The Cost of Dressing Like a Business Student

When appearance is part of your grade.


I recently started on the path to earning my Bachelor of Commerce degree at a major Canadian university after a period of trying to figure out my bearings in a science program. Business, I found from day one, is very, very different from the decidedly quantitative and somewhat isolating world of chemistry, biology, and physics. There is a pronounced emphasis on networking — or concentrated social integration accompanied by alcoholic beverages — and a unique sense of community that comes with being in a smaller faculty that loves to go out and mingle. Business students are often seen as party people — an older student mentor once described the facility’s unofficial motto as “work hard, play hard” — but we are all still there to go to school amidst the mixers and club-organized conferences, and there are differences here, too. Once I found myself actually going though my first set of business-specific classes, I started to notice one very peculiar requirement that I hadn’t previously experienced in any other discipline’s classes: a dress code.

Once I found myself actually going though my first set of business-specific classes, I started to notice one very peculiar requirement: a dress code.

In business school, as with the pursuit of any other kind of degree, you’re required to take certain courses to complete your program. One of the earliest courses, for example, is aptly called Introduction to Business. Through a blend of a series of TA-led seminars and weekly professor-led, guest speaker-laced two-hour lectures, the course attempts to give first-year business students a taste of what the scope of business entails. (Or at least that’s what we students think — some of the TAs themselves have admitted they aren’t exactly sure what the course is meant to achieve.)

A hefty 40 percent of any student’s total grade in the course comes from a single, massive project that requires the drafting of full business plans by randomly assigned teams of four students each. Another 10 percent of the total grade comes out of a smaller team-based assignment: the analysis of a company problem and subsequent presentation of a viable solution. Neither of these projects are inherently bad; they do a lot to teach students about the detail and work that goes into business. But the clincher here is that half of both of these projects’ percentages depend on a live presentation component — and you have to look the part.

Why? For both the business plan project and the company issue analysis students must present their ideas to judges who have specific rubrics. While it’s not required that students wear specific colors or brands, it is required that all presenters dress in business professional attire: a classic, neutral-colored matching suit with dress shoes for the guys and a modest skirt-and-suit-jacket or full trouser suit outfit compete with high heels or business-appropriate flats for girls — with no distracting jewelry, makeup, or colors, of course. Our TAs told us that professional attire was a key part of real-world business, and as such anyone who did not dress properly would receive a lower grade in the appearance of the team and personal touch sections of the rubric. There were other tips, too: color-coordinating, for instance, as an extra little touch, was highly recommended.

Our TAs told us that professional attire was a key part of real-world business, and as such anyone who did not dress properly would receive a lower grade.

Because student are marked as groups and not individually, groups with team members who would not or could not obtain outfits that matched the same caliber outlined in the rubric would suffer together as their collective grade took a hit. The last thing anyone wants is to be the one who sinks the entire group — especially since relations are already a little tense from the random assignment — and so this stipulation essentially pushes every student enrolled in this required course to break out the ol’ wallet and start hunting for some NYSE-worthy clothes.

As soon as I learned of this extra little add-on for my business course, I was immediately taken aback. I didn’t own any formal clothes — or at least any that could pass the grading guidelines — and my group decided we ought to color-coordinate to get the best mark we could in the appearance subsection. That meant I and the other girl in my group of four were forced to buy new clothes, since the rationale was that men’s suits cost far more that women’s fast fashion.

My group decided we ought to color-coordinate to get the best mark we could in the appearance subsection.

I called around and tried to see if anyone I knew could lend me a navy or gray suit and some burgundy-accented accoutrements, but my search came up empty. Subsequent trips down to local thrift shops left me pulling my hair out trying to find a jacket and slacks that fit and matched. With the last hours before my presentation day ticking down, I eventually had to rush to my local mall and hurriedly rifle through a bunch of stores’ (very expensive) selections before they all closed for the night.

I got lucky in the end with a $70 jacket-and-trouser find at H&M — the whole outfit clocked in under $100 — but I could have easily spent much more if I had needed to buy a new pair of shoes, or if if I had chosen to shop for silver accessories to match my male team members’ watches. Not to mention I bought possibly the cheapest suit I could find, given the time crunch — when I was looking through other stores before making my final purchase, I saw racks of nice-looking jackets that cost more than my whole outfit combined. I came out all right financially in the end, but I heard of people who had gone on veritable shopping sprees for the same presentation.

In science, you have to outfit yourself in a $15 lab coat and $5 goggles. You can hop right down to the chemistry building on campus and pick them up from there. In arts, you might be advised to pick up a smock from the campus supply store if you’re registered in an acrylics course. But sets of fancy clothes that can only be found at malls and in boutiques? That’s a new one. It’s a uniform, like a smock or a lab coat, but the difference is that a lab cannot be completed without a protective coat and a smock allows the painter to be freer in their artistic pursuits without their day clothes suffering. These two items of clothing come at standard costs, and they’re sold conveniently at the school. On the flip side, business professional attire is more of a formality than a necessity in my case — and quite a significant amount of resources can go into obtaining it.

I’ve been wearing the same cheap gray H&M suit since I bought it. A lot of my fellow classmates like to switch it up, since we tend to be photographed a lot when presentation occasions arise and it can get awkward to see yourself in the same outfit fifteen times over, but I figure if I’ve been made to get this suit then I might as well get as much wear as I can out of it. I’m going on a weeklong business school-organized seminar soon, and the packing list recommends bringing enough business professional attire to last three long, full days. We arrive on a Monday. With any luck, nobody will notice I’m still wearing the same outfit by the third consecutive morning delegation session.

Victoria Chiu is a writer and student who is probably poring through a finance textbook right now.

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