Back-to-school shopping doesn't have to be all kids' stuff. The wardrobe to complement that first opening bell can help set the tone for a teacher's year, too.
There's nothing in the contract that requires dangling cat-character earrings or kooky bow ties. The right look can command respect while earning a little street cred.
Celebrity stylist Cristina Ehrlich, a style adviser to Coldwater Creek, remembers her first "cool teacher" in elementary school — and Ehrlich says she never worked harder than she did for that Lauren Hutton lookalike, who wore pleated slacks, V-neck silk blouses, a thin little belt and gold hoop earrings. "Maybe it's that I wanted to impress her, or maybe she just knows how to grab your attention, but she left a lasting impression," she says.
These days, that teacher might be wearing brightly colored skinny jeans and a boyfriend sweater, or trouser jeans and a crisp button-down in a cheerful color, Ehrlich muses.
"Young kids like a little eye candy. It draws their attention," Ehrlich says. "You want authority but not stuffy."
Maybe that same second-grade teacher would even try a pair of tuxedo-inspired jeans with a black stripe down the leg and a more fitted, cropped blazer, she adds.
That might be an outfit similar to what high schoolers are wearing — and that's OK, says Emilia Fabricant, executive vice president of the Aeropostale brand.
Teachers can use their clothes to help bridge communication gaps with their students, she says. "The cool factor gives power."
Fabricant gives the caveat, though, that teachers might wear individual pieces differently so they're "appropriately styled": short skirts worn over leggings, tunics over tanks, and skinny jeans paired with the high front-low back cardigans that give an update to the classic silhouette.
Maybe there's a life lesson here for teens: A modern look can co-exist with a respectful one.
Amazon.com fashion editor Sara Dooley imagines teachers of younger grades experimenting with prints. Florals are enjoying a fashion moment, she says, and animal prints — leopard spots and the like — have a little bit of edge but have been tapped for classic silhouettes. There are even some literal animal prints, such as birds, butterflies, turtles and armadillos, that have been elevated from kitsch to cool.
Prints are good conversation starters, and they can camouflage a multitude of sins, especially of the paint-glue-leftover-snack variety.
Many closet-to-classroom items are basic pieces, including a pencil skirt, fit-and-flare dress, collared shirts, blazers, jeans and sweaters, so they can make the transition between seasons and between school years. They can all be dressed up or down, and adapted to look "new" with the right belt, shoe or jewelry.
"With little time during the school year to shop, teachers can maximize style all year long by buying key items that will update pieces they already own," says Sofia Wacksman, vice president of trend for Kohl's Department Stores.
Ehrlich suggests layers, as long as the overall look is relaxed without being sloppy. On the flip side, tailored is good, but too buttoned-up is not. If you're thinking of a bow-neck blouse, for example, make sure it has a soft touch.
For a more bohemian style, a dolman sleeve top in a watercolor print will give the effect of a fluttery, full, feminine look without a bell sleeve, which seems an invitation for snags or stains.
Funkier accessories can be for anyone. Teachers need a stylish case for gadgets, and that's a neutral zone for experimentation.
So are ballet-flat shoes, which have more options than the periodic table.
Picking popular colors, including flashes of the almost neon brights, also is an easy "in," says Fabricant, and the broad choices in denim and knits should make it easier to find trend-right items.
Teachers could be facing a tough crowd, after all.
"For a middle school teacher, you want some safe bets. You are on a stage in front of the kids all day. You want to be comfortable, you want to feel confident. Too much risk puts you out there for ridicule behind your back. You know those middle schoolers," Dooley says with a laugh.
Teachers can be hard on their clothes: They have long days, sometimes in rooms without air-conditioning, and come in contact with a lot of people. They might be on the floor cutting construction paper one minute and get called into a meeting with administrators and parents the next.
Wacksman would also like to think that teachers have somewhere fun to go in their extracurricular life, and want their daytime outfits to take them there.
Her pick? A printed shift dress with a colorful belt and cardigan for the classroom. Switch from flats to heels at the end of the day, and if social plans call for it, swap out the sweater for a motocross jacket.
Another option is a printed maxi dress, which often is made of a wrinkle-free jersey. That with a short beaded necklace and flats can stand up to a lot, she says.
"When the bell rings, many teachers need an outfit that can transition from their classroom to a night out," says Wacksman.