Clothes & authority

Back in February when I posted some thoughts from the fall about clothes and professionalism, someone left an anonymous comment that I chewed on for several weeks. I think it's worth replying to in full, but I didn't take the opportunity before. Now that the semester's over, I can give it the consideration it deserves.

I wonder if you think the suit/tie professor is doing something wrong or unfair. I think you're right that he's leveraging his privilege to a degree, and falling back on a "uniform" is something that female professors are unable to do. Do you think he's part of the problem, somewhat perpetuating a hostile environment for women? I couldn't tell if you were drawing a lesson from his example, or just contrasting it with your own lack of an easy "dress code."

My first response was "No, it's not wrong or unfair of Dr. Suit-and-Tie to dress as he pleases." But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was bothered, and that I do think it's unfair. I'm not sure he can help that, though. And if I'm honest with myself, I think I'd probably do the same thing in his shoes.

I spent the fall very unsure of myself and tried to make up for it by dressing in a way that might lend me greater authority. If I thought that a suit jacket and tie would help, I'd probably have worn it. Just because Dr. Suit-and-Tie has the added privilege associated with being male doesn't mean he feels like he's got it all figured out, either. He's using his clothes to appear more authoritative, just like I was.

So I'm conflicted. I am jealous of this guy's privilege. He doesn't have to expend as much energy to maintain his authority as I do, and that feels unfair. But I don't think his choice of apparel is holding me back, and I wouldn't forbid ties, say, or require that men wear T-shirts and jeans in an attempt to level the field. (I don't think it would work, anyway. See tech start-up culture, where hoodies are practically a uniform. White Dude Privilege still abounds.)

I don't know that Dr. Suit-and-Tie is part of the problem, but I do think Professor Hawaiian-Shirt is part of the solution. Though also white and male, he breaks the professor stereotype and so changes his students expectations. He has recognized his privilege and is taking active steps (however small) to leverage it in ways that can help others. If a respected professor can wear Hawaiian shirts, a new professor (like me) isn't as pressured to conform to a dress code. (At least, not externally pressured. I certainly felt pressured by myself.) Now I'm thinking a lot more about what privileges I have that others may be jealous of, and what I can do, like Professor Hawaiian-Shirt, to use that privilege for someone else's benefit.

I wrote my previous post in October, at the height of my doubt. After that, my friend finally dared to wear her teal tights, and I dared to wear a skirt. The earth didn't shake. The world didn't end. So I dared again. This Spring, I wore a skirt or dress (nearly) every Friday.1 As I wrote recently, I first called it "Formal Fridays," then decided that "Fearless Fridays" was a better name for it because dressing the way I wanted to dress made me feel fearless. Like I could do anything. Like I was finally in my own skin and not wearing someone else's.

I don't have an "easy dress code." I have no idea if my wardrobe will lend authority or not, but it sure does lend me confidence, and I'd bet that confidence helps.

1: Why not every day? Lab safety. Tights, stockings, exposed legs and open-toed shoes are lab no-nos, and I didn't want to have to change my clothes every afternoon. No labs on Fridays, though, so I had more options for what to wear.