Ask the Chics: Fashion in Academia


Last month, I asked you lovely folks to submit your questions about fashion in academia for guest post fodder. S, E, and A (from left to right above) of Academichic have graciously answered many of them, but since there were so many fabulous questions, a few had to be skipped. I’m only going to post a handful of answers here, and the remainder will go live on Academichic within the next few weeks, so stay tuned! If your question went unanswered, be sure to drop a line to the Chics or stop by their blog. They’d be happy to respond.

Thanks so much to these amazing ladies for their thoughts and advice on remaining stylish in academia!

* * * * *

Particularly as academics, we revel in the exchange of ideas, and so we were thrilled when Sally agreed to let us craft a guest post in the form of a roundtable discussion! Many of the questions we tackled simply do not have definitive or simple answers. We hope our conversation reflects that and that it prompts you to engage in your own dialogues about the intersections of style, perception, and identity.

Q: What can you wear or how do you deal with your wardrobe if you work in a lab, sculpt with clay, or have some other job that might leave you stained and dirty at the end of the day?

A:

A. – You might just need to compartmentalize your wardrobe. For example, while I might have items that would be perfectly functional for a workout (like my J Crew hoodie) I chose not to wear them to the gym in order to save them from sweat stains. This is of course different than getting dirty at work everyday, but it’s the best comparison I could come up with.

E.- I would also recommend thrifting as a means of building up a “work” wardrobe that you don’t mind getting dirty or being ruined by an accidental chemical spill. If you must wear pants to work, then use thrifting as a means to expand the cuts and colors of pants in your wardrobe. Rather than wearing the same style of boot cut jeans everyday, perhaps you can search out wide leg jeans, skinnies, gray jeans, black jeans, etc.

S. -I second E’s suggestion of thrifting as a means of building a “disposable” work wardrobe for those who work in lab environments.

A. – Yes, that is a great way to still wear stylish clothes that you won’t worry as much about accidentally destroying.

S. –Yes, and you can be more adventurous in trying things out of your comfort zone when you’re not as concerned about price. And it’s a great way to have fun with various styles and cuts without mourning the loss of any item if it does get ruined by chemicals or paint or whatever else may be the problem.

Q: Should you dress up more as you progress in school?

A:

E. – I don’t think this needs to be a “should” question. What we have to say serves more as an observation than a normative rule.

A. – Yes, observation: I think many of us find ourselves dressing up more as we progress because we are also aging and thus we probably have more money, more varied extracurricular activities, etc. and, at least in the humanities, progressing in school also comes with presentations, teaching, defenses, and other activities we might chose to dress up for.

But of course, you might also observe that as you hit the hermit dissertation stage, many start dressing down.

S.- Yes, I was going to add that I dress up far less now that I am abroad, not on a campus, not meeting with students or professors, but I have “progressed” in my studies.

E.- I did make a conscious choice to dress up more when I began graduate school because I wanted to really think of it as being my “job.” As a “professional student” I wanted to dress professionally.

S.- I think there is no rule of progression = professionalization of wardrobe, it all is relative to what activities and tasks you’re involved with at each stage.

A.- As always, I think my advice would be to dress in a way that makes you feel confident in the situation. I, personally, would not be confident in jeans at a presentation, but many of my peers would be. However, sometimes I feel like a rockstar scholar in my sweats working in my home office.

E. – I agree with A. If dressing up makes you feel more self-conscious than confident, then maybe that’s not the tactic that’s going to work for you.

Q: What do you do about colleagues that assume that fashion is antifeminist? Must you wear ugly clothes to be taken seriously?

A:

A. -While I think my department as a whole might think of a frilly pink skirt as “too feminine” for the office, pencil skirts are probably OK. But, I wonder if there are some women who might think wearing a pencil skirt is in contradiction to my political, ideological, academic positions.

E.- Because a pencil skirt is so body conscious?

A.- Yes, and on trend. This is a lot to unpack, but I think as we have said before, fashion and feminism often seem to be seen as at odds.

S.- So here I have to say that I have several really well dressed female professors in my current dept who dress on trend and stylishly and are also extremely respected and valued scholars. I don’t know if it has to do with having time to establish yourself as a professional, that you can so-called “get away” with showing interest in supposedly frivolous matters, but I don’t see them being anything but successful and respected scholars and feminists and their stylish outfits are never noted as a “bad thing.”

E.- Right, S., but you are also a stylish feminist so you look at them as role models, who you want to be in the academy.

A.- I think one of the male professors in our department probably thinks E and I present ourselves professionally and doesn’t think anything beyond that because he doesn’t recognize our clothing as “stylish.”

E.- When I was pregnant, one of my female professors told me that I’d have to stop wearing my “beautiful shoes” – meaning heels, in particular – when I became a mom. Sometimes I wonder what she thinks about my outfits now.

A.- Yes, I wonder about that professor all the time. She is very much a pantsuit kind of lady and I think it is a very specific and conscious style choice.

E.- I agree, and I think it has a lot to do with when she came of age in academia.

A.- Yes, she came of age in academia during the feminist political movement.

S.- From all my fashion history readings, when I see the pant suit I think of how, in the 80s, it was a symbol of women breaking further into male dominated work spheres and were borrowing from male aesthetics to fit in.

A.- Yes, S., but are we still doing that? I think it is becoming more muddled.

S.- While today we may read the pantsuit differently, it originated from this idea that women were trying to assimilate to a male look to be considered professional equals. Even their bodies were supposed to emulate the broad shouldered look of their male colleagues. Fashion was shaping the body/altering it for political reasons. While the reasons for picking up a pantsuit today may be different than it was for that earlier generation of women, I would argue that you can’t read clothes in one way alone, i.e. ugly and boring equals studious and serious.

So, to address the question of must one wear ugly clothes to be taken seriously: What is ugly? Ugly to what generation? What context?

A.- I do still think the suit has masculine connotations and is still associated with power. I think boxy cuts are also still associated with power because they resemble the ideal male body. I’m not sure if the idea behind the woman in the suit has changed all that much from the 1980s.

E.- Unless you’re talking about “boyfriend” blazers. It’s trendy now for models off duty to wear those big, boxy blazers and to me that has a different connotation. So perhaps we can’t necessarily say that a particular form is politically laden. A boxy blazer on one person may not have the same connotations as on another person in another context.

A.- True. But I do still think the boxy blazer is associated with masculinity at some level.

S.- I would say that a form is politically laden. Maybe some women might not think of the implications when choosing a form, but that connotation is there. So women today may not consciously think about imitating the masculine body when wearing a suit as was perhaps the case in the 1980s, but that latent idea is still there.

A. – I’m not saying women put on a suit and say, “Today I want to look like a man.” But, the suit is associated with power because it is associated with masculinity.

E.- I do think that an undergrad wearing a boxy blazer that she thrifted because she wants to look like a super model she saw on the Sartorialist is different than a professor in Women and Gender Studies wearing a boxy blazer having come of age during the era of feminist activism. But, I can agree that the allure of the blazer and its persistence in fashion has a lot to do with connotations of masculinity and power.

S.- I even think that the undergrad wearing it because the supermodel is wearing it is because it’s sexy to play with the juxtaposition of her female body in a male garment is somewhat aware of that play with gendered items.

So here’s a final thought I have on this particular discussion: Reading more about fashion history lately, I invariably come across the argument that there are only so many shapes and forms (a set number) that get repeated and reused. So there are only so many blocks we can play with and only so many configurations. Because we’ve had clothes for so many centuries, ALL our shapes are politically laden and function as symbols with meanings and connotations. I don’t see HOW you can dress in a way that refuses to make some kind of statement, to do the so-called “opting out” of fashion.

A.- Yes, good point, S.!

E.- I like that thought. Even “opting out” is making a statement.

S.- The connection between boxy shapes, dark colors, and masculinity has been that way for so long, of course it’s got that connotation (barring the 17th and 18th century and their frill and pomp.)

E.- (I can’t wait until ruffles make a comeback as a power item.)

Q: “How much do you seek to balance the impression you make with what you wear with impressions given by things you can’t change (such as age, gender, etc.)?”

A:

S.- That is a biggie!

E., – Well, one might throw race into there as well…

A.- And sexuality…

E.- Well, obviously I don’t have the magic answer, but it’s something I’ve thought of a lot as a person of mixed race who can “pass” as white. So while I may want to, politically, reject white privilege at some point I feel like I don’t have control over how others perceive me. And I did feel that in the South, during my undergrad, I was treated differently depending on whether or not someone “caught on” to the fact that I wasn’t full white. But, I don’t know that dressing a certain way would change that. So there are limits to what style can do, I suppose.

A.- I think we have had this conversation before about how I feel I can pass as straight, but that unlike you, I do feel I can control how I am perceived. I could dress like a stereotypical lesbian, and I struggle with understanding why I don’t. I mean why do I like pencil skirts so much? Some days I think it would be easier to announce my sexuality through style so that I don’t have to keep announcing it through words.

S.- I announce my foreignness when I open my mouth and speak, so no clothing could hide that I am not German while living here, nor that I am not American in the US, nor that I am a Romanian expat in Romania.

A.- So we could all chose to dress as stereotypical feminists, lesbians, Asians, Eastern Europeans, etc., but it wouldn’t accomplish what we want.

E.- I think we’ve also discussed before how, at some point, our words are important because you’re not subverting if you’re just passing.

A.- Yes, E., that is such a good point.

S.- I think we often dress to mitigate/mold those very things we can’t help but announce with our bodies: race, sexuality, etc. We don’t dress to enforce them but to mold them into how we’d like those to be interpreted.

A.- I don’t agree, S. I don’t think I want to mitigate my sexuality through dress. In fact, when I was coming out I dressed much more like a stereotypical lesbian, complete with buzz cut and a few rainbow accessories.

S.- Let me rephrase that. What I’m exploring as an idea is whether we don’t dress “like a lesbian” or “like an immigrant” – whatever that may mean, I’m not sure – because we perhaps want to signal that there is more to us than just that aspect of our identity. Our clothing may signal an interest in sports or eco-friendliness or high fashion or what have you.

A.- Yes, I see what you are saying. But I would like to think that, at this point in my life, for me, it has more to do with my idea that there is not one look for a lesbian.

E.- Right, so by wearing a pencil skirt and then announcing that you are a lesbian, you may challenge others to shift their own preconceptions about what lesbians look like, or how they “should” dress.

The recurring themes in this conversation have been two-fold, I think. First, context matters, so there are no easy answers to questions related to how others perceive you. And second, style is only one facet of how you express your identity. It’s an important one, but it’s not the only one.

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  • K.Line

    Excellent discourse!

  • Marlisa

    As a professor of art history, with an emphasis on feminism in art, I really enjoyed this. I especially liked the points raised regarding how different generations view fashion or a particular style. Thank you for this excellent dialog! (How fitting! My verification word is "read her.")

  • orchidsinbuttonholes

    I always love the Academichics, but this dialogue is fascinating! Thanks to them for sharing this with us, and to you, Sal, for posting it!

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    Nicely done, ladies! I wonder, though, to some extent about your pants suit connection to women who came of age at a certain time in academe and your question as to whether we are still doing that. Of course, I'm in a different discipline and in a very large department but those women who did so much to pave the way for us don't wear powersuits in my dept.

    Unfortunately, several recent studies inside and outside of academia, suggest that women are not approaching men in numbers or pay. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed suggested that women who are mothers have a significantly lower chance of landing a tenure track job or of getting tenure than singles or men who are parents. So the question of whether or not we are transmitting our abilities to those who perceive us is still crucial.

    • Lisa K

      Perhaps the lower chance of landing a tenure-track position is due less to the fact of the applications being women than it is of women still being considered the primary childcarers in many families, despite careers and other factors. I think many women still are “expected” to spend time taking care of their families in their non-work time, more so than men, leaving less time for doing the career-advancing work (which due to teaching, committees, advising students, and general administration often needs to be done after hours) such as paper and book researching and writing. People who are single don’t have the family draw on their time and are better able, in theory, to further their careers with research out of hours. Also men, being traditionally the secondary carers in families, are more able to work late at the office because they aren’t necessarily expected to help Johnny with his science project and bake cookies for the PTA. You can’t jet off to a big conference if you have to take your kids to soccer practice.

      Before I am taken to task for the above, I would also like to say that I realise this is not the case for ALL families; a cousin of mine is the head of a foreign language department at a university, she has kids and a tenured job, but her husband was a stay-at-home dad for several years. However I do acknowledge that for as much as we would wish it most families do not work this way.

  • Tina Z

    Thank you! I have emailed the link for this post to several fellow grad students. Some of these questions come up in hushed conversations among us and I often find my opinions being dismissed because I am a city-slicker from the Northeast (on a midwest campus). I have been told to my face that "fancy" clothes only impress in the big city and students and faculty only take you seriously if you "dress down", whatever that means! I went through an evolution of style myself from low-key and decidedly more casual to a snappier look (more skirts, dress pants, heels, button down shirts, silk shirts, etc) and found that it garnered a higher level of respect from undergrad students.

    I appreciate that you pointed out the ambiguity of these concepts of style. And this is in a political science department no less, where we are hyper-aware of political statements in all other contexts.

  • Jingle Bella

    Great post! Thanks to the Academichics – and to you Sal for hosting this 🙂

  • Linda

    This made me want to go to grad school so I can have friends like you!

  • Laura

    Thanks for this dialogue. A lot of the issues of context and signaling in clothing choices are applicable to me, and I don't work in academia.

    One question: they refer to their readings in fashion history — could they suggest some books appropriate for a relative layperson?

  • Kelly

    Awesome post – I always love hearing what they have to say.

    Tina Z – I struggle with that a lot. I feel like I wear more "fancy" clothes than most other people in my social circle/city and I'm all to aware that many people would (and do) write me off as "frou-frou" or airheaded if I'm "dressed up" (compared to other people around me) when I meet them. I often make a conscious decision to dress down when I'll be meeting people for the first time, because I want them to get to know me before they see me in skirts and heels – so hopefully by the time they see the dressed-up version of me, they'll already take me seriously. I think it's ridiculous that I have to "slob up" for some people to give me the time of day, but that's the world I'm in.

  • Lauren/Lo/Sassy

    Some really great thoughts on woredrobe and what it might say about you whether or not you're trying to say it. Love the mix of academia into fashion. I think the fashion world sometimes disregards its associations with history, academia, politics, etc. Nice work, chics.

  • Academichic

    Thanks, Sal, for hosting this!

    @ Tina Z – what a fascinating comment and experience, it's great to hear from other grad students and how they've dealt first-hand with these issues.

    @Laura – We would be happy to share some reading tips with you! I'm the one who's most involved with fashion history and the discourse of clothing and I can think of a few books that are really interesting and fun to read. I will go through my sources and compile a 'reading list' for you and anyone else interested and we can post it on our site in the coming week or two.

    S

  • Anonymous

    Great post, ladies. I can relate to some of the comments about feeling as if I should dress down to earn respect. I did this for the longest time. I have recently realized, though, that I don't care if people think I'm too "fancy". I know my coworkers often feel I dress too nicely for work (I see the way they look at me) but I know it does not affect their opinion of my intelligence because I make sure to display my intelligence and dedication in my work. I actually kind of enjoy the juxtaposition.

  • D

    To E. on dressing and passing for 'white.' I find that people get treated more nicely, (regardless of race) if they are attractive. I am of mixed race, and I find that I get treated better than my sisters, (even though they dress up more) because I have the more desirable features, i.e. higher cheek bones, taller, thinner, etc. At least that has been my experience in the South. I don't think clothing factors in as much, as 'attractiveness' when one is 'foreign'.

  • Amanda

    I'm in love with all of you. This is a discussion I have often with other feminists who love fashion. Thanks for putting it out there!

  • FashionTheorist

    I'm really fascinated by the conversations about using clothes to construct/project/mold a societal identity, playing up or down certain aspects of our multifaceted selves. None of us is just our sexuality, our ethnic background or national heritage, or our academic field of study. It's always a choice, though, which parts we want to emphasize and which we want to play down – and why.

    My grad school experience was, I am discovering, atypical, because I was studying fashion history and theory in the heart of NYC's Garment District. No criticism on being too "dressed up" there! Getting dressed in the morning takes on a whole new dimension when you know your classmates and profs will be actively deconstructing and interpreting your outfits.

    Thanks to Sal for hosting this fabulous discussion, and S., please do share a bibliography! I'm a few years out of the field and behind on current thinking.

  • grad

    @D

    I think that you are right that more attractive people get treated better but you also have to ask yourself what the standard of beauty is. Often the most desirable features are "white" features like a thin nose, straight hair and a small booty.

    On the other hand, for those of us who are mixed, having "white" features sometimes makes it harder for us to be accepted into the subculture of the other half of our heritage. Often it happens that the siblings that have more "ethnic" features are considered more authentically Latina/Black/Asian than the ones who look white even though they are from the same family.

  • Beatrice

    Wonderful discussion, thank you!
    My only 2 cents worth here is to say that when working in a chemical laboratory, safety comes first. That means cotton clothing, NOT fabrics that are flammable or can create lots of static (and therefore a potential spark) such as polyester or spandex blends. Take it from one who works in a lab full of industrial chemicals and epoxies!

  • BookGirl

    Fascinating dialogue. Thanks for taking this on, ladies, and to Sal for the invitation to do so.

    Like some of the commenters (commentators?), I am sometimes a bit embarrassed about being too "dressed up." Not that I'm fancy in how I dress. It's simply that dress, in my social circle, is very casual, and it's apparent that I put more thought into my attire than most of my friends and colleagues.

    I'm trying, with increasing success, to "get over it." I enjoy putting together an outfit: thinking about the options, trying new combinations, juxtaposing items in ways that strike me as interesting. I've come to recognize this as a personal form of art and expression. It represents me, and it gives me joy, and that's a good enough reason to embrace it.

    Clara

  • Ann

    Thank you for this excellent discourse. I would love a bibliography. I am Asian and also an academic in a department that does not conventionally have a lot of Asian academics. So I find what E had to say about "passing" interesting.

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