A forthcoming law review article by Professor Erik Jensen suggests, with a humorous flair, that law professors dress too informally. Professor Jensen urges legal academics to return to the more formal attire of previous generations, and he even proposes a "Uniform Uniform Code" that would require clothing of sufficient formality that it would not "embarrass our mothers." (I said it was humorous!) A summary of the article can be found here.
I've actually given this issue some thought, especially recently. Until this year, I wore a suit and tie to every class. This year, I have gone increasingly in the direction of a sport coat with no tie. The move happens to coincide with my having gotten tenure (readers are welcome to insert their jokes here), but I believe my move in the direction of increased informality is actually more consistent with my pedagogical goals. Let me explain.
I think that law school can be very intimidating. In my experience, it is hard to transform a classroom of 100 students into a positive, affirming learning environment. One way to accomplish the task is to create an informal atmosphere, which starts with titles. For example, I have students indicate on a seating chart how they want to be called, and they always choose to be called by their first names. And so that's what I do. I also tell them that they can call me by my first name if they choose, and some of them do so. My theory is that they will be on a first name basis with most of their superiors and mentors, so why not me?
I believe that my attire can also contribute to this informal, less intimidating classroom environment. A person in a suit, in my view, is more intimidating and appears to be more distant than someone in a sport coat.
Of course, if I dress too informally, that could send the wrong message, too: I don't take the students seriously. So in my mind, I strike the balance by wearing dress pants, a button down shirt, and a sport coat without a tie.
Coming back to Professor Jensen's attempt to regulate the attire of law professors, I personally agree that our attire sends students a message and that if we dress too informally, it can send the wrong message. But because attire has a pedagogical value, it is also something that should not be regulated. As academics, we value our academic freedom, including the level of formality that we employ in the classroom. Because our clothing is part of the culture that we create, I say it is not an appropriate subject for academic regulation, absent truly extraordinary circumstances.
What do you all think? And putting aside the question of whether legal academic attire should be regulated, what do you all think is the ideal attire for a law professor?