I have this problem with clothes: I am a perverse person. I object, just on principle, to being stuck with one sort of outfit (unless it’s a uniform. I like uniforms, they make everything easier). I object even if it’s my own decision that I am now going to dress in such-and-such a way. Every time someone gives me sensible advice for developing a wardrobe of durable basics and developing a Personal Style, I get disgruntled at the idea of locking down to one genre of clothing. Plus, when I was working in the Real World it didn’t take me long to figure out that developing a professional wardrobe was largely about ‘doing’ one’s gender right. Combat boots: too butch (hmph. If it’s good enough for Natasha Stott Despoja it’s good enough for me); lace on my neckline, too frilly.
Going into my first teaching assignment wasn’t convinced that my students were going to care. If anything, I thought it more likely that I’d get funny reactions for turning up looking too dykey than for turning up looking too casual. And I didn’t actually fancy excising all my men’s shirts from my wardrobe monday-thursday for eleven weeks.
So, in the spirit of curiosity, I wore all the things. Screw having a cohesive sartorial aesthetic: I wore pretty much every type of clothing I had, and a range of different registers of formality. I had four classes on four different days, so I mixed them up across the week as well as over the semester, and paid attention to see if I was getting any noticeably different reactions.
The constants were that I never wear makeup to class1. I have a small spike in one ear and it doesn’t change. I kept the same short haircut, although I did put a red rinse through it halfway through semester. And I prefer to wear outfits which meet the arbitrary standards of hem/neck/sleeve lines set by my high school uniform skirt and mufti day rules.2
Types of outfits I have:
– The ones with men’s shirts. With tie, without tie, with trousers, with jeans. These ones are my go-to outfits: the ones I put on when I don’t want to think about clothes; the ones I wear for public speaking; the ones I wear for family Christmas. Most of them are not actually very masculine, because I tend to shop in places like YD.
– Nice but non-frilly ladieswear. Fairly nondescript, quite like what I was wearing to work in 09.
– A small number of more feminine business-casual type clothes, of which I have no photos. There’s a panelled black skirt with a brocadey sort of pattern on it, a long flowy brown skirt, and a couple of tops with puffed sleeves and whatnot. I actually discovered that the black skirt and one of my light cotton men’s shirts went very well together, and was a whole lot cooler than my equivalent ladies’ blouse would’ve been.
– an assortment of casual outfits. Sample: this one looks a bit like Mrs Geriatrix, and this one a bit like Amy Pond .
I had great fun playing dressups with all these.
Here’s the thing, though: so far as I can tell, my students did not give two hoots. The class who met me first when I was wearing a shirt and tie and combat boots didn’t treat me significantly differently to the class who met me in a ladylike skirt (there were massive differences in the personalities of the students, but nothing seemed to be me-specific). I have no idea what they were actually thinking, if anything, about me or my clothes, but I had absolutely no sense that what I was wearing was affecting their overt reaction to me. This includes the point, about week five, when there was a sudden warm change and I gave up on the long-sleeved shirt I had paired with jeans, in favour of the threadless tee I had underneath it.
Nor did I succeed in dressing a notch or two ‘up’ from my students. My tuesday class out-dressed me, every single week. Mostly distancing myself from my undergrad wardrobe helped me, I think, but in every class group there were a couple of people better-dressed than me. None of them seemed to care.
I did wear one or two things which felt *too* formal – there was a cool day when I grabbed my suit jacket instead of a different coat, and that felt all kinds of wrong to me. The tie is also overkill, but I happen to like ties, so they can stay in my teaching wardrobe for that reason.
I had a great time last semester. So far as I could tell, none of my students hated me and some of them really enjoyed being in my classes. Lots of things I did or didn’t do seemed to affect how well the classes ran, but my clothes weren’t one of those things.
I do think there may be some value in my admittedly eclectic approach to Teaching Clothes. That value is absolutely secondary to things like subject knowledge, the ability to communicate that knowledge, enthusiasm, patience, compassion. But it might be there, all the same.
A while ago now, A-dubs blogged about the relationship between her femme presentation and her work in gender theory and the way that runs against people’s expectations of gender studies in general and feminists in particular. The same could be said – and surely *has* been said, by someone whose blog I don’t read – about butch fashion in any field. Ruffling some feathers, causing some people to rethink their assumptions, and maybe providing a role model for a few others.
I appreciate the leeway I have as a teacher in a university setting, leeway granted to me by my students more than by the system as a whole. Since my students were willing to accept any of the sorts of women I present as, on any given day, it seems to me that the best thing I could do is reinforce that. To keep being the same person – a giant goof with a Harry Potter fixation, a grammar nerd and medievalist – regardless of whether I’m wearing frills or combat boots or, heaven forbid, both at once. To dress on the basis that clothes are a fun and important mode of self-expression, but not the standard by which I expect students to judge me as a teacher. I’d like to think that, for some people sitting in classrooms in front of me, the range of things they see me in over the course of a semester might work against any ideas they have about boxing and categorising their expectations of people on the basis of their clothes.
Or maybe it’s not just that none of them care. Possibly no one even notices. I’m OK with that, too; in that case, it’d be only my own business what I wear, and that’s perfectly fine by me.
1. Or to job interviews or to work in offices or to give conference papers. The only professional setting where I wear makeup is conference dinners and the like, and not always even then. I used to wear makeup occasionally, when the whim took me, but now I reserve these whims for outside of work. People react really strangely to makeup/no-makeup fluctuations. If I wear makeup and then suddenly stop, people assume you’re lazy/disorganised/cranky or something similar. If you don’t wear makeup and then suddenly do one day, people assume you’re trying to Make An Impression, or that you’re sad or stressed and covering it up. Apparently people really want my face to look consistent. As I generally prefer not wearing makeup, that’s what I stick with.
2. Not because I’m invested in the shitty gender politics which underpinned the administration of these rules. Or because I think they’re particularly effective in discouraging people from checking you out (I’ve been known to check out women, hemlines and necklines are not all there is to it). However, you have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and I might as well stick with the arbitrary standards I’ve already internalised. For whatever reason, I don’t feel like I’m in a formal educational setting if my skirt doesn’t brush my knees.