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?


0 thoughts on “The Politics of Fashion: Modern Work Wear”

  1. This is something I've struggled with. I just started a history graduate program and I have to dress nicely for seminars and meetings. I wore a patterned dress the other day and it definitely stood out! I am the most self-assured when I dress in a style that is authentic to my taste though, even if it isn't traditionally 'academic' or 'business.' I find myself needing to define my own version of 'professional.'

  2. I am a lawyer and I completely feel your pain. I work as a public defender. Every morning I am so jealous of men who just have to put on slacks, a collared shirt and a tie. If I have to go to court I have to have a jacket, but there is a lot of wiggle room in terms of everything else. My boss told me once not to wear heels to court because it isn't practical in our line of work. We are on our feet basically nonstop for 2-3 hours during court. I rush about the courtroom so my shoe has to be comfortable, but while I love flats in the office or casually, they just never provide the polished look I need in court. Plus I'm short and I hate looking up to everyone. Business suits are boring, and truly have the tendency to look boxy and frumpy, but too stylish and it looks like I only care about fashion. I handle it by wearing a lot of basic dresses and wedges or block heeled boots. I add my personal style through accessories (scarves, jewelry, etc.).

  3. Right? It is so easy for men! I do feel like female lawyers have come a long way in successfully expressing their personal style in the office and courtroom. I wish academia could keep pace!

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