of my closest friends, a high school teacher, asked me to write a column on how he could upgrade his professorial wardrobe.
His everyday wardrobe is fairly casual; khakis, jeans, polo shirts and sweaters are staples. Though he’s never been a suit and tie kind of guy, Bob (let’s call him Bob) now wants to dress in a more professional manner. He runs the school’s large drama department and wants his wardrobe to reflect this level of responsibility.
He wants to project authority and professionalism without looking overdone, and in this case a daily coat and tie is very overdone. He’s not a banker, he’s a teacher; but does not mean he isn’t a professional. Bob is very good at what he does and wants his appearance to project that ability and experience.
What is needed here is an in-between look; professional but not stuffy, relaxed but still grown up. One of the quickest ways to do this is by focusing on fit and tailoring. You don’t have to give up your personal style to pull on a more polished look because you’re not changing who you are. But you do need to pay attention to how you translate your personal tastes into a more refined look.
In Bob’s case, as with many guys stuck in a dressing-for-college-class mindset, that means making a few key changes. Often, the simplest things make the biggest impact. Ditch shapeless worn out khakis in favor of tailored pants and swap baggy, faded jeans for fitted dark washed ones instead. Rather than rely on sweatshirts, try pima cotton crewneck sweaters. It’s all about reinterpreting your outdated college-era wardrobe for the grown up you.
For many men, navigating the waters of business wardrobes without the benefit of a business suit can be a little scary. Suits are easy and authoritative. But for someone in Bob’s situation, a suit makes no sense.
In his case, odd jackets and blazers are the best solution. An odd jacket, be it corduroy, tweed, flannel or cotton, will provide the formality and authority of a suit coat but do in a comfortable and relaxed fashion.
Odd jackets can also be paired with almost any kind of outfit and give it a polished, finished look. And these days a jacket does not automatically necessitate a tie. I love ties, I personally think they are a wonderful way to express personality and can tie (get it?…tie…) an outfit together. But achieving a complete outfit sans tie is easily done with this kind of dressing. Layering a fine gauge sweater over a patterned shirt, or added a pocket square can provide needed texture, color and detail. As with everything, focus on quality, craftsmanship and material.
I don’t normally focus on a particular brand when discussing overall style goals. However, in this case one brand immediately comes to mind as a great one-stop resource; J. Crew.
J. Crew’s modern take on classic New England preppy style can easily help Bob, or anyone, pull together the “real world” professor look. For example, Bob would look like a new man walking into his classroom dressed in:
- Classic fit “essential chino,” in British khaki
- “Reed” wingtip brogues, in brown
- English leather plaque belt, in chocolate (monogrammed with his initials)
- Button down end-on-end “secret wash” oxford, in waterfall blue
- Half-zip merino wool sweater, in deep blueberry
- Washed wool herringbone jacket
This look was pulled together right out of the pages of J. Crew’s Holiday 2008 catalog. It is polished yet relaxed and also flexible; he can wear the jacket, or not. He can swap the chinos for their Vintage slim-fit black selvedge denim jeans. Either way, he still presents a positive image of style and self-possession without appearing at all stuffy. By focusing on separates that can be mixed and matched, multiple looks can be pulled together from a minimal number of key and classic pieces.
Yes, it does mean investing in a new type of wardrobe, and some of that investing can be pricey – especially if Bob expands his shopping horizons and comes to appreciate the outstanding fit and quality of, say, a Brioni sport coat. Frankly though, that is not the ultimate goal. You do not need to idealize famous clothing brands in an effort to dress well and project a stylish, confident – and confidence inspiring, for that matter – look.
The real point is that Bob will now be buying clothes that can last for life and can be added to over time. He is creating a new kind of wardrobe that can grow and evolve as he and his career grow and evolve. The fact that he wants to do all this is the most important thing of all. We are judged by how we look and how we carry ourselves. These days, now more so than ever, you are in charge of your career and you are your best marketing consultant.