Monday, September 27, 2010

Facing Sartorial Critique


clear lucite beaded necklace (Kohl's)
white and yellow striped tee (Gap)
medium wash skinnies (American Eagle via sister's closet)
sneakers (Converse Chuck Taylor)
staring down at the ground pose (learned) : )

My casual dressing experiment and my refusal to acknowledge the onset of fall continued on Friday, this time with the assistance of some new skinnies borrowed from my sister and a necklace that dresses up a tee and jeans ensemble and makes it feel more "me."  I noticed last week that I've been wearing bold (if not "statement") necklaces almost every day-- this seems to be a phase I go through every couple of months.  Right now, a look feels more like a "look" when I add a necklace. 

I wore this ensemble to campus for a lecture, and I barely made it inside the building without having its casual register brought to my attention.  I ran into a friend and classmate of mine, who followed up his "Hey!" with "dressed down Friday, eh?"  This reminded me that I'd agreed to address Maggie's comment on my post from last week about using "dressed up" attire as a way to assert my authority.  She wrote, "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 seem to see it as a ruse or something."  After sharing some personal experiences, Maggie concluded her thoughts by asking,  "I wonder if you--or the other bloggers--ever feel some tension with peers and/or profs who DON'T dress professionally?"  Other comments on the same post (which I encourage you all to read) also gestured toward the same line of questioning.

First, I'd like to clarify that I try to avoid thinking and speaking in "shoulds."  If my post gave the impression that I think people should dress according to societal norms of what constitutes "professional," I apologize.  I was just trying to talk about my own relationship to "professional" dressing.  Maggie certainly sensed, though, that I do wish more people were willing to acknowledge that how you dress your body matters.  In our About the Blog page, we quote Tim Gunn, who has said "I believe in the semiotics of clothes: the clothes we wear send a message about how we're perceived.  Accordingly, it's important that we each accept responsibility for how we present ourselves to the world."  I'd like to invite you all to take a look at that page, especially those of you who are newer readers of the blog, because that's where we've tried to explain what we imagine as the purpose of our blog.  I'd also like to encourage you to visit (or re-visit) my Henry James Textual Analysis post, in which I wrote a little bit more about my own conception of how and why language matters as a parallel to how and why dressing matters.

To answer the second part of Maggie's question, I have felt some tension with peers regarding my decision to dress "up" regularly.  Some of my classmates are responsive to my explanations about it, and quite a few have actually begun reading the blog and talking to me about it in real life, which is rewarding enough to make it easy to ignore the critics, even though a few of them remain.  I've been fortunate enough that I haven't (yet) felt this kind of tension with professors, but I expect that at some point, that situation will arise.  I read other academic fashion blogs regularly enough to know that in other universities, disciplines, and geographies this kind of tension is quite pervasive.  Our department is fortunate to have quite a few female professors who cultivate a professional, put-together, stylish presentation of self.   Their personal styles cover a broad range of approaches to dressing, but when I look at each of them, I can see that they've put thought into how they dressed themselves each day.  Many of these women are also doing highly influential work in their fields.  I can't help but think that these female professors have begun to carve out a space of possibility wherein someone like me, who takes an interest clothes, is still taken seriously. 

I know these misconceptions-- that dressing well is just a "ruse" and that a woman can't be interested in style and do serious, thoughtful, meaningful intellectual work, too-- still exist.  When given an opportunity to discuss these misconceptions with people who hold them, I believe I am capable of making a good argument against them.  I realize, though, that not everyone who thinks my interest in clothes is vapid will be willing to give me a chance to discuss it.  Because of this, the best way I know to break down these misconceptions is to prove them to be false every single day.  I like to think that by continuing to dress with intention while also doing good work in my studies, I am slowly convincing those skeptics with whom I interact that it is possible to be serious about academics and about clothes.  Furthermore, I hope that my participation in this community of scholarly style blogs gives confidence to those women who share my interest in clothes but do not get to share my surroundings, and thus face more criticism for how they choose to dress.  I'm regularly encouraged by reading the thoughts of others who share my opinion on the subject, and it reinforces my sense that it's important to continue working toward deconstructing these misconceptions.

Thanks for the comments, Maggie!  I hope I've answered your questions.

  • Do you ever find yourself relying on a single type of accessory to "finish" a look?  I do this all the time with belts, as I've mentioned before, but now I'm starting to do it with necklaces, as well, so I wonder if it's a common habit.
  • What are your thoughts on the similarity we draw here on our blog between the importance of using language well and the importance of dressing well?
  • Have you found successful ways to manage tension you've encountered regarding your own interest in clothes?  Please share!!


La Historiadora de Moda said...

This is a fantastic post, Liz! I agree with you that the best thing you can do to combat negative perceptions is to do your best work every single day. I have also found that it's often helpful to present the myriad facets of my personality to my colleagues. I may love Fluevogs and floaty skirts, but I also love football and microbrews and traveling. I think it's important that we give our peers a glimpse of that because it's not as easy to transmit those aspects of ourselves as our interest in clothes and the thought that goes into our outfit is.

Iris said...

I think that how you dress can sometimes be more inpactful than how you speak. I deal with alot of first impressions in my line of work and while a person may give the impression of a well put together individual in their CL/CV/Resume they might actually be a hot mess when you meet them in person. I think that the way people dress should be done with consideration to how they want to be percieved because whoever they meet will make a snap judgement about them before they can say a thing.

Miss. Studios said...

I had a hard time resisting myself from dressing casually this morning... I have a really fab lady professor who personally shared tips for professional teaching attires. Now I think back, I think her advice has impacted me in a huge way. Liz, I love your necklace! You need to wear it more!

Julia said...

I do think this is a great chic casual ensemble. I often feel most comfortable in jeans and tee and I try to find ways to style it up a bit - I think you did a good job of doing it here.

Between Laundry Days said...

What a wonderful post, and an insightful exploration of the issues of dressing professionally in the academic workplace. While I'm not an "academic" myself (sometimes I like to call myself an "independent scholar", and then feel kind of like a douche), I work with professors, students, and academic staff all the time, and am certainly aware and influenced by the expectations, and also freedoms, of my professional environment. While there is certainly a gendered bias in academia, I feel like there is far more space in the academy to express yourself through clothes than there is in other industries. I'm grateful that I can wear chunky scarves, statement necklaces, and sassy shoes without feeling that I've broken some major sartorial faux pas in my workplace. That being said, however, there are still major "guidelines" for what makes one "professional", and that seems to change, for my office at least, depending on who we're meeting with and what title (and sometimes, gender) they have.

Anyway, fascinating post, and I think you've hit the nail on the head with this casual ensemble, too!

maggie Fromm said...

Liz--what great thoughts, and thank you for taking up my question! I think it's hard b/c at the same time that I might not feel comfortable "dressing down" too much, I also don't want others to feel like I'm judging their choices. I do it because it works for me, and I hope the sentiment goes the other way, too, regarding those who may not think like. Thanks again!

Scholar Style Guide said...

All, thanks for your continued encouragement about my casual look styling!

LHdM, I like your point about how showing various elements of your personality also breaks down misconceptions. I know you run, too, and this is one thing that I talk about fairly regularly with classmates, and I think it surprises some people that someone who likes clothes also considers herself an athlete.

Iris, I think visual presentation of self is especially important when it comes to first impressions.

Clare, you make a great point, as well. One of the many reasons I enjoy working on a college campus is because I get to see so many different sartorial decisions in action each day.

Maggie, you're definitely right- I hope everyone dresses in a way that suits their personal style *and* their teaching style. I quite enjoy seeing how everyone styles themselves and would feel disappointed if everyone started dressing like me!


Jessica said...

What a great post - thank you!

I started my own personal style blog, Surely Sonsy, a few weeks ago, but I have to admit that I've been a little self-conscious about how this activity might be perceived by my (now former) grad school colleagues and professors. When I first started the blog, I even questioned how much I would "market" it on Facebook and the like, knowing that they would all see it. I'm less concerned about any reaction from females, who've generally always supported and even complimented me, but I continue to wonder about the males. My way around that has been just to not think too much about it; I guess I haven't yet come to accept my interest in fashion and looking good as what it is (and what you describe here) rather than what it might be perceived as: a lack of any real intelligence... But, perhaps that comes from an insecurity rooted much deeper than my little blog can take credit for...

Nevertheless, your post brought up some important points that give me pause, and that dressing well, and writing about it, is not only nothing to be ashamed of, but something to be empowered by. Ironically, I'm starting to think that's the whole (subconscious) reason I started my own blog in the first place.

Thanks again...

Surely Sonsy