Originally published at The Learning Curve Woman
It’s that time of year when parents across the country head to department stores to buy their children new school clothes (wasn’t it great to have someone else bankroll your wardrobe?). I remember my school days, and I recall that school shopping inevitably led to anxiety over what to wear on the first day of school. This anxiety was heightened once I got to high school. As teens, we believed our clothing was a powerful form of social capital and self expression. As a result, the first day of school was a veritable New York Fashion Week!
I am particularly excited (and admittedly a little anxious) about what I’m going to wear on the first day of school this year because I am starting a new job at a new university. As a professor who studies fashion history and body politics, I don’t think it’s shocking that I love clothes. Now that I’ll be making a lil’ (emphasis on lil’) bit more money, I can afford to buy some stylish back to school gear. My issue is: I work in a field where—unlike the hallowed halls of high school or the fashion world—dressing fashionably is not rewarded or encouraged.
“Appropriate” attire for professors is a very provocative topic among my colleagues. A woman professor quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Professors: Hot At Their Own Risk, states, “If you look as if you spend more time in the beauty parlor than in the library, that’s going to be a problem.” I’ve found that stylish hair and dress are even more noticeable (and deemed more problematic) on women professors of color. It is because we look vastly different from our white male, colleagues who—despite institutions’ diversity initiatives—remain the “face” of the professoriate. Those who commented on the Chronicle piece (many who identified themselves as professors) confirmed this notion. They were highly critical of a black, female professor featured in the article who admitted that she purposefully dressed in stylish attire. One commenter retorted, “We’re not there to be ‘hot,’ we’re there to teach.” But, why can’t we do both?
Though I don’t necessarily aim to be “hot,” I do aim to be fashion-forward. Outside of work, I would describe my style as “flirty-modern-funky.” I wear a lot of color. I love pinks, yellows, and light blues. I recently purchased a pair of bright salmon pink skinny jeans that I can’t wait to wear. I also love wearing cool prints and bold stripes. Playful shoes (usually flats or kitten heels for practicality), quirky glasses, and a stylish handbag complete my look. My number one fashion rule is that there are no rules! Virtually anything can be worn together if styled right. I like to play with this concept daily, daring to do something bolder than I did the day before.
I enjoy bringing my personal style into my professional attire because it helps make my job seem less like “work.” Many believe the general attire of a professor should consist of suits, long, shapeless skirts, and clunky shoes in drab colors. Instead, I chose looks that challenge conventional ideas about “professional” attire. I wear retro shift dresses with funky prints, cardigans or billowy tops cinched with studded belts, and classic shoes like Mary Janes or loafers in bright colors or edgy prints. I frequently read Lucky magazine to get fresh ideas on how to incorporate on-trend pieces into my work wardrobe.
I believe my attire makes me more relatable to my students and gives me social capital and legitimacy when I teach courses like “Feminism(s) and Fashion.” My students—who are not that far removed from high school—tend to appreciate my trendy styles. Our interaction in the classroom helps to boost my productivity and my level of intellectual engagement with my research and my colleagues.
I think it’s important that we as professional women find ways to express ourselves and our personal convictions, even in the workplace. It not only helps our own personal morale and productivity, it can also help to reshape the dynamics of our workplaces.
I’m still unsure about what I will wear on the first day of school, but I know it will be something that reflects my love of fashion and my rebellious spirit. I’ll probably wake up the day of and decide to forgo all of my preplanned outfits, choosing instead to put something together spontaneously. But no matter what I choose, I know it will be something fierce!