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Every student embarking on an MBA knows that what you learn in the classroom or lecture hall is a small portion of the overall experience.
For many, potential networking opportunities with contemporaries and alumni are near the top of their lists when choosing a school. And when it comes to making a first impression, the clothes in which you present yourself play an important part in expressing not only who you are and the people you surround yourself with but also the kind of job you are seeking.
“As soon as I arrived at Harvard Business School, I was immediately struck by how everyone seemed inordinately intentional about the way they presented themselves on campus,” says Raamin Mostaghimi, a second-year student who writes a regular satirical column in The Harbus, the student newspaper.
“No one retains the slouch or insouciance of their undergraduate years; the majority of B-schoolers will have had a few years in the working world, are highly ambitious and have had time to hone exactly what style works best for them. They know that clothing counts.”
Mostaghimi adds that this does not mean the pavements of Boston are becoming catwalks of sartorial creativity or innovation – there are other schools for that – and that there are reasons that the stereotypes continue to exist. A recent piece by Mostaghimi on the key unifying pieces of an MBA dress code defined Harvard’s aesthetic as “British peasant farmer couture”, including waterproof boots and Burberry scarves.
“There has been and continues to be a significant quota of those at the school who look a lot like a preppy class reunion from the 1970s, sporting head-to-toe Brooks Brothers and with a penchant for collared shirts, cashmere and eye-poppingly bright [trousers],” he says of a look that many graduates continue to favour when they arrive in (or return to) Wall Street.
Other students agree that fashion statements are a means of tribal self-selection, where classmates can distinguish who is in – and out – of their elite coterie.
“Section fleeces – [school-branded] ‘stash’ pieces which indicate the smaller group intake of the overall class you are in – are wildly popular,” echoes a female classmate, who says 90 per cent of students will buy a hoodie or windbreaker for about $150 each. “Initially they were worn as a bit of a joke, but they quickly became part of many people’s daily wardrobes. They weren’t just for the library, but for group trips in restaurants or airports – there’s definitely an element of statement power dressing and a reminder that we were the chosen few.”
The era when a small yet infamous proportion of women came to business school to “husband hunt” – or dressed that way – is long gone, she adds. The majority of girls today go for a casual Americana chic: smart jeans, J Crew knits, tailored shifts and pumps. “You want to be comfortable – it’s as simple as that,” she says. “I’m never as smartly dressed as I was when I worked in an office but I wouldn’t dream of rolling to class in sweatpants.”
Over in California at Stanford – and at the very heart of Silicon Valley – similar levels of effort go into dressing for class but with an entirely different strategy in mind. Students often go to great lengths to dissociate themselves from the clean-cut, tailored style traditionally favoured on the East Coast.
“It’s exactly as you’d expect – hordes of fantastically smart alpha types in the least chilled-out competition ever about who can look the most nonchalant and relaxed,” says one British student with aspirations to enter the tech world.
He says the school is awash with a casual uniform of Lululemon shorts for women, Patagonia fleeces, flip flops and backpacks from day one – even later down the line when it comes to high-stakes job interviews, where suits continue to be a cultural no-no. “Whatever MBA school you attend, if you’re savvy then you’ll dress the part for the job you want – just as you would in the real world – following the style and practices of the professional environment you choose to enter.”
Bertrand Nicoli, a second-year student at New York University, agrees. “I notice parallels between people’s clothing choices and the school clubs they join,” he notes of female students – be it the immaculately presented participants in top brands from the luxury and retail society, besuited aspirant bankers or entrepreneurial types who favour the Brooklyn “hipster” aesthetic.
Nicoli stresses that a significant proportion of his class intake are well turned out and presentable without being stylish. “In an ideal world, perhaps there are some of us who feel judgment should rest on ideas and intelligence and not how you look.”
In the steamy climate at Insead’s Singapore campus, many seem to take that ethos to the extreme, with de facto classroom garb revolving around polo and T-shirts, board shorts and sun dresses. A similarly informal dress code exists back in Fontainebleau, near Paris.
“Although Europeans are considered the most fashion-conscious students in US schools, ironically everyone here is remarkably low-key when it comes to a dress code,” says Alexander Wrey, a student at Fontainebleau. “Perhaps because we are such a diverse multinational intake. Image construction really does come fairly low on the agenda.”
George Grumbar, also studying at Insead, agrees. He adds that people often wear corporate branded gear, but mainly because it is free and plentiful.
“The only times I see people make a real effort in terms of what they wear comes during ‘national weeks’, when we celebrate the 80-odd cultures represented in our intake by dressing in flag colours for classes. It can look hilarious and lots of fun photos get taken. Of course people take their studies seriously, but many are also willing to lighten up from time to time – and that’s what unifies people beyond any implicit ‘shared uniform’.”
What do you wear to business school? Send us pictures of the fashion on your campus, including the name of your business school, and we’ll publish the best online. Either email your picture to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “MBA chic”, or upload it to Twitter using the hashtag #FTMyMBA. Full terms & conditions are online at www.ft.com/pictures