Nice Suit! Why My Improved Taste In Clothes Helps Me Teach.

A picture of Barney from How I Met Your Mother

Graduation day can be one of the really big days for my students, as is the first day that they go off for job interviews, or placement interviews – the first day that they have some skills, a matching qualification and have put on the clothes and trappings of business. As Barney would say, “Suit up!”

I’m not intending to start a discussion here on the utility of the suit (because for anyone who has to do tech support, there is none), the assumption that the suit is practical wear in all climates (because in Australia in high summer it most certainly is not) but I do want to talk about the comfort of the suit.

Now, one of the weirdest things about suits is the number of people who wear uncomfortable or even dangerously constricting business attire. It would be hard to imagine a more consistently uncomfortable group of people than a large group of graduating students, sitting in a packed, hot hall, waiting to graduate, necks chafing if they’re wearing ties, sweating because of the layers, possibly risking ankle damage or a fall if they’re in unfamiliar heels and, overall, being ultimately miserable while waiting for the moment when we give them the big piece of paper and say “Go off and be legen…”

Wait for it.


These days, I have very simple requirements of my clothes. Everything I wear has to be as comfortable as my long-distance running gear. When you run over 20 miles/ 32 km, you don’t have the ability to carry too much spare clothing. What you wear has to be comfortable, suitable and, above all, not chafe regardless of sun, wind and rain. This is clothing to achieve things in – and all of my clothing should do this!

People told me that suits meant business. But suits only mean business because business people wear suits. This kind of dogma is subtly and explicitly divisive – explicitly because if you can’t afford a suit, then you’re on the back foot; subtly because if you can’t afford a good suit, you’re sending a message of either impecunity or ignorance. Now, yes, for special presentations, funerals and where everyone else will be wearing a suit, I will still suit up. But, whenever possible, I wear a nice shirt and trousers – or good jeans. Or shorts, in summer. This is far more practical for what I do and allows me to still walk the 3 miles/5 km from home to work and get my thinking time in. There’s neat, there’s well-dressed and then there’s some of the nightmares passed off as business attire. There is a wealth of secret knowledge, affluence barriers, expectations and, above all, hidden pitfalls in this whole business attire thing that really makes me wonder whether we’re focusing on the right things. I can’t tell my students not to wear business clothing, because the reality is that some people just won’t hire them, but I should be able to help them to develop a mental framework where they can analyse what is being asked of them and then work out if they are happy to pay the price to achieve a goal.

I don’t pretend to be wise but I can now appreciate that I have done enough things, and failed at a sufficient number, that I’ve learned right and wrong ways to approach problems and find solutions. My students need me to share this with them because, although some of the lessons won’t sink in until they do it themselves, any proto-wisdom that I can pass on may save them time. If I tell them what dogma looks like, get them focused on the right things, then I help them to identify some of the things that they will hit once they leave us. I don’t feel more or less of a teacher if I wear shorts or a suit, but, in so many ways, the way that I expose my students to knowledge, discuss it with them and reinforce it will determine how their brain is dressed when they step out into the world. It will also strongly affect how will they improve upon what we’ve taught them and how they accumulate more information into the future. Basically, if I get across to my students the idea that we are giving them a foundation, which will be solid, and show them how to build – then sometime down the line, they’re on the way to something special and rewarding.

And being confident, skilled and competent at what you do, that’s probably the best thing that you can ever wear.