I still remember what I wore, nearly five years ago now, on my first day leading discussion sections at the University of South Carolina. I wanted to look older than my students, but not old. Like I had personality, but not crazy. Academic, but not boring. Androgynous, but not manly. Stylish, but not inappropriate.
I walked into class wearing a pair of black-and-white, loose-patterned pants I had bought at Rue 21 (and still have, even though I have stitched the seams more times than I can count). I had tucked in a blue V-neck shirt from Target and threw on the black blazer my aunt had handed down to me. I cuffed the sleeves of the blazer — I wanted to look casual after all — and paired it with gray gladiator sandals. I wrapped a black-and-white scarf around my head, which I knew was verging on "too much" but that was a line I’d always liked to cross.
I had recently cut my hair into a very short pixie style (think Emma Watson immediately post Harry Potter). I amped up my makeup afterward, so as to "not look like a boy." On that first day of teaching, I wore gel eyeliner and a ton of mascara, along with my favorite lipstick, Ruby Woo.
I came into class, lugging a million books, carrying a venti iced chai from Starbucks — the same way I would walk into many classrooms over the next few years. The day went well and so did the semester. I was friendly with my students, chatting about their favorite places in town, their majors, and their career plans. At the end of the semester, a few students even asked me to write them recommendation letters.
I thought I’d achieved the right balance. So when I got back my teaching evaluations, I was shocked, not by the ratings — which were a little over average and seemed great for a first-time teacher like me — but by the many comments about my wardrobe. I was called "adorable," and many students referenced my "cute" clothes and sense of style. Even now that I’m noticeably older than the vast majority of my students, I still get comments about how I dress. This past spring semester, students asked me to go "headband shopping" with them.
Part of me was flattered, of course. But I also couldn’t help but think that a man — even a stylish one — would never get more comments on his course evaluations about his clothes than his teaching. Would a man be asked to assist in headband (or any other kind of) shopping?
Clothing is just one more minefield for female graduate students that their male counterparts do not encounter in the same way. Fashion is often construed as a frivolous hobby, even though many consider it an art form. And male graduate students often get away with casual dress in the classroom that would not go over well for women. (I know male instructors who teach with their shoes off to calm students down — something I would never consider doing.)
But fashion is also something graduate students use to tackle the liminality of our positions. While I want to be taken seriously when I teach or present, I don’t want to seem like I am play-acting — pretending to be a "real professor." I also don’t have the privilege that tenure provides — a chance to mess up and fix it, or mess up and not care.
Dressing well can lead to unwanted attention from colleagues, especially if you (like me) are a woman in a department that is predominantly male. And lest you think I’m dressing inappropriately (shame on you for slut-shaming), I wear dresses and skirts of reasonable length, cardigans, boots, and Birkenstocks. Nothing mind-blowing, though I do aspire to creativity in my dress.
Some professors comment on my outfits almost daily, calling me a "fashionista." I have female professors whom I constantly discuss fashion with and one who gifted me my first pair of Fluevogs. Some older professors, generally men, comment on my clothing in ways that are inappropriate, ways that convey more about them than about what I’m wearing. Others only comment when I wear something particularly shocking: A hot-pink, faux-fur vest I bought in the Target children’s section garnered many questions.
The larger issue remains: On days when I teach, if I wore a suit or a pair of dress pants, would my students take me more seriously? Would my evaluations go up? Would I seem like an academic? Would my professors be more likely to see me as a peer if I gave up my leggings, Birkenstocks, and pink hair for something more "appropriate"?
I know that, for many people, these aren’t conscious decisions. Adults will always comment on women’s clothing more than on men’s, even at a very young age. In a department dominated by men, many of whom seem to have a uniform of button-up shirts, sweaters, and pants, a girl in a faux-fur vest stands out. It’s no accident that when you Google images for "history professor," you find photos of older white men, many bearded, wearing jackets, sweaters, and button-ups. If that is the image my students have been socialized to expect, it follows that they would be taken aback by a small woman with a high-pitched voice in bright clothing talking animatedly about the Black Power movement and or the Salem witch trials.
But I refuse to Hillary Clinton my wardrobe, and give up my pastels, faux fur, and cat-print dresses for pantsuits. I refuse to keep my hair brown or give up my nose ring to make my professors more comfortable and to keep up the facade that a history professor is a conservatively dressed white man.
What isn’t yet clear is how that refusal will affect me professionally, although I am sure it will.
Although I’m still years away from the job market, I’ve started presenting at major conferences. I read Karen Kelsky’s book on the academic-hiring process, The Professor Is In,which gives a decent amount of space to dressing for interviews. It’s not like I won’t be professional — I own a blazer and heels and other acceptable "professional" clothes. But how will my hair color, nose ring, and brightly colored clothes affect me on the job market? I am sure they will serve to code me as young and feminine, two things that aren’t always respected in academia. We shall see.