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Why Dress Nice at Southern Virginia: An Open Letter to First Year Students

August 30, 2016

Dear First-Year Student,

In the following weeks and perhaps months, you’re going to hear many messages about the dress and grooming standards at Southern Virginia University. If you just groaned in anticipation of that prospect, I understand. Most likely, you grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during which time your adult leaders regularly talked to you about the importance of dressing modestly. Given such a background, you might feel like we here at Southern Virginia are just doing more of the same—giving you that same message you’ve heard countless times before.

That’s not what we’re doing.

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Don’t get me wrong: we think that modesty is important. We value modesty. But we want to build on that message about your dress and grooming standards. To the modesty standard of your church upbringing we want to add a certain level of professionalism.  A professional standard. Not modest vs. immodest. Rather, formal vs. casual. Or perhaps, appropriate for the occasion vs. inappropriate for the occasion.   As a professor here at Southern Virginia, I really want you to understand this new standard. I want you to buy into it. Make it a part of who you are. Live it. If you do, it will make a difference for you, for your peers in the classroom we share, and for the Southern Virginia community as a whole.

So let me share with you why dressing nice for class is a good idea. But before I do, I need to share two very basic ideas.

Early in my high school career, the other kids started dressing in odd ways. Goth became a thing, along with Disco and other dress codes I’ve worked hard to forget. So all these kids started dressing differently, and they all gave the same reason.   “I’m just expressing who I am.”  In their minds, they were expressing their individuality by being different from the crowd. They were not sheep like the rest of us. They were individuals. They were unique.

But developmental psychologists know better. They have shown that adolescents use dress to express their identity not by being different but by signaling their affiliation with (or desire to be affiliated with) a particular social group. For example, at my high school, I could tell who the jocks were by the clothes they wore—just like I could tell the preppies, the stoners, the surfers, the low-riders, and other groups. It wasn’t rocket science. Each group had their own dress code.   I’m guessing it was the same at your high school, right?  Consequently, scientific studies of the relationship between clothes and identity suggest that we dress to identify with a particular social group. Anyone who tells you different is probably still working out his or her identity issues—which is OK.

Putting this into perspective, the Southern Virginia community is a social group with a particular dress code. You came here on purpose—knowing about that dress code. You electronically signed a document indicating that you were OK with our dress and grooming standards. And I trust you will hold to these standards with vigor. This doesn’t make you any less an individual. You’re not following the crowd. You’re not a mindless zombie. Instead, you’re someone who has intentionally chosen to adopt the identity of a Southern Virginia Knight, in the same way that you’ve chosen to be a Mormon, a Catholic, a soccer player, a thespian, a Marvel movies fanboy or whatever else makes you you.  To be a Knight and adopt the dress and grooming standards doesn’t mean you can’t be all those other things. We don’t want to take anything away from who you are, we want to add to who you are.

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The second basic idea: the Southern Virginia dress and grooming standard includes the idea that context determines what is appropriate. So if you’re participating in 6:00 a.m. soccer practice, warmups would be appropriate clothing. No one is suggesting that you wear a button down dress shirt or blouse to play soccer. We all dress differently for different occasions: church, school, athletic competitions, dates, job interviews…. A typical wardrobe includes items specific to many different dress codes.  Putting this fact in context, the Southern Virginia standard isn’t, strictly speaking, one dress code as much as it is the idea that your dress is appropriate to the context and associated dress code (i.e. warm ups for soccer practice, nicer clothes for class).

Now, why dress nice for class?  In a nutshell, what you wear affects you and the people around you in important ways. For example, cognitive psychologists have discovered that some cognitive processes are causally influenced by features of the physical body—including the clothes we wear. In one experiment[i], researchers had participants wear a white coat. Some participants were told the coat belonged to a doctor, while others were told the coat belonged to a painter. The participants were then given a tests of attention. Participants who thought they were wearing a doctor’s coat performed significantly better on the tests—they were better able to focus and maintain attention without being distracted by spurious details—compared to those who thought they were wearing a painter’s coat. In the study, wearing the coat seemed to be important. Simply seeing the coat hanging on the wall nearby didn’t impact that result. Weird, huh?

There are many more studies addressing the way in which clothes affect us, and I’d love to share all the details of those studies—because I’m obsessed with social science research—but you’d probably get bored, so let me just cut to the chase. The more formal you dress, the more perceived social distance you create between yourself and others[ii]. Remember how I said we’re striving for a professional standard?  Well, such a standard necessarily involves a certain degree of social distance. But with that social distance comes: increased attention (the white lab coat study), an increased propensity to process information abstractly instead of concretely (which has implications for critical thinking and learning)[iii], and a greater perception of yourself as competent, productive, trustworthy, and authoritative[iv]. Alternatively, dressing more casually creates less social distance which has been associated with less attention, an increased propensity to process information in concrete terms, and a decreased perception of yourself as competent, productive, trustworthy, and authoritative. There’s more research documenting the connection between clothes and learning (i.e. students learn more and behave better when graduate student instructors dress more formally[v]), but you get the idea.

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The big picture: good things will happen as you dress and groom yourself just a little more professionally in the classroom this semester. You’ll have more confidence, you’ll be able to focus better, and you’ll favor an abstract cognitive processing style which will predispose you to critical thinking.

You don’t have to dress for a job interview every day. But “dressing for class” is a thing. Or at least it should be. And it should mean more to you than rolling out of bed and coming to class in the sweats you slept in. A little effort is all it takes. Modest. Clean. No extremes in style. Appropriate for the occasion. By small and simple things, great things are brought to pass, right?  And as the research shows, a little more effort beyond the minimum standard will lead to even greater gains.

I hope you can understand and accept the invitation we’re offering here at Southern Virginia. We’re not simply restating the moral standards of your adolescence. We’re hoping to draw you into a more professional standard of dress and grooming that will enhance your classroom experience and prepare you for future work in professional settings. Here at Southern Virginia, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue your practice of casual dress in many appropriate settings, but don’t miss out on this new opportunity to expand your collegiate and professional identity via the adoption of a more professional dress and grooming standard.

Respectfully,
Dr. Rodriguez
Associate Professor of Family and Child Development


[i] Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 918–925.

[ii] Michael L. Slepian, Simon N. Ferber, Joshua M. Gold, and Abraham M. Rutchick (2015) The cognitive consequences of formal clothing, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6) 661-668.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Peluchette, J. V. E., & Karl, K. (2007). The impact of workplace attire on employee self-perceptions. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 18, 345–360.

[v] Roach, K. D. (1997). Effects of graduate teaching assistant attire on student learning, misbehaviors, and ratings of instruction, Communication Quarterly, 45,(3), 125-141

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