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SIUC RESEARCH Appearach Study
Appropriate appearance — Beth Winfrey Freeburg (from left), associate professor and chair of the workforce education and development department; J. Robin Robinson, doctoral candidate in Workforce Education and Development form Carbondale; and Jane E. Workman, professor and director of the Fashion Design and Merchandising Program in the School of Architecture, look at the book, ‘Dress and Society,’ that Freeburg and Workman authored. Photo by Chelsea Sturgeon. (courtesy)

In today’s world, the lines between dressing for success and casual comfort are often blurred, but the way we dress does matter. That’s what research by a multi-disciplinary team from SIUC indicates.

Beth Winfrey Freeburg, associate professor and chair of the workforce education and development department in the College of Education and Human Services, and Jane E. Workman, professor and director of the Fashion Design and Merchandising Program in the School of Architecture in the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, have spent more than a decade studying how people perceive, judge and react to the way others dress. The focus of much of their recent research is on teacher attire and its relevance.

Previous studies indicate that what teachers wear can affect their students’ learning as well as classroom discipline, work habits and attitudes, Freeburg said. But, she and Workman say that the “dress for success” line of thinking is butting up against trends in more recent years toward a more relaxed atmosphere and dress standards in workplaces, leading to sometimes unclear expectations and perceptions about what is appropriate.

Society has “rules” about how people should look and act in certain circumstances, Freeburg and Workman said. But, they note that although trends for workplace appearance norms move from formal to business casual, research on expectations for work attire is limited. Their recent research focus has been on teachers — both pre-service and in-service — and the impact of what educators look like in various school settings on dress code requirements, school culture, competency judgments and student learning. They’ve studied expectations, dress codes and effects of how teachers dress.

With grant funding from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois University Council for Career and Technical Education, Workman and Freeburg conducted an Award for Innovation Project. Assisting were J. Robin Robinson, doctoral candidate in Workforce Education and Development from Carbondale and visiting instructor in the fashion design and merchandising program, and other students.

Through online surveys of 162 superintendents, 67 school board members, 106 principals, and 35 other administrators throughout Illinois, they gauged perceptions of appropriate professional dress for teachers. Survey participants viewed 25 pictures, each depicting a teacher in a school setting. They rated each as to whether the teacher’s appearance was professional, unprofessional, appropriate or inappropriate.

They all agreed that the large gentleman wearing a too-tight, tummy-exposing T-shirt with shorts and sandals wasn’t dressed professionally or appropriately to teach. But, somewhat surprisingly, most survey-takers rated a man wearing a suit and tie as dressed professionally but not appropriate for classroom duty.

“Appropriate does not always equal formal. Khaki pants and a polo shirt or a sport coat and dress slacks received high rankings as professional and appropriate,” Freeburg said.

“Blue jeans almost universally draw negative responses,” Workman added.

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The results of their study formed the basis of a virtual seminar entitled “A Clear Definition of Appropriate Professional Dress for Teachers.”

She and Workman also recently completed a study focusing on “What dress norms and related rationale are found in teacher dress policies?”

“Pre-service teachers are typically so young and in their social roles, they make appearance choices that may be fitting for those circumstances but there are different expectations for them in a professional role as a teacher,” Freeburg said.

Likewise even seasoned teachers don’t always know what’s appropriate to wear to work, she said. And yet, studies consistently indicate that suitable appearance is a factor in getting hired, retaining a job and getting promotions, Workman and Freeburg said.

They developed a scale for determining the restrictiveness of dress codes. They studied 102 employee handbooks from school districts in 29 states, examining teacher dress codes. They found that about 80 percent listed rationales for the guidelines.

The various rationales given throughout the country suggested teachers should dress according to dress codes because they are role models, to create an environment conducive to learning and to instill respect for authority and traditional values. Some codes also cited disciplinary or safety as reasons or suggested it is important to create a distinction between teachers and students. While some codes give specific instructions for dress, some simply state employees should dress in a clean, neat, professional way.

Simply put, one way schools and their administrators can manage the image of a school is through written dress code policies, said Freeburg. The “Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences” published their analysis of teacher dress codes.

Their research regarding workplace appearance is very important not only in helping prepare teachers of tomorrow for their roles, but in assisting those who are already teaching.

There are applications for society as a whole, Freeburg and Workman say.

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