Being a Woman · Departmental Politics · Sexual Harassment

Is Fashion a Women’s Issue in Academia?

CAR: So, today, we’re going to be discussing fashion and clothing choices in the workplace.  So, what do you think about the phrase, “dress for the job you want?”

MT: I think that can’t apply in higher education. We all dress up when we have to see the President, or we’re going on an interview, but day-to-day classroom work is actually hindered by fancy clothes. I dress nicer than 90% of my colleagues, but only because I look young and want to be taken seriously.

CAR: Yes, I’d say that’s part of the reason I dress nice at work, too. I look young-ish and want to be sure I don’t get confused with the TA.  But I also spend a lot of time in pop-up meetings with the chair or the dean, and I dress nicely because they do. If the dean shows up in my office, I want to be in a blazer.

MT: It’s mostly business casual here. Any nicer than that and the students and faculty start mentioning the fancy clothes. My dean and chair don’t dress nice.

CAR: How do the men and women dress in your department?

MT: Men wear jeans. Women, business casual or sometimes jeans.  I wear business casual. I’m the only one who ever wears a dress.  The Media Whore is always in a suit, in case he gets called for a quote on camera.  It sounds like your faculty dress nicer than my faculty.

CAR: I would say there’s a lot of variation in our department.  The men tend to wear business casual:  khakis and a polo, or maybe a sport coat over jeans. Women, too, really. But in our administration offices, it’s a lot more formal. Suits, dress, etc.  So, I dress for the job I want, I guess.  I wear blazers and dresses to look like I belong in administration.

MT: Our administration is still pretty casual, unless there’s an event going on. They’re still nicer than the faculty, but I wouldn’t say they dress nice.

CAR: We do have That One Guy who wear cargo shorts and sandals to teach. Do you have That Guy?

MT: We do not have That Guy, at least not in my building.

CAR: Do you think That Guy can get away with it because he’s a guy?

MT: Oh, of course. Once I wore yoga pants to work (students weren’t on campus) because there was a faculty/staff yoga session. And I got comments from my dean: “aren’t you a little casual today?”  I was like, “Yea, because I’m about to go to yoga, dumbass.”

CAR: Oh wow!  My chair once commented that he always knows when it’s me coming down the hall to his office, because my heels click and I’m the only one who wears heels.

MT: Is it good to be known for wearing heels?

CAR: Hmmm… yes and no, I guess. When I look at the women in higher administration, the women I want to emulate, they wear heels. Maybe it’s a 1980s power woman, “shatter the glass ceiling with this stiletto” thing that I have going.  I also feel like heels convey more professionalism than flats: “I’m going to an important meeting in these heels.”  Also, keep in mind that I came from a background in [very corporate thing].

MT: See, anytime I’ve worn heels, I’ve gotten compliments, but in a sexualized way.  So, I stopped wearing heels at work because it made me MORE a woman, and I don’t think I want that, necessarily.

CAR: Yes, I can see that. I do think my fashion sense falls squarely into, “Sexy Yet Professional.”

MT: So what is the role of fashion at work?

CAR: I am particularly fond of fashion:  I like to shop, I have favorite designers. Fashion is important to me, maybe moreso than some women. I watched a LOT of What Not to Wear when I was on maternity leave, and I absolutely believe that what you wear says something about you and your work. While That Guy in the cargo shorts gets away with it, he’s not taken as seriously as someone better dressed.

MT: I’m always wary of being TOO fashionable at work. Maybe one piece that’s on trend, but the rest squarely business bland. I want people to hear what I’m saying, not questioning my fashion choices.

CAR: I understand that, but I really think that my fashion choices can support (or undermine) what I’m saying, so choosing intentionally is important.  If I’m trying to network at a conference, I’m going to wear heels and a nice designer dress, because it conveys professionalism, interest, and potentially even something of a gravitational pull.  When people see Sharp Dressed Woman, they think she’s important, and want to come get to know her.

MT: I can see that too. But networking at a conference, you want to catch someone’s eye. In class, I want them to listen and LEARN something.

CAR: True. Have you ever had a student comment on your clothing? Either in person or via student evaluations?

MT: In person they have. Female students.

CAR: Me too. Often in the same way a female friend or coworker might ask about a new blouse.

MT: Girls dress for other girls.

CAR: I did get a very sexist comment on my outfit choices on my student evaluations once. So, I recognize that my Sexy Yet Professional fashion style has an effect on my students I might not like. I still see it as, “that’s their problem.”  So, I guess, are fashion choices something we totally own and control? Are we the masters of our fashion choices, or are we beholden to students, administration, and colleagues? And do men face the same questions?

MT: I would say, no. We don’t get to be the masters of our fashion choices. And also no, men don’t face the same question. It probably doesn’t even occur to them. Maybe That Guy doesn’t do as well as a man in a suit, but he’s free not to care.

CAR: So is fashion in the workplace a women’s issue?

MT: I think the issue is that women have a lot more choices in fashion, so women have a lot more shades of what’s acceptable versus not. Men have: too casual, or not. It’s much easier for them. Woman have to think about: should I wear a skirt, what length of skirt, how flowy a skirt? Should I wear a button up blouse, how many buttons should I button? How low cut is too cut? How form fitting can my pants be? No guy has to think, “Does this shirt make me look easy?”

CAR:  Agreed. Women have to think more about how they dress than men do.  And from now on, I believe I’m going to start coming to work dressed as a Radio City Rockette.  That’s the job I want. I think I’d be good at it.


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