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!
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.