Can engineers command respect in casual attire?
By Henry Petroski
When New York University announced last August that its medical school would no longer charge tuition, the media stories covering the news were accompanied by photos and video clips showing the assembled incoming class smiling and cheering. In addition to the expected elation, the images revealed an audience of first-year medical students uniformly dressed in the white outerwear of their profession. The students had been issued white jackets as a reminder that they were embarking on a course of study that should end with each of them being presented with the full-length white lab coat that marks an M.D.
There does not appear to be such a universally recognized sartorial distinction for the engineering profession. Some years ago, the development staff of my school did make an effort to institute a tradition in which just before graduation, senior engineering students were given the short-billed striped caps of railroad engineers. The idea was that as soon as their degrees were conferred, the engineers would replace their mortarboards with the caps in a sign of professional unity. I wondered if it was a joke. Many colleagues and I had spent years trying to convince the public that the kinds of engineers we and our students are do not operate locomotives. Fortunately, the ill-advised graduation gimmick did not last.
In many 19th-century photos, chief engineers and their assistants can be seen wearing a respected uniform of sorts. They are dressed in suits and ties—and top hats—making them virtually indistinguishable from members of the boards of directors that they were showing around construction sites. These were the same clothes the engineers wore to the office and to the board room and to the halls of Parliament and Congress when testifying on matters of technical interest to lawmakers.
In the early- to mid-20th century engineering office, the rank-and-file uniform was the short-sleeve white shirt and tie. It was a practical matter. In those days of hand drawings, the drafting table at which an engineer worked was full of graphite dust from the pencils used. Long sleeves and cuffs would have been blackened well before day’s end. This all changed with the advent of computerized drafting, of course, but the habit of dressing remains.
Some engineers keep a blazer at the office to put on for making presentations to management. If they have a business or social obligation after work, they can use the jacket as a means of dressing up, but not all feel obligated to do so. On one occasion, my wife and I hosted a dinner party for a famous consulting engineer who had given a distinguished lecture earlier in the day. When one of my younger colleagues entered the room in his shirtsleeves, our guest of honor remarked to me, “Here comes an engineer.”
I must confess to contributing to this dressing down. Engineering professors used to lecture in jacket and tie. But gradually the jacket and then the tie were ditched, and teachers dressed little differently from their students. Did this give them the sartorial model that being an engineer meant anything goes as a professional?
In many an office, every day has become casual Friday. But this is not how professionals dress in most business and legal offices, to name two professional settings with whose occupants engineers are most likely to interact. And if they want to be seen as the equal in status to those professionals, then engineers will have to act the part. I do know that my colleagues who teach design and capstone courses do require their teams to dress accordingly when making even just hypothetical presentations to clients. But if graduate engineers as members of a serious professional group are to win the everyday respect that medical doctors command, must they don something equivalent to the white lab coat, at least metaphorically?
Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke. His latest book is The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski