Over the summer, a professor I secretly appreciate but do not personally know (but wish I knew), wrote a really awesome article about personal style in academia (link available at the bottom of the post). Her words got me thinking about the culture of academia and culture in general. I think serious academics and serious professionals are quick to ‘pooh pooh’ personal style, why does one need to look good? If you are smart and successful that should just naturally shine through. Right? Sometimes women who want to be liberated and strong feel it necessary to dismiss what makes them feminine and girly and I do not wholly disagree with this “smart girl” aversion to fashion, style, and superficiality, but I am also all about how my clothing makes me feel about myself.
I, like Heather McDonald, pride myself on a creative and innovative personal style and in turn, my style makes me feel uniquely me and more confident in my own skin. Little details of style down to a pair of shoes, or a quirky set of earrings, help me feel more present, polished, and personable. Over the years, I’ve determined that style is synonymous with identity, at least for me, but unlike Prof. McDonald, I am still pretty new to the whole professionalism thing. Since I stuck around my college, I do find it particularly important to differentiate myself from the students (since I am so often mistaken for one) with style. Slowly but surely, I’ve been evolving my college-y granola crunch style into a slightly more chic, but ever quirky office casual style.
This transition is hard, but my clothing certainly effects the way I carry myself, the way I stand, speak, and interact with others. When I don’t dress professionally and feel like I blend in, I revert back to my student behavior. Obviously this correlation between clothing and behavior isn’t the same for everyone, but I definitely think it exists for many.
My friend recently introduced me to a Youtube show on a channel called StylelikeU. The show itself is called Second Skin. Sounds a little gross, huh? Well it’s not. No Buffalo Bill tricks here. The premise of the show is basically that two people, people who are conscious or at least a little invested in their personal style, switch clothing for the day. These are complete strangers and they do not have any inclination as to what sort of style or outfit they are going to wear until the day of the switch. The featured fashionistas are required to wear the outfit the way the other person would wear it and go about all their day to day activities like normal (see friends, go to work, go to events… whatever they have planned), all the while the maker of the show films them and the audience watches what happens.
The reactions from friends are interesting and the reactions from the participants are fascinating. In most episodes, the women featured have some sort of realization about their style, hate what they are wearing and begin to feel uncomfortable in the outfit as the day goes on, or behave differently — some people are more shy, others are more open and confident because the clothes push them outside their comfort zone and and cause them to feel like a different person.
I think this show and other fashion make-over type shows reflect Professor McDonald’s opinion in a way. She says,
“If we expect students and colleagues to respect us, why don’t we act — and dress — like we respect ourselves? Just because one can wear sweatpants to work, and just because a male colleague does all the time and no one gives him grief for it, does not mean one should.”
I do not necessarily think that one has to look sharp and perfect everyday, but I think that for women and for many men, a polished outfit can make a world of difference and by the same token, dressing like someone else can prevent a person from being themselves. I think women should glam up or dress down, but make sure that they are true to themselves in the way they dress because there is something to be said for what we wear and how it makes us feel. At the same time, I think these shows and Professor’s McDonald’s chronicle of her early teaching days and attempts at an extra drab style meant to gain respect, exhibit the fact that people react to the way we dress. It’s the hard, cold truth. If we aren’t dressing like ourselves, it can hold us back, but others also react to what we wear, if we look like slobs or dress older or younger than our age this can impact they way we are treated. I think ultimately Professor McDonald delivers a solid solution.
“But I dress up a little — and dress like myself — to show a part of who I am. I tell my students that form is as important as function, that writing style is not separate from content. I tell them that when they put their names on assignments, they should be proud of the work represented by that name.”