Monday, September 20, 2010

Dressed Up Comfort

Earlier Drafts:
I sported this cardigan with my black shift.
I channeled Emma from Glee in this skirt.  (New season starts tomorrow!)
This necklace was one of my few purchases this summer. (Regarding that post: I did try to revisit Camera Lucida, but someone either lost our library's copy or refuses to relinquish it, and ILL is too much of a pain.)

hoop and bead earrings (gifted: thanks D!)
clear acrylic beaded necklace (Kohl's)
black tank (Target)
purple cardigan (NY&Co)
black and white print pencil skirt (NY&Co)
black leather flats (Nine West)

Can you tell I took these photos in the evening?  What gave it away?  The bad lighting?  My moderately disheveled appearance?  The bad photo quality in which my head appears blurred, but which nicely approximates my fuzzy headspace after a long day of teaching and taking classes?  Suffice it to say, it was one of those days where I was patting myself on the back for having chosen flats.

When I posted my first day of school look, Brooke commented: "I'm always so envious to read that you feel 'comfortable' in those types of clothes. I'd very much prefer to stand up and teach in gym clothes or jeans and a tee shirt. I always can't wait to get home and hop into my leggings and tees. Have you always felt comfortable dressed up, or did you adapt to it? I'm hoping I'll adapt soon!"  I've got a lot to say in response to this great question, so here goes.

As I touched upon briefly in the comments to this post, I think there are two components to the "comfort" I associate with an outfit, those being a) a type of psychological comfort, and b) a type of physical/bodily comfort.  Most times, I think there's a large overlap between the two, because I tend to feel physically comfortable in things that make me feel psychologically comfortable and vice versa.  Sometimes that's not the case, and for me, psychological comfort always trumps physical comfort.  I find yoga pants to be very comfortably physically, but I rarely wear them outside the house because I regard them as pajamas, and I'm not psychologically comfortable wearing my pajamas in public.

So now that I've tried to clarify what I mean by "comfortable," I think I can address Brooke's question more directly.  I did not always feel physically comfortable in professional attire.  And, I think, I had to learn to take myself seriously as a professional before I felt psychologically comfortable in these clothes, as well.  But life taught me to feel comfortable in these clothes, in both senses of the word.  I started teaching high school at 22, and I was frequently mistaken for a student.  I think this happened because I was fresh faced and because people think of my build as small.  Being told I looked like a high schooler was maddening, and though some people suggested to me that I should "take it as a compliment," nobody ever said it in a complimentary tone.  They said it in a tone of surprise and/or condescension.  So I took offense.

I always wore what I felt were "grown up clothes" to teach.  Unlike other teachers (young and old), I didn't wear jeans, t-shirts, or hooded sweatshirts with the school's logo on them.  However, that didn't seem to differentiate me adequately, so I made the conscious decision to dress more "business" than "business casual" while still retaining my own personal style.  I rarely wore heels, because I stood in front of my students all day, but I invested in trousers to replace my khakis, cardigans to replace my cable knit sweaters, blouses to replace my polo shirts, pencil skirts, and wrap dresses.    It didn't make a huge difference with my students; I think that because they spent so much time with me, they learned to respect my authority fairly quickly.  However, it made an absolutely noticeable difference with my fellow teachers, the administrators, and especially the parents.  The rude and inappropriate comments stopped almost entirely.  The parents were more willing to listen to what I had to say.  (They used to ask me how old I was so frequently that I finally resorted to this response every time: "Old enough to have completed the degree which qualifies me to teach your child.")  My principal actually told me, "I used to think you didn't write referrals because you were a pushover, but I've realized that you don't write them because you address behavior problems adequately in your classroom."  I think all of these changes were directly related to dress.  These clothes say: I mean business.  I know what I'm doing.  I have my s*** together.  I take my work seriously.  I am a disciplined person and I expect others to demonstrate self discipline, too.  All of those things were true before, but my business casual clothes did a less effective job of communicating them.

As a result of this change, I began to feel more psychologically comfortable in these clothes.  Nothing angers me more than being underestimated, so when I realized that I could take concrete actions to disallow that kind of underestimation, it was like I had found the golden ticket.  I've always been aesthetically attracted to clean lines, tailored silhouettes, crisp collars, pressed fabrics, and the like, so while the clothes didn't initially strike me as physically comfortable, the transition was a fairly seamless one.  Now, these clothes feel more me to me than more casual ones.  I learned how to shop for clothes that fit these categories and were physically comfortable, too.  This involved embracing stretch materials, trying on a thousand pairs of trousers until I found the perfect pair, and learning to buy the item that fit best instead of the one that said it should be my size.  At this point, I actually don't understand why anyone thinks jeans are more comfortable than a perfectly fitting pair of trousers.  (Pencil skirts, I'll admit are not ideal, but only because they tend to ride up when you're sitting down for an extended period of time, which I never do when I'm teaching.)

And this is making a long post even longer, but I've been giving a lot of thought to my MA defense episode since writing this previous post about it.  I can't help but wonder if, on some subconscious level, I dressed less professionally for that event because I didn't feel like I had earned it yet, so performing professionalism didn't feel quite right.   This is stupid, because I certainly had earned it, but it's also kind of predictable, because I've encountered much more self-doubt as a graduate student than I ever did as a high school classroom teacher.

In other words: I feel psychologically comfortable in these clothes because they make me feel like other people take me more seriously.  Because I am invested in wearing clothes that facilitate that reaction, I'm committed to finding clothes which do so and are physically comfortable.  However, I don't think I could have worn them with any real confidence until I felt legitimately ready to take on the type of respect I would be afforded when dressed in them.  And if you're still with me on this one, thanks for following along.  One of the things I love most about this blog is that it gives me a space to think through these things in more depth.  Thanks so much for the question, Brooke!

Related Posts:
Recently, A-Dubs shared her own frustration about being underestimated, in her case because of gendered and disciplinary assumptions, and she also responded by resolving to "up the profesh-factor."
Sara wrote an excellent post in which she interrogated the widespread assumption that dresses are necessarily "dressy" or atypical as daily wear.
(don't we have brilliant blogfriends?!)

  • Do you also see "comfort" in dress as a combination of psychological and physical comfort?  Does one trump the other for you, or are they equally important?
  • Do you think I've pidgeon-holed myself too much by relying on "professional" clothes for psychological comfort?  I'm starting to think I have, so I'm committed to learning to take myself seriously in more casual clothes, both IRL and here on the blog.
  • Have you found that your style of dress has made a significant difference in the way people respond to you?
  • Does it sound like I'm on a power trip?  In the interest of full disclosure, I kind of am.  As a young female, I find again and again that no one is going to take me seriously unless I demand it.  Thoughts on this issue?


angelasw said...

You make some really good, well-articulated points. In my last job, even though I'd earned a lot, was in charge of a lot (included a large inventory, thousands of dollars of grant money, and a huge staff) I never felt professional, like I'd earned it, or somehow like it was "legitimate" in some way. I'm hoping that through experience and just being a little older, I won't have these hangups when I get out of grad school and into a real career-type job. Thank you so much for helping me understand my own issues with it, you really helped me think about my own experiences!

maggie said...

Liz--one of the unsaid things here in your post--and this blog--is the idea that you _should_ dress professionally. This is something that I struggle with because I do believe you have to dress appropriately, but I know a lot of our colleagues and even professors seems to see it as a ruse or something. They brush off dressing professionally for various reasons--either they're so scholarly on their own they don't need appropriate clothes, or they think they're just a grad student, so why bother. I really appreciate that you and others take the role of teaching seriously enough to actually contemplate what it means when we dress the part, or not. I prefer always dressing professionally, but find myself sometimes feeling like our peers who don't are wondering why I'm "dressed up." Anyways, this was a rambling way to just say that I'm glad there are like-minded folks and I wonder if you--or the other bloggers--ever feel some tension with peers and/or profs who DON'T dress professionally?

Rebecca said...

I fear I am one of the profs who doesn't dress professionally. Though in my defense, very few in my dept/instit do. It's a jeans and khakis kind of place. Anyway...I look young, too, and often don't get enough respect even though I am into my 40s, have several kids, am tenured, earned a phd 15 years ago, and have been working in the same place for a decade. Funny: the students, my colleagues, and the administration all respect me appropriately. It's the new faculty (and often much younger faculty) that seem to discredit me the most. Ironic, really.

I do think that my more casual outfits work well in my relationships with the students. My teaching style is very casual. Mostly smallish seminars where we are all talking and contributing. I think if I were doing more lectures, then more formal professional attire would be ideal. I haven't been reading your blog long (and so you may have already asked this question of yourselves/others) but I wonder how much fashion and pedagogy go together. In my case, very much. My classrooms are intensely collaborative with the students even directing the readings and syllabus and so a more egalitarian dress works in productive ways pedagogically.

Scholar Style Guide said...

Angela, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I certainly understand how you feel. It's hard enough to feel authoritative when you're young, but when people constantly question your authority, it certainly doesn't make it any easier. One thing that was beneficial for me was that my students actually liked that I was young, so although older folks underestimated me on account of it, I was able to imagine my young-ness as an advantage. I hope you'll feel more confident and capable as you get older and more experienced, as well!

Maggie, great point. In our "about the blog" explanation, which I see as our sort of "mission statement" here, we do (I hope) indicate that we _do_ believe clothes _matter_ because we do believe they _mean_. I think we've tended to focus our attention in that direction because we started the blog in order to make that argument. We certainly have not, however, devoted much space to talking about the attitudes of those who _don't_ agree with us, or how we interact with those people. I'm happy to begin thinking through a post dedicated specifically to this issue, and appreciate your encouragement to keep it in the back of my mind for all posts.


Scholar Style Guide said...

And Rebecca, you make some great points here. I'm not sure you need to say anything in "defense" of your choice not to dress "professionally," however. It sounds to me like you have done a considerable amount of thinking about how and what your clothing means, and you dress in a way that facilitates the type of teaching you do. I think that's great. I'm not bothered by those who choose not to dress "professionally"-- and I think the standards of what constitutes "professional" should be quite flexible. I'm bothered by those who seem to think how they dress does not matter at all.

My experience also aligns with your own regarding young professors-- when I worked in the office, I was surprised that the attitudes of those who had not yet "proven themselves" were sometimes much less gracious than those who had already established themselves as authoritative. I think it relates to Bloom's notion of the anxiety of influence, but that's a much longer thought, so maybe I'll pick it up again in the future.


A-Dubs said...

'Looking great in this lovely jewel tone today, Liz.

You know where else you look great? In IPF's Wonder Woman Pose Conference line-up. Come on over and check your bad self out!

Scholar Style Guide said...

I'm chuckling over the timing of this post, and especially over your concluding question about being on a power trip. Over the past years, you've convinced me that dressing professionally goes a long way toward commanding respect. I would categorize my past dressing choices as "thoughtful" and "put-together," but not always "professional." You mention that your teaching attire underwent a similar transition early on; I'm in that place now.

As I'm transitioning, I'm discovering that others don't always interpret my professional attire the way I intend. Maggie mentioned that some colleagues and coworkers consider dressing up unnecessary. The reactions I've received lately have been even stronger. "Don't take yourself so seriously," and the like. It's a difficult (and exhausting!) balance to strike -- between "power-trippy" b*tch and assertive, professional woman; also, between dressing to convince myself of my abilities and dressing to convince others. Sometimes I wonder if the latter, though important, ought to be the secondary concern? I'm guessing that's what you mean when you say that the respect of others means little unless we're "legitimately ready to take on the type of respect." Convincing ourselves first is key. Right on.

Thanks for this post!


La Historiadora de Moda said...

I do think that there can be an unfortunate tendency for young women to be underestimated by their older (and male colleagues) especially but even amongst each other. I think this is an unfortunate learned behavior that many of us are trained into at the same time we're dressed in pink as infants and toddlers. Many women are not taught to negotiate therefore they don't assert themselves when they should and make less and are often given less responsibility and credit for their accomplishments. This pisses me off a lot.

Of course it happens in many professions, but I think it's still a pervasive problem in academia. Some fields are notoriously worse than others, especially those that are still nowhere near gender parity in their ranks. In some of those fields "dressing up" can cause women to be judged as lightweights rather than as professionals.

I also want to throw out that it can be very different to dress for doing research in a lab and teaching lab courses or doing fieldwork. And there are issues there that differ from those we have in the Humanities.

I love the cardigan and the necklace.

Sassy Molassy said...

This is a great response and way to look at dressing professionally. I often dislike dressing professionally (would rather dress more business casual), but I do notice that when I dress up more than other days (wearing a pencil skirt and heels for example), I get a lot of compliments. Great way to address the looking young issue without having to have a conversation about it with the parents.

orchidsinbuttonholes said...

I love this post. It's fascinating the various shifts you noticed when you decided to dress more business than business casual - how it didn't necessarily impact your students, who spent a lot of time with you and knew you beyond your clothing, but how it changed the perspective of parents and administrators. And I find the shift you discovered within yourself, that these clothes felt more you than casual ones, is equally interesting. I found that about myself, too, and I don't know if I could ever pinpoint why that is, or what exactly happened to feel that change within me. It's just a part of me, somehow.

Fascinating. I love reading about (and writing about) fashion in these terms.

And I love, too, the cranberry cardigan with that gorgeous printed skirt. Your necklace is such a perfect statement piece, too.

Miss. Studios said...

Liz, this is such a nice post! I am completely with you! I pursue both psychological and physical comfort with my work clothes. Psychological and physical comfort actually do sound incompatiable, but you showed very nicely about how they can go together.

I am also young and less-experienced so I am concerned about how I am viewed by people. I know that I consciously dress up for work. At the same time, I do not have an energy to bear physical discomfort. Don't we have much things to take care of?

Thanks for sharing this wonderful thought-provoking post!

Brooke said...

This was interesting to read, Liz. It actually ended up making me respond in too many words to fit in here, so I copied and pasted it into a blog post. If you want to read it, it is here: