This morning as I was hemming and hawing over doing some academic work or writing this blog post I came across a friend’s shared post on Facebook and was intrigued as it was about the very topic I was trying to approach for today’s post: “How to Dress in Academia and Not Feel Like You’re Dead Inside.”
Floral Manifesto covers a range of concerns and issues that many female academics have encountered regarding what to wear in academic situations and her post breaks these issues down into the different events we dress for in academia: as a student attending lectures, teaching or TA’ing, and attending and presenting at conferences.
At the kernel of this issue is the idea of “caring too much” about our personal appearance and how this reflects our thoughts: as Floral Manifesto explains, “as a lady in academia, I’m not so worried about my thoughts being smart … Rather, I’m worried that my ideas will be undermined by how I’m dressed. Will people take my thoughts seriously if they can’t take my outfit seriously?” In her post, she poses questions to some of the fabulous lady academics that she knows about their academic fashion choices, such as “What challenges did you face when you came into academia (re: the way you dressed)? Did you think about the way that you dressed at all? If so, what kinds of thoughts were you having? Did this happen right away and do you remember a particular moment when you started to worry about how you dressed?” and “Does the way you’d dress for a conference differ from how you’d dress to teach? Would you wear the same outfits to office hours that you would to go to a talk or to class? Does one particular situation stress you out more than another? Are you more worried about how you look when teaching or when you’re amongst other academics?”
These are fantastic questions that I’ve also thought about and addressed in other posts (especially conference wear and dressing for my first day of teaching). Specifically, I think about three conversations that I have had with academics about fashion. The first conversation happened when I was an MA student at my “do you have any questions” meeting. It was the last week of August and I was standing in the hall awaiting my meeting, sweating that awful Hali-humidity mixed with anxiety sweat, feeling very uncomfortable in what I considered “up-casual” (aka very formal for me at that point in my life!) wear. I got through all of my questions about TA’ing, course load, finding a supervisor (aka all of the serious questions) and then asked if there was anything else I should know or do and my grad coordinator awkwardly said something along the lines of “well, Kala, I’ve known you for awhile [I took UG classes with him] and, yeah, well I guess I thought I’d say that being in graduate school is considered a “professional degree” and we are “supposed” to be wearing business casual, especially when teaching — it separates us from the the students and reflects well… do you get what I’m saying?” I remember feverishly nodding and then going home thinking “wtf.”
In UG as well as during my MA I worked a part-time job coaching swimming and the nine practices were haphazardly crammed into and around my school schedule, which meant that I was often running to class or a speaker series event in my yoga pants or casual jeans, sporting my coaching polo or tee, depending on the day. Basically, what I took away from this initial meeting was that if I continued the way I had been dressing in UG, then, well, I would not be dressing for academia — I was would be dressed inappropriately.
This implication made me very angry and anxious. I had bought up-casual clothes and dresses for my new program, but I wasn’t going to be TA’ing — I was assigned a research assistantship instead and most of the work was to be done at home from my laptop, so I hadn’t been worrying about that. I did start to worry when I would show up to my classes in my coaching attire because I didn’t have time to change and others were dressed more appropriately. This anxiety sort of wormed around in the back of my brain until the second term when I had class on days that did not conflict with my coaching schedule. This meant that I had a bit of extra time to spend putting myself together (clothes and makeup) for class. I felt fine until one of the members of my cohort (during one of the first weeks of term) exclaimed that I looked so much better than I did last term — my eyeshadow was amazing blah blah blah. All I took away from this interaction was that people had noticed that I was dressed casually. The fact that both of these comments came from men did not put me at ease.
The third comment is probably the one that made me finally think, “URGH– I’m going to dress how I like!” I had started the PhD, had splurged on a tonne of new “professional” clothes that I loved (please read my anti-pants manifesto here and why I enjoy wearing colour and dresses in an academic setting, here). It was a couple months into term and I was feeling pretty good about how I looked in all of the facets of academia touched on above, when a professor told me a story in her office about an UG student she had taught years ago who always came to class super put together but was a perpetual C student. She then continued saying something along the lines of “I have never put my energy into that, focusing, rather, on my work— I feel like we [gesturing to me] are alike in this way.” After the meeting ended I thought about what she said and implied and at first I was thrilled — this beyond brilliant professor said that I was like her and implied that I am quasi-brilliant and that it shows in my work” SCORE! Then, I thought harder — wait! what did she mean that I am similar to her in the diverting my energy away from my appearance into my work? I had put a lot of energy into my wardrobe and genuinely enjoy putting effort into my makeup. wtf. Did I look like shit? I couldn’t possibly look like I’m not trying — have you seen my collection of red lipstick?? Why can’t I put energy into both?! Why can’t I be brilliant and put together?
Well, from that point on I decided that people obviously do think about how I look (see HookandEye’s great post on how lady academics get judged on their appearance on teaching evaluations) and that I would try not to care about this fact and dress in a way that brings me joy knowing that I can be brilliant and look and feel good about my fashion choices (even if they aren’t completely conventional).
Yet, every start of a new semester I panic: am I dressed appropriately?
This week alone included class, a speaker series, and a “Welcome to the new term mixer” at the department chair’s house. So, what did I wear? Well!
Since it was lecture and I wasn’t teaching and simply had to be there as a TA, I figured I would just go for comfort. Early September in Hali is humidity central. I decided on these fantastic loose pants from Vero Moda, my standby cream ruffled tank, and brought two layer-able options: a gold coloured infinity scarf and a light blazer. I have actually had this blazer since that fateful grad coordinator-new student meeting. My mom bought it for me from Bluenotes thinking that it looked “academic”. It is light and plaid which is always fun!
I kept the styling simple with studs, glasses and minimal eye makeup and a fun blend of NARS lip pencils. Now that my hair is longer I tend to keep it braided for all things school because it is simple and I don’t end up fussing over it. I am also sporting my new watch.
Every Friday a member of my department or a visiting scholar gives a 40-minute talk followed by a reception where I bartend. All grad students and faculty are encouraged to attend. This week, I went with a colour-block dress that, yup, I’ve had since my “professional wardrobe” splurge. I love this dress because it has colour and pockets! Paired with my comfortable Aldo loafers, braided hair and a purpley Kat von D lipstick that I mixed with her nude “Noble,” I felt comfortable.
This is all to say that I am finally feeling comfortable dressing for these academic arenas, but what about the mixer?
Welcome Mixer/ Retirement Party
Since this event was being held on a Saturday and based on the fact that people seemed to dress up for the last retirement I attended (I wore my favourite yellow dress), I figured I should dress up. But, the last retirement party was held in the afternoon and this was an evening thing. What do I wear? Well I settled on my shiny leggings, a simple black dress and (v)amped it up with my newest lipstick friend called Wolvesmouth. It is a shiny, rather than my trusted matte, so it seemed party “fun” and I figured why not unbraid my hair (which led to some 80’s volume).
I seem confident right? Nope. I am pretty sure I asked my partner B no less than 25 times if I looked “too sexy”, if my leggings were “too shiny’ and if I looked “appropriate.”
It was nice to see what the rest of the department considered party attire and I felt great, albeit slightly annoyed that I still can’t shake that feeling of “is this OK?”. Bottom line: I feel good in my outfits and I doubt that academic Joe panicked about how his cords and blue button down would be interpreted, so why should I.
Do any of you have specific events that you are not sure how to dress for? Are they weird real-life/work events? How do you handle the anxiety?