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The Politics of Fashion: Modern Work Wear

Like most young professionals, I struggle to balance my personal style with my professional wardrobe. Of course, my struggle has the added difficulty of navigating a predominantly male and old-fashioned profession. As a young (well, at least youngish looking lol) female academic, I am constantly judged by my appearance. Even among women, it is a no-win situation.

Don’t dress too feminine.

Don’t power dress.

Wear a suit.

Don’t wear high heels or anything too tight.

Wear heels so you appear taller.

Wear dark colors, no patterns.

Don’t wear black.

Wear makeup (but not too much) to appear more competent.

Et cetera, et cetera.

The problem is that as a woman I make a statement with my clothing no matter what I choose to wear. You see, for the male academic dressing in a suit is neutral, it is the default for male power and authority (intellectual or otherwise). For women the act of getting dressed is never that easy. If I wear a suit I am “power dressing,” “trying too hard,” or perpetuating masculine perceptions of authority. If I ditch the suit for dresses and *gasp* patterns, I am “too feminine” and run the risk of being perceived as not serious or less competent.

The debate rages over what female academics (particularly historians) should and shouldn’t wear. Funny thing is, I really don’t think the students in my classes give a crap about what I am wearing. I have heard stories of students critiquing a professor’s appearance on evaluations, but I have never had a student comment on mine (thank goodness).

While I certainly don’t have any definitive answers on this topic, I do think it is important to talk about. If only to remind ourselves that fashion/clothing can embody, reflect, and/or transcend race, class, and gender hierarchies.

What are your thoughts on this topic? How do you balance your personal style with your professional wardrobe?