Stephen Louw

Classroom dress code

Does a teacher need to look like a teacher?

Britain rules

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was founded in 1868 and is the venue for the annual Wimbledon Championships. It holds on rather quaintly to its British heritage and traditions: strawberries and cream and such. So unlike the other Grand Slam organizers, Wimbledon still imposes a strict all-white dress policy on players. Even off-white and cream are off-limits. 

The rule became headline news with Andre Agassi who blithely played professional tennis in neon spandex and jorts and boycotted the Championship for two years (apparently) because of the dress-code restrictions. In 1991, however, he bowed to the austere British authorities and arrived on court wearing an all-white outfit that even included white-rimmed sunglasses. 

Since Agassi's days, the dress code has been tightened even further. In 2013, Roger Federer drew the Championship's ire by donning a pair of white Zoom Vapor tennis shoes, made specially for him, which sported orange soles. In 2017, boys' doubles pair Piros and Wu were asked to leave the court because they were wearing black underwear, and Venus Williams fell foul of the the regulations for a pink bra. When Wimbledon says all white, they mean all.

Over the years, Wimbledon's restrictive dress code has been criticized. The unflappable Federer calls it “ridiculously strict”, Nike spokeswoman Liz Dolan, “Unbelievable!” Critics argue that professional people don't need to be told what to wear, that the strict dress code is an anachronism in a time of modern-day freedom, and that the event should be about tennis, not about tradition!

Classroom dress-code

Questions about dress code are also relevant to us teachers in Thailand too. Schools in turn complain about the poorly dressed foreigners. They want us looking official and smart, a representation of the professional status that teachers hold, a group that will impress prospective parents or other stakeholders with our stately good looks.

But for many teachers, that's not what teaching in the tropics is about. It's about beaches and summer holidays. We want to look relaxed and wear something comfortable when dealing with the students, not burdened by expensive and stuffy corporate level clothing. 

Clothes should fit the function of teaching, not make statements of status. I've been there – when I was teaching in Japan I was required to teach in a suit. A suit!! I complained to anyone who would listen in the most colorful terms. “If I'd wanted to be a banker, I wouldn't have become a teacher” I argued and railed and objurgated and bleated and carped. 

There's more to clothes than clothing

On the topic of clothes, Tanner Guzy has written a rather pertinent book about the power of appearance. He argues that clothes are not just clothes, and most certainly it's not just women who should be concerned about them. All through history, men have dressed with a goal; to portray a specific image, to dominate, or intimidate. Look at those intimidatingly lacy outfits sported by the aristocracy in the early Renaissance. It's only in relatively modern times that men have adopted a bland no-style approach to clothing. 

Guzy argues that we are tribesmen, that even modern day men and women belong to tribes, and that our tribal identity is inherently represented in our clothes. Think about a biker gang's leather-wear – it's functional, but also makes a distinct tribal statement of identity. Similarly, buff gym-junkies and their superbly functional Under Armour athletic accessories. 

Back to Wimbledon, their argument is that a first class tennis player should look like a tennis player: neon spandex and jorts are simply a statement of juvenile defiance against the established norm.

Identity aside, clothes are also important psychologically. What we wear affects the way people respond to us. In Milgram's (in)famous studies on power and authority in 1974, people were willing to obey orders given by someone in a grey laboratory coat (a powerful symbol of modern-day scientific authority), even to the point of mortally electrocuting a stranger.

Also, consider the halo effect: an initial impression of you influences how people judge other unrelated attributes. If people think you are attractive or look good, they make favorable judgements about your personality, or overlook other unattractive characteristics. 

One way of making a good impression (other than by being drop-dead gorgeous), is to fit a group's norm by being part of the 'tribe', for example by dressing 'properly' or having the 'right' haircut. We might expect, then, that to be accepted by punk-rock die-hards, a three-piece suit or a military buzzcut will probably not work well.

But wait, there's more. What we wear even influences our own behaviour. In 2012, researchers divided people into three groups for an experiment on sustained attention. Participants in one group were given a doctor's (white) coat to wear, the second were told the exact same garment was a painter's coat and were asked to wear it, and the third group just saw the coat hanging in the room. Those wearing the doctor's coat were found to have higher levels of attention. Simply wearing the lab coat improved the participants' performance!

What we wear matters

Guzy argues that small changes in how we dress can make a real difference: wearing clothes that fit well, for instance. Looking good makes us feel better, and attracts positive attention which in turn raises our self-worth.

Using Guzy's terms, as teachers in Asia we are part of the 'tribe' of professional educators and are therefore expected to look like we belong. I think that many experienced teachers here will agree that the effort pays off – schools like 'smartly dressed' teachers and the halo effect is real.

Visit Guzy's website for a style check, or listen to a great interview with him on the Art of Manliness podcast. Or simply look at the other teachers in your school and become part of your local educator tribe.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Your headline displays a very narrow viewpoint. And it is a viewpoint that is not shared all over the world (hence why it is so narrow). Having taught in China with some of the highest performing students in the world, I can tell you that the schools and administrators were not worried about controlling what you wear. Does a teacher need to look like a teacher? Many of in America grew up with the idea the choosing how you dress yourself is a fundamental idea in a free society. Therefore, we went to school with teachers who could decide on their own just how they would dress (within some limitations) and we learn NOT to judge a person based on their APPEARANCE. This is extremely important because so many want to put on a tie and take on the responsibility of teaching someone's children so that they can earn money to stay in Thailand. As for me, I certainly did not earn multiple university degrees and become an expert in my subject so that some person guided by the fallacy that 'because it has always been this way there is no other alternative' to literally dictate to me how I shall dress and how I shall groom myself.

By JD, Thailand (12th December 2022)

The biggest joke are the teachers that wear pub clothes to work and that would especially be black shirts and doubly so a formal collared dress shirt. In general, teachers that haven't wisened up and bought work clothes. Another laff are those dressed too casually. Thailand and Asia are still look sharp affairs and it's shocking how lazy and clueless teachers are.

People that need loose fitting clothes. Women that wear revealing clothes thinking it actually reduces heat are braindead.

If you can't put together a pair of slacks, colorful polo, and decent pair of shoes your lost.

You can actually tell good teachers from bad by their clothes and confidence. I bet 95++% of teachers here have never had a real job or ever had to wear a suit to work. Most men can't even tie their ties properly but at least they wear them.

It's all Peter Pan

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (27th July 2021)

It's gotta be a crisp shirt, smart pants and smart polished shoes. That is not a lot to ask.

You see many ajarns out and about, some look bloody disgraceful.

Decent clothes are worth spending a bit extra on. They look good. Bargain supermarket brands are not the way to go.

Never understood why so many teachers get this basic thing so wrong... as if it's a deliberate attempt to say "pay me shit, l dress like shit"

By Pat Bangkok, Bangkok (10th June 2021)

Aaron: There are no 'monetary riches' to be had here in teaching. But you can live very well.

Jack: 100% agree.

While Brian might really make 168,000 Baht a month (bit over US$ 5,000 which would be a top pay for most teachers back home), I am not sure why he needs to try to make the rest of us believe he is in the top .1% of wage earning teachers in Thailand (one of the few hundred most experienced teachers at the top 2 or 3 international schools?) or why Jim Beam needs to inform us of his salary in a thread which has nothing to do about salaries.

Reminds me of the cache of former posters who used to claim in almost every post they made at least three times the highest advertised salary while teaching in the Sandbox.

By Jack, At the beach (10th May 2018)

Dressing well and taking pride in your appearance will only get you so far. You'll also need to be charming, or at the very least not be annoying. I've worked with many foreigners here and I see them annoying the staff at my school all the time. For the most part they speak too much.

Dress smartly, be nice, work hard and keep it simple when it comes to your colleagues and bosses.

'It used to be mostly the boys from the sandbox making up stories of the riches they made teaching English, now it seems this habit is spreading to the local boys as well'

Jack, there are no 'monetary riches' to be had here in teaching. But you can live very well. My school salary after 7 years at the same school is 60k. I work for Dada online four days a week and that pulls me in over 30k extra every month. I have no degree or TEFL. I dropped out of school at 16 and went to work for a brokerage firm. A trade I can go back into back home but would rather not right now.

I know this could all end at anytime, but I've saved a nice nest egg and have a fantastic partner. If it does all end, I've had a fantastic last 7 years. I regret nothing. I measure success by happiness. And when it comes to happiness, I've got many a story of riches here.

By Aaron, Chonburi (10th May 2018)

It used to be mostly the boys from the sandbox making up stories of the riches they made teaching English, now it seems this habit is spreading to the local boys as well.

By Jack, On a comfy sofa (9th May 2018)

Just a response to Bryan

I assure you, I'm no moron. It's great that you're making 125k+ A MONTH. I applaud you. This is a second career for me. I made that sort of money, actually far more twenty years ago and retired early. Alas, a know few public, public/private secondary schools that will pay above 60. I have ten weeks paid holiday and twelve weeks without classroom hours. I love my Thai co-workers. I may make one more leap, but we good here bro.

I'm older, but really don't see the issue wearing a tie and slacks and that's why I do it. All my classes and office is AC. I've always worn this gear to work so I've had the shoes to match. Suits...only rarist occasion but why not? I have them. With so many marginal, neigh shitty teachers in public schools. It immediately sets me apart.

Just today shopping Big C. Cute girl half my age gave me a long, inviting look and a conservative little smile. She was half my age. Everyone treats me freaking awesome.

Parents wait me, all the teachers at my public school wai me. Even my security guards wait me or salute me 555.

Yes, I have done gate duty and worked in non AC rooms in long sleeves and a neck tie. To me it's a badge of honor - but also it's a message to my kids. They're worth my effort.

That's great you're making bank dude. Better still for you I guess in a Polo shirt. But Asia is about appearances.

The difference when I go to work on Monday morning or out running around in shorts on Saturday truly says it all. I've always been fairly casual dresser on my own time, but always a collar shirt so as not to look like a tourist/backpacker. Even now I've decided as I'm older to upgrade the wardrobe futher separating myself from the great unwashed.

Just my 2 baht. No one ever sees anything my way anyhow.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (9th May 2018)

79 TUB for a 1.25 ounce can of shave foam? Surprised no comments about the beards. A guy with a degree from a good school asked me about getting a TEFL Certificate. I told him the admins would notice him having a beard a lot more than NOT having a TEFL Certificate.

By Mark, Chiang Rai (8th May 2018)

I'm from the UK and there I don't have a problem with the heat However here in Thailand my whole strategy about clothing is focused around the heat. I started off wearing shirts (black at the time).

I remember being there in the 2nd day or so and having to stand on the stage to introduce myself ....whilst literally boiling alive and dripping sweat.

Africans, Filipinos and to a large extent Americans who have hot summers are OK, but to an English person whose average temperature is about 15 degrees. I would estimate it takes two years to get used to the heat. (maybe).

After that incident when I realized everyone was wearing polo shirts I tried that, but the cheap ones from AIIZ were not better So I ended up spending 750 baht each on these black or blue what they called DryEX shirts.

No one bats an eyelid if you sweat through a shirt, but the students do. One amused look was enough for me.

By t jones, korat (7th May 2018)

The first school I worked for was a kindergarten school. We didn't have to wear a tie, and we could choose if we wanted to wear a polo shirt or a work shirt. I always chose to wear a work shirt because I didn't like the look of a polo shirt with trousers and shoes. I felt like a golfer.

The next school I worked for we had to wear a work shirt with a tie..........or we could wear a polo shirt representing the colour of the day. I always found this odd because you couldn't just wear a work shirt with no tie, but you could just wear a polo shirt. It was usually the younger teachers who wore polo shirts and for me it wasn't a great look. I remember one guy wearing a 'Sky TV & Broadband' polo shirt. Apparently he used to be an engineer for them and that's what they wore when doing installations of cable TV. And there was me wearing a nice shirt and tie.

I've always worn nice attire. It bodes well for you, especially in Thailand. I worked for a guy once who was obsessed with wearing a crisp white shirt with his tie done up to the nines. He would have a go at teachers if their ties weren't straight or their belt buckle wasn't in the middle. To be honest, he looked like a British prison guard. I remember one teacher saying it wasn't practical wearing a tie teaching P1 kids. It's too hot and the tie gets in the way. Unfortunately for him, he had to wear a tie because the boss had short man syndrome.

I now spend at least 1000 baht on a work shirt. I sometimes get other teachers tell me "What!? You can get shirts down the market for 200 baht!". I just tell them I don't want to wear ugly ill-fitting shirts that deteriorate rapidly after the first wash.

By Simon, Bangkok (7th May 2018)

Jim Beam,

my original comment as someone who could not afford a taxi was me 5 years ago - not now, luckily. But I still empathize with these new teachers moving here to make a buck, only to have these ridiculous rules imposed on them. Go do gate duty with a tie on. Coach basketball with a tie. All the while the school is not paying and handling the poor kid's visa because they know they aren't liable when "big joke" comes looking for visas. Ridiculous.

By Brian, Thailand (6th May 2018)

Jim Beam,

I don't know if you're kidding about your salary there man. 56 K? Are you bragging to get a free pass to be sanctimonious? Or are you a troll? If you are not, with all due respect, I make three times what you do, and that isn't a lot of money, I can tell you. I'm a licensed teacher who teaches math. But I started at 40 k myself 10 years ago. I paid my dues. I did a lot of stupid.

Don't be a monkey in a costume. If your aim is to get some farmer to Wai to you, you might have confidence issues. Be a professional who dresses to provide the best service and go get some proper training. Wearing a blazer in 40 degree weather is moronic!

By Brian, Thailand (6th May 2018)

Trousers and a tie. Instant respect from even the most hardened Thai teacher. Same with students. It sends a clear statement - I'm serious about this.

Look sharp, it carries you miles here over the flotsam that can't even tuck in their short sleeve shirts. Separates you from the poseurs. I'd still wear a tie in Issan.

Haven't adjusted to the climate, yeah I see that sweaty guy.

An entire wardrobe including good shoes amortized over three years is nothing.

I had some poor upcountry peasant wai me while I was walking out of the bts. I'm not looking for that, but jus sayin...

Most teachers never have had a job in which they had to wear a tie, so moving to tropical Thailand, teaching for 30k. Buying hot ill fitting clothes and some shitty Thai tie. A bridge too far. And for those, maybe it is. Former service workers, transport drivers...

Bring on all the whining about heat, fashion show, unnecessary expenditures. I've gone from 36-56k in four years. Up to you, I think it works for me.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (6th May 2018)

I'll wear smart pants and a dress shirt but I am not wearing a tie to do gate duty, teach middle school kids "kinaesthetic" learning activities. I do not earn enough have a car or even take air conditioned taxis around.

I will wear a tie and jacket to special school events like graduations and parent teacher day, though. Why? Because I am sitting in a chair during these events.

There's professional dress and there is stupid policies. Neckties are not ergonomic in this climate. Even the PM doesn't wear a tie most days. Top international schools in Bangkok do not require teachers to wear ties, nor do immigration officers.

There is smart dress and there is stupid dress. I don't advocate dreadlocks and trashy dress at work, but smart casual fits the bill. While offering an average salary of 35 thousand baht a month and no benefits, Thai schools are kidding themselves if they want perfectly dressed teachers with "dominating, and fashionable" clean pressed clothes. Are teachers supposed to spend 30 percent of their incomes on clothes? Is it any wonder Thai schools cannot keep and retain teachers? Crap pay and stupid rules.

By brian, Thailand (6th May 2018)

I have seen a shift over the past 20 plus years away from the "teacher uniform" (long-sleeved shirt and necktie) to more of a "business casual" look which is more aligned with how most "professionals" dress these days.

I welcome the change.

I have no problem with teacher's dressing or grooming in a somewhat non-conformist manner.

Times and dressing styles change over time, nothing new there. I suspect most of these old guys complaining about the non-conformist actions of the younger generation were not as big on following the rules and dressing like their fathers when they were young as they are now.

By Jack, Some place nice (5th May 2018)

Good article and I also agree with the followup comment.

Unfortunately, people like us live in a different world and I don't expect a word of the above will make sense to anyone under 30 years old!

Too many teachers (not just in Thailand) are consumed by the idea of being a 'personality' or standing out... wearing unsightly (and frankly stupid) ponytails or other weird hair.

We have 'casual Friday' at our school and it's a chance for the women to wear a nice dress. Makes no difference to me. You can only feel the part if you look the part.

By Mark Newman, The Land of Barely Concealed Rage. (5th May 2018)

Thank you for that Steve. I love a good clothing and style article (and you certainly know your Wimbledon)

A woman feels like going to a party when she's got her favourite party dress and best jewelry on. A soldier feels like a soldier when he's in uniform. I always felt like a teacher when I had a necktie on with a crisp white shirt.

I worked at Berlitz Language School for two years in the early 90's. Berlitz had a strict dress code from Monday to Friday. All male teachers were required to wear a business shirt and necktie. However, for Saturday classes - mostly Japanese businessmen in their casual golfing attire - teachers were allowed to 'dress down'. For most male teachers - clearly lacking a smart casual wardrobe - that usually meant an open-necked business shirt worn with no tie.

What this resulted in was interesting. Male teachers would often complain that on Saturdays, they were never in the mood to teach. They found it difficult to get motivated. There would be a general air of unwillingness and boredom in the staff-room, which almost every teacher put down to them being in 'weekend mode'.

I never felt that was the complete story and I used to tell them - 'you don't feel like teaching because you don't look the part. You're dressed casually, almost sloppily some might say. It's not's possible to go into a classroom and act like a professional if you don't feel like a professional'

Frankly, my advice, unsurprisingly, would usually fall on deaf ears but I continued to wear the same business attire as I would wear during the week. To me, it just felt like the right thing to do.

By Phil, Samut Prakarn (4th May 2018)

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