I have been writing in public spaces all over the campus where I’m teaching this semester. And I have felt totally overdressed. Academic fashion is a delicate balance–how do you look professional enough to command authority in front of a classroom of students OR a room full of colleagues or <gasp> both?! If you go too formal, the students don’t identify with you. If you’re too casual, the students may not take you seriously. If your style is too crazy (or perhaps audacious), your colleagues may not identify with you OR not take you seriously. Because I never know who I will run into, I am trying to make a good impression every day, but that means I usually feel a little out of place no matter where I go.
As a graduate student on a largely rural university campus, dressing for a teaching day in the last few years was a serious struggle. What do you wear when you have to walk at least a mile or so (in the rain, snow or mud), hike up three flights of stairs, appear professional for up to two hours of the day, and then sit in a lonely, icy office? I have mostly rocked plain dress pants, turtlenecks and Dansko clogs for the past six winters.
Since September, I’ve pushed my outer limits of personal style by really putting myself together every day. I’ve been at a new (and smaller) institution, I have an easier commute, and I’m trying to have fun with my closet. That means high heels on cobblestone streets (not easy on the ankles) and power-clashing (for that ironic youthful look). But there are still times when I feel overdressed or underdressed for the day’s events.
We can argue all day if what I wear matters, but sociologists would say that presentation of self matters, especially for young female academics (and scholars of color). I haven’t seen my male colleagues stress too much about their attire. On those days when they had to look professional for an observation or a presentation, maybe they dressed it up. But on the whole, male graduate student and faculty colleagues of mine don’t seem to worry about their clothes. In fact, even on television, male academics throw on a blazer with elbow patches and call it a day.
And incidentally, students definitely notice. Students can rate their professors on any of several websites. Those ratings include the quality of their teaching as well as their “hotness.” The last time I checked, “hotness” was not a job qualification. A grad student colleague of mine told me that her students once dogged her fashion on her teaching evaluations. One day last semester, I was complaining about my fashion choices to my teaching assistant who remarked that I was “doing a great job” in the fashion department. In addition to staying current in my field, apparently now I need to keep up with this month’s InStyle.
Conventional wisdom about employment says dress for the job you want. Dressing up, I feel professional, competent and even confident. I just have to decide if I want to blend in enough at the Library coffee shop to overhear undergraduate students openly complaining about other professors.
No matter what I choose, it’s not likely to matter in the short term. A superstorm just walloped the northeast with over two feet of snow, so whatever I rock in the coming weeks, it’s going to have to go with snow boots.