sexist fail · slow academy · style matters

Let’s talk about outfits, and power, and authority: a fashion post omnibus

Have you seen the piece by Katrina Gulliver, on how she doesn’t like students calling her by her first name? She’s funny and self-deprecating, writing like she’s internalized the critical voice that will indeed soon enough tell her to lighten up, already. Gulliver’s take on the first name issue is about how she has to work hard to get respect in the classroom. Intriguingly, she calls out her white male colleagues for trying to be cool and wearing really casual clothing and inviting students to call them by their first names. She says these guys might be deflating a tiny bit of their own authority, but demolish hers.

Will Miller wrote an incredibly smug response, that mocks Gulliver in taking the very structure of her opening to turn it back on her, disavowing her claims: “If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.” Miller, unsurprisingly, seems completely at ease in his own prose, without the faintest whiff of self-reflexivity jarring his lightly sarcastic and righteous tone.

Ugh. This is making me tired. This is a feminist blog and you know our politics so I’ll just lay it out: this is the epitome of clueless (in this case white, male) privilege. It’s snotty, and silencing, and smug, and denies Gulliver’s experience. Will Miller: stahhhhhhp.

I don’t want to argue this. I want to start a grounded conversation about the how’s and why’s of managing one’s authority in teaching. Erin wrote about the first name issue. I did, too, in a post about email. And we’ve had a post about the politics of eyewear. And one on how people treat me nicer when I look pretty than when I don’t. Melissa has written about haircuts and so have I. And boots! All of these produced great, useful discussions: what’s great is hearing about other people’s experiences and strategies even if and especially when they differ from my own. Read the comments: they’re thoughtful and engaging and awesome!

I want to talk about my clothing choices and ask you to share yours, if you’d like.

My current positionality is this: mid-career tenured academic, coming into an administrative post in July, 41 and mostly look it, white, cis-gendered, not visibly disabled, normative height / weight range, conventionally pretty. Privileged also in the sense that I’m pretty fluent in the rhetoric of clothing, and adept at constructing (and having access to the tools to construct) grammatically correct utterances in this language.

Me, I’m all about blazers lately. Nothing connotes immediate authority like a blazer. Mine all feature rolled up sleeves, so it’s more fashion-forward than banker-bland, but there’s something very comforting to me about the work jacket. I’ll wear it over a dress, or with a skirt, or dress pants. I can even wear my beloved black yoga jeans and the jacket makes it work appropriate. I have blazers (with suits and not) in: rust/black herringbone wool, grey wool, grey cotton, black wool, navy wool, chartreuse cotton, blue suede (yes!). Most were on sale, some were full price, two were from consignment shops, but they read “expensive” and “tasteful.” I often take it off to teach, but put it back on for meetings of all sorts. I keep one in my office, in case I happen to be without, and I need one.

Sometimes I’m in situations where I’m the only person under 45, and the only woman who’s not an adminstrative assistant to some older man. Sometimes I’m teaching 17 year old. Sometimes I’m on TV. Blazer on / blazer off, like glasses / contacts are choices I can make fairly easily that allow me to manipulate others’ perceptions of me, and thus, manage my interaction with them, in some small way. Bear in mind that I have dramatically two-toned hair, and that I wear fashion-forward nailpolish (today nine fingers are mint green and one is sunshine yellow). The blazer is part of the whole package.

How about you? Maybe you are like Steve Jobs and hate to think about clothes and have a functional uniform. Maybe you are junior and trying to stay fashionable and a very limited budget. Maybe you are a little older and thinking about appropriateness. Or something else. Please share!

27 thoughts on “Let’s talk about outfits, and power, and authority: a fashion post omnibus

  1. Blazers+casual shirts+smart skirt/pants were my go-to uniform when I taught at Algonquin. A lot of the students were my age or older, so I could dress down only if I felt I'd gained the trust of my students. But my look in the first few weeks of a semester was always “severe librarian.”
    I even wore these monster heels for particularly daunting classes… Looking at those shoes now, I have no idea how I did it. Past-me was way less clumsy, apparently.


  2. I am sitting at my desk wearing cropped pants, a tunic, boots, and — you guessed it! — a blazer. I almost always wear a scarf and loud, authoritative heels for stomping my feet.

    Also, look! Betabrand used female PhDs for its latest campaign! Not totally groundbreaking in terms of conventional beauty standards and the selected models, but hey! a start:


  3. The blazer I'm wearing today is black wool with a bit of stretch, and it is, gulp, just over ten years old: it's from my Going on the Market Job Interview Suit.

    What a weird and interesting ad campaign …


  4. Well, Katrina Gulliver's post hits pretty close to home, what with my being a white, male professors who often invites his students to “call me Dave.” In my defense, I will note that I look like I've just come in from mowing the lawn mostly because of a lack of fluency in the rhetoric of clothing … dressed up, dressed down, I look like I mighta just been pushing a snow shovel or lawn mower. Mostly the student comments at the end of the term focus on my footwear.

    If experiences from the privileged side are relevant at all to this discussion: I tend to hear “Dr” and “Sir” as expressions of disrespect, not of respect — people, especially those who grow up with money, learn to use titles as a way of camouflaging sentiments, it's always seemed to me. This may just indicate unresolved issues from a resentment-filled working class upbringing, but those forms of address rub me the wrong way. I know it's not fair for me to react that way, so going to first names if possible removes that reaction from the equation. I don't think I”m really the Dave that Gulliver has in mind since nobody will mistake me for cool, and I really don't want to undermine colleagues by going to first names (which I'm less emphatic about than I used to be for just the sort of concerns than I used to be, for reasons of just the sort under discussion here, though I certainly don't *discourage* it) , but the decision about what to ask people to call you is complicated. And, though I admit to not really being any good at reading clothes, being a white guy who wears a blazer to work every day conveys, it seems to me, a very different self-image and to make a different statement about one's ambitions than they seem to for Aimee.


  5. Hi Dave! I'm glad you weighed in. Your last statement is exactly right, isn't it: a blazer means something different on your body than it does on mine, for complicated reasons that exceed our individual subjectivities and personalities. And you have your reasons for the first name policy and the snow-shoveling clothes.

    I read a similar post from a similarly positioned academic man, and what he came to was this strategy, which I think is wise: go meta, and talk about it with your students. Like, I prefer you call me by my name rather than 'Dr.' or 'Prof' because [insert interesting reason addressing class and status here]. Then you acknowledge that a university is a diverse place with instructors with autonomy and that they might ask students to address them differently.

    A strategy like this takes the complications out of your own head, and turns them into a teachable moment, right. And its a good lesson for all of us to learn that when we doubt which pronoun or which honorific or which first name or what pronunciation people prefer, the best course, the most respectful course, is to ask.

    How bad are your shoes? Must be pretty bad if students comment on them. I have a male colleague who wears boots so destroyed they always remind me of the Fredric Jameson chapter with the workbooks in them…


  6. Further proof that “go meta” is always good advice! Thanks.

    The shoes get fewer comments than they used to years ago, actually. The change was my daughter reaching an age (happened when she was, what, eight?) where she would say things like “Dad, you can't go out wearing that shirt with those pants. Pattern with pattern. Don't go out that door.”) The shoe problem was usually a matter of opting for comfort over style. Like, the running shoes I'd used for 500 miles the previous summer being demoted to walking shoes and worn with blue jeans.


  7. I did my PhD at Simon Fraser. It rained on my first day of tutorial teaching. I wore flower print “fashionable” rain boots. I was a pretty young first-year PhD, so I definitely looked the same age as my undergrads. As student's filed into the classroom it was pretty apparent that no one recognized that I was the instructor. Students came and sat right beside me and started chatting with me about the semester. I happened to have one of those students in several other classes over the course of my PhD. He later admitted to me that once he realized I was the instructor he had felt very silly about sitting right beside me, and being stuck there the whole class while I ran the tutorial. He said it was the rain boots that had thrown him off. He didn't think any instructor would ever wear rain boots to teach at a university. Newb mistake on my part. Rain boots are NOT appropriate teaching attire. Lesson learned.


  8. Fun post! I tell my first year students to call me Dr. Rak or Professor Rak. In my experience, they get nervous if I don't tell them what to call me. I agree with Gulliver that informality is often an indication of priviledge in the classroom (you can be informal if you are really, really powerful). I don't tell my upper-year students what to call me and I let them choose.

    As for outfits, it's interesting. When I came out I stopped wearing dresses and skirts to work because I am butch-identified. But I have always dressed up for teaching days–blazers, suits, dress pants, black jeans if it's really, really cold out–because I like wearing work clothes at work. I am 47, a full professor and I do not wear makeup. I don't have discipline problems as a teacher. I don't miss those dresses, skirts and heels one bit!


  9. Oh, Danielle! What a story. I've had it happen where people mistook me for “staff” at a meeting where I was “faculty” and the problem with that misunderstanding is that the person who makes it feels embarrassed about and then wants to avoid you. Which is not productive, right?

    And Dr. Identity — you're right that it sometimes puts students on the back foot if they're waiting for us to give them cues they need. It's like going out for a job dinner and waiting to see if the host orders a drink or not, and being discombobulated when they ask the guest to order first. Oh! And I love having different clothes for Work than for Home, especially since my ritual when I walk in the door is to head upstairs to put on my sweats. And your group-affiliation as butch-identified, of course, adds a layer to the choices you make. Remember when women couldn't be professional and wear pants at the same time? What?


  10. I mostly work with senior administrators and faculty, and in university terms I'm a positive baby; it's easy to feel, or be made to feel, like 32 is actually 22 when surrounded by Venerable People. That means that I dress to be taken seriously at all times. My uniform of choice is a pencil skirt (plain or patterned, and chosen because I just plain don't like pants), tights, blouse/light sweater, jewelry or scarf, intellectual/hipster glasses, and distinctive shoes (my favourites being metallic silver brogues and ass-kicking Fluevog ankle boots). On Fridays I wear jeans, but they're always black (@Aimee: yoga jeans FTW!) and always topped by a blazer.

    But even though I'm always dressed professionally and even though I'm privileged with a face and a body that tend to command respect (I'm pretty, but not too pretty, I'm tall and not slight, I carry myself with authority) I still get things like today, when a faculty member who has trouble remembering my name decided that my new nickname was “that nice girl with the weird email address” (it was funny, but I'm definitely not a girl), or a few weeks ago, when a professor emeritus basically called me a young whippersnapper who (to his surprise, it seemed) had effective advice for graduate students about presenting at conferences. And aside from wearing a suit to work (overkill in a fairly relaxed office) or suddenly aging by ten years, I feel like I'm just going to have to deal with it for awhile.


  11. It's funny but I just used the exact term “whippersnapper” in the same coming-from-old-guy context in a talk last week. Well, not funny, exactly. But absolutely true that we have to use clothes to mitigate age difference: sometimes for me this means LOLcat t-shirt with undergrads on writing workshop days, so that I seem more human to them, but usually it means dressing 'grownup' to fend off whippersnapper comments.

    ZOMG everyone should have yoga jeans. The black ones I frequently wear to work, paired with jacket and blouse. I also have purple ones. And blue-denim ones.


  12. When I first moved into an administrative position in the faculty I thought I'd better dress up more. So I bought kick ass shoes and some straight skirts and jackets. But I've gone back to a more casual, more “me” style of dressing. I still wear great footwear (8 pairs of fluevogs and it's just a matter of time before there are more), but I will wear jeans and a nice sweater instead of always going for the jacket. Oh and a nice scarf. Why? Because the men in the office don't necessarily dress up.

    We all sorta take our lead from the Dean who wears suits (and really cool ties and cufflinks) only when he has to meet with the upper administration or the public. On other days he might easily wear a plaid shirt and jeans. I like that in this admin unit it's not corporate or even quasi corporate. I like that I don't have to don a uniform to be taken seriously.

    That said, I'll be happy to put on a dress again. This brutal winter it's been all pants all the time.


  13. I am a doctoral candidate who teaches. Late 30's, tall, pixie cut hair. I wear nice pants or dark jeans, and always a “third piece” (blazer or sweater). I model my style on “What Not to Wear,” and usually find that I wear brighter colors than other profs. I wear Frye shoes and boots almost exclusively– even their ballet flats seem “strong” to me. I think my height and strong features lend me some authority; I have never been disrespected in the classroom openly, and only once by a “silverback” (from another school). I wear skirts on occasion– always to the knee or longer, and usually with tights. I often wear fashion scarves or bold jewelry, but I would describe my classroom style as “bright and strong.” Which is the kind of woman I want to be.


  14. I found this post and the comments very interesting. I also thought that Will Miller's piece was pretty much a case-study in mansplaining, but most of the commenters at IHE really schooled him. I got a wider spread from hearty agreement to a complete mauling.
    I also try to dress fairly conservatively in the classroom, by which I mean not showing bare shoulder or skin above the knees. (being warm here I don't get much time to bring out the blazers, alas – when I taught in London I always wore different types of jackets).
    Like S I also wear bright colours a lot.

    I guess the naming (and sartorial) debates play into – for me – broader concerns about the status of academe. In a country where universities are (almost) entirely state funded, there is a constant pressure to justify ourselves and what we “cost” the taxpayers. We face budgetary strictures, as in the UK and perhaps it is the same in Canada (although I have not worked there). We have a lot of assessments of what we've done (the REF in the UK and ERA in Australia) and this puts academics on the defensive about our value.

    However, people respond in different ways. My approach is to double down on presenting myself as A PROFESSIONAL, in all the ways that “professional” is coded in Western society (dressed smartly, using titles, formal emails, etc). There are a lot of members of the public who are skeptical about what we do, I feel that we (as academics) are often our own worst advocates (this is something I've also written about for IHE).

    But when there are people who think we only work 6 hours a week, spend our days messing around, then dressing for work like they dress *on the weekend* kind of gives them ammunition. If we're seen to be in our offices, dressed like white collar workers, we (in my mind anyway) can promote the idea that what we do is a “real job”.


  15. As another actual Dave, who tries to walk a careful line between first-name collegiality and work-dress professionalism, I very much appreciate the schooling this topic is dishing out to my male colleagues who clearly do not give a damn what anyone else thinks they look like, because they can, because privilege. Of course, since they won't read it, it's tragically wasted, but at least we know there are good feminist arguments for taking it more seriously.


  16. Really loving this conversation. 3rd year assistant prof at a 2 year CUNY community college. We are a federally designated black and hispanic serving institution and the population of our students is INCREDIBLY diverse. Many first gen immigrants, many first gen college students. Mostly lower or working class individuals. Lots of underserved or “at risk” populations. The context of the institution where I teach absolutely affects what I look like and the ground rules of decorum in the classroom. First year was a jacket and tie, pretty formal looking. Second was just a jacket and jeans with maaaaaybe an occasional tie thrown in. This year I'm wearing jeans and some long-sleeve flannels and/or denim button downs. We've got some of the most fashion forward students I've ever seen. All colors, all styles, all flavors. Students who do more with a pair of leggings, glitter, and a leather jacket than I could ever imagine. But we've also got students who wear the same pair of clothes to class all semester because that's all the've got. I'm real conscious of how I act and dress in front of my students. The more formal attire has felt less and less important to me. I don't know if it does what I need or want. Mostly a jacket and ties makes me sweat. My hair gets the most attention from my students. Basically it looks a lot like David Lynch's hair? Maybe Tin Tin's? I'm an aging goth and it's the way I remember, I think. Fashion is incredibly important to my students, looking cool or sharp, and I feel like I'm growing more comfortable in a style that feels good and that isn't as marked as a suit and tie. Maybe I'm talking about multiple languages of respect? I'm not sure. I usually ask students to call me Dr. Ben, but again this is sort of a work in progress as our students sometimes have different exposure to formal modes of address and just don't have very much experience in relationships with authority figures that aren't toxic. Really fascinating to think about, thanks.


  17. Ah, yes, I should've thought of that as it's implied in Gulliver's piece: what's appropriate is also judged in part by what other people are wearing, particularly the senior people. You don't want to be the worst dressed but being the 'best' dressed can sometimes be an act of aggression, too.

    I miss skirts, too.



    I have strong features, too, inviting comparisons to Marlene Dietrich from my early teens, which was not appealing to me then, but I can see how not having a button nose now makes me look … patrician.



  19. Well hello Katrina! So glad you're here!

    The publicly funded and under threat model is one we know here in Canada, too. And sometimes I do in fact get mad at other professors who seem determined to remain unprofessionalized in any meaningful sense, out of some misplaced idealism that just means that we are ever more open to outside attacks for our six hour weeks and our hobo aesthetic and our unwillingness to learn how to use the photocopier for ourselves.

    I don't want to serve the master of particularly virulent national op-ed columnists, but showing respect for my own credentials and my own job by changing out of my pjs before I come to work does not seem like a step too far, to me at least 😉


  20. And of course, if enough men in a department decide that every day is lawn-mowing-chic day, then every woman who tries to dress up to gain a bit of traction in the classroom looks that much more frumpy and humourless. It's all related, right? Thanks for your comment!


  21. Ooooh, great comment, Man Not Named Dave — I guess I omitted from my own positionally the fact that I'm at an R1, with mostly quite privileged students, and a high proportion of international students, some of whom are less inclined to see women as authority figures, and some who are way more used to a much more formal classroom space than is the norm here.

    Your strategy sounds good, and your students sound really interesting. Just like the rest of us who are thinking about clothing critically, you are trying to maximize your impact as a teacher, in this case by becoming more approachable to your students. A great goal. Thanks for your comment!


  22. I once taught a spring session course where I was determined to wear sandals every day, and sometimes did wear clothes I mowed the lawn in. I should mention I am an Old White Male who switched into the academic world when my middle management corporate peers were planning early retirements and I am aware that my privilege makes it somewhat easy to perform “authority” (though I do mean “perform”: whiteness and maleness does not make one immune from impostor anxiety). Fact is, I fret over the Dr-Prof-first name thing. I usually try to finesse it as best I can — I prefer the formal address in formal situations but try not to let it torque me. I've left the sandals behind. Four years ago I decided to wear a jacket and tie on teaching days; it's a way of telling myself that I am taking on the role, like it's my uniform. I've even been known to play the theme song from “the Good The Bad and The Ugly” as I knot my tie on days when I need to pick myself up, or when I have a Big Thing to accomplish — I envision the scene before the big showdown where the music plays as the characters suit up. I know, a very Old White Male meme. But I think the jacket and tie allows students to put me in a box marked “professor” or “instructor” or at least “bland.” And while I hope I am approachable, I am not particularly concerned with being palsy or cool — and I have _never_ been fashion-forward. –Mark G.


  23. Namewise, even when I'm very clear in class on the issue, students tend to be all over the place, especially in email. I think the fact that I'm a PhD student teaching a course confuses them, as the ones who want to go more formal seem at a loss when they're told that Professor and Dr aren't on the table. They don't seem to like using “mister” at all. One point I've found I've had to be firm on is that while the first name is okay, nicknames are absolutely unacceptable. “Mike” turns into “Mikey” in a distressingly short period, and that way madness lies.


  24. This is a great post and I have thought about these concepts as well. I love blazers and I definitely think they add to the “feel” of academia, if there is such a thing. I have blogged about this as well, last year here
    and have had many discussions with others about clothing choices for female academics.
    I have taught in the university and college setting for about 9 years and as someone who does not look her age, I have taken the blazer look to create the kind of tone I want at the beginning of class. This does not mean I am stuffy instructor, but rather it helps me both physically and mentally negotiate the learning spaces in encounter.
    Thank you for engaging in this important conversation!


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