I couldn’t control what students or colleagues would say or how they would behave, but I could control how I felt about my presence in the classroom. I did that by embracing my personal style.
I read this piece on Saturday — a grad school friend shared it on Facebook — and I loved it. It gave me some extra encouragement to buy said floral dress pants today.
The graduate student population in my English department has always included a good number of women (and a few men) who dress in fun, unique, and interesting ways — well-put together, but certainly unique. It also contains those who dress very formally, those who dress very blandly (in business casual mostly), and those who dress very casually. So I think I could get away with just about anything, within reason.
Even so, my first semester I wore a lot of awful wide-leg dress trousers that I did not like and that did not make me look all that good. But they felt “professorial.” They felt like something that an 18-year-old would see and go “oh, wow, this is an important person.” But me slouching in them, stumbling around in “sensible heels” (I never, ever wear heels) passing out notecards on my first day teaching did not really translate importance or genius. Since then, I’ve slowly migrated to clothes that I’m comfortable in — that I actually like. Including floral pants.
But there’s also something about dressing in a way that is perceived to be feminine, right? I once heard a fellow graduate student who wears lots of dresses and statement necklaces mention in a casual conversation that she “generally performs high femme” (in a queer theory class where performativity was a frequent topic). It struck me and clearly stuck with me. It wasn’t apologetic, it was just a matter-of-fact “this is how I like to dress.” I have all the respect in the world for women in academia who don’t want to do that. I think that academia is more welcoming to that than other places, and that’s awesome. But I also don’t think it’s unenlightened to like to wear pieces that are perceived (that’s the important thing) to be more feminine — dresses, jewelry, and yes, make-up. I don’t think it should be looked down on.
Also, I totally wear jeans on days that I’m not teaching. If I’m sitting in seminars for 6 hours, I’ma be comfy. If students see me on campus those days and all the respect they have for me suddenly evaporates, sorry.