How I Learned to Dress Professionally (and Still Feel Like Myself)

This blog post has been updated by Megan Elrath, Career Consultant on March 6, 2024 for relevancy, inclusivity, and formatting.

As a senior in the Agricultural Education program, I observe teachers in local schools throughout the fall semester and I will be a full-time student teacher this spring. One of the biggest adjustments has been transitioning out of wearing shorts and a t-shirt to class to wearing business casual and professional dress on a regular basis.

Luckily, I managed to get a head start because I am a member of Sigma Alpha Professional Agricultural Sorority. We are required to wear business casual to each of our chapter meetings, and once a month we wear business professional. I also work as a student assistant in the front office of the Associate Dean’s Office of Academic Affairs for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Upon being hired, my office provided a brief dress code expectation that included a basic definition of business casual.

Of course, beyond these two opportunities, I still did a lot of googling and talked to many people about what I should wear in these professional settings. My mom, a kindergarten teacher, is always the first person I call when I need advice on outfits; if my mom doesn’t think it’s appropriate, my boss probably won’t think it’s appropriate. I also spoke with the other students in agricultural education who were already student teaching and dressed for a real school setting each day. They helped me balance the advice my mom gave me on modesty with what practically works in a classroom for a young teacher.

Once I had a general idea of what type of clothing I would be expected to wear, it was easy to mix and match different pieces to achieve a professional look while still being comfortable and remaining within my budget. As a college student, saving money is one of my top priorities! I also value comfort and believe that if you're not comfortable, you won’t produce your best work. I firmly believe that there's almost always a cheaper, comfier option when it comes to fashion – and I’m willing to take the time to seek out these options!

Currently, my favorite places to shop for clothing are Old Navy, Target, Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Goodwill. The best advice I can offer people looking to improve their professional dress is to find your brand. For me, that is Old Navy. They have a lot of different styles, offer regular discounts, and I like how their clothes fit me. I discovered which brands fit me best by first shopping at thrift stores and trying on lots of options. You can also try just going around to different shops and trying on a variety of pieces to get a feel for what fits you best. Now that I know that Old Navy clothes work well for me, I can walk in the store and almost immediately find everything I am looking for, whether that’s a new cardigan or a fun skirt.

As you discover your style and know what your version of professional dress looks like, then you can move into higher quality, more expensive purchases. For example, if there is a new style of shoe that looks interesting to me, I'll buy the Walmart version first. If I really do like it after wearing it for a little while, then I will invest in a higher quality version that will last longer

I’ve been told by many current teachers that it is important to dress more professionally as a new teacher and you can ease back to more casual options over your first couple years. This is especially important if you are working with high school students, as you still look fairly young coming out of college and need something to set you apart from the students. It's also really important to observe the culture of your office or school. For instance, if you've never seen anyone wear jeans, then that should be a cue to you that you should probably never wear jeans. The office I work in right now is fairly laid back and understands that it's not practical for everyone to be in a suit each day, but not every office has that culture. When starting a new job, definitely ask upfront about the dress expectations so that you’ll choose clothing that fits the workplace’s culture.

Overall, I think professional dress is an artform anyone can master. Just like any other skill, you can and will develop it over time. Every profession is different, but making an effort now to learn about what dress will be expected in your future industry can do nothing but help you in the long run! Reach out to your professors, peers, and current professionals in your field for the best and most relevant advice for you. Everyone wants to see you succeed, and professional dress is an integral part of that!

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