Roundtable Discussion: Fashion in Academia (Part II)

April 11th, 2010 § 21 comments

A little while back, Sally McGraw of Already Pretty asked us to contribute a guest post on Fashion in Academia, answering a variety of questions her readers had submitted for us. We loved the opportunity to (virtually) sit down together and explore how we each navigated some of these pertinent topics (from ‘presenting the pregnant body’ to ‘how to dress as a feminist’) in our respective departments. You can read the first part of our roundtable discussion on Sally’s site here. Below is Part II of our discussion, which we hope will prompt thoughts and responses from you – our valued readers – with which to enrich and expand this conversation. As always, we look forward to reading your input in the comments section of this post!

…and books and books and a girl in the window, originally uploaded by luketwyman.

Q: How do you approach dressing for academia without either over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing the fact that you’re a woman? And perhaps related to that, while pregnant what do you wear to teach in that does not emphasize the bump?


E.- To address the pregnancy part, I would recommend getting some great maternity trousers with a “real” waist. Mine were a lifesaver and made me feel like I was still wearing my pre-pregnancy “confidence” clothes. A jacket — even one that’s not a maternity jacket — gives polish and also doesn’t call attention to the bump.

A.- So, you would advise not calling attention to the bump?

E.- I think it’s a matter of personal preference. I understand the desire to, when teaching, not have the focus be on the bump. For example, I probably would not have taught in one of my below-the-bump belting outfits.

A.- Are there situations where you would emphasize the bump?  I mean, would you have worn below-the-bump belting outfits to class, as a student?

E.- I probably would have worn a below the bump belt to class, yes.

S.- But to play devil’s advocate here – isn’t trying to “hide” your pregnancy and, by extension, this very female thing that is happening to your body, not enforcing the idea that women have to be less womanly to be men’s equals in the workforce? This is just a theoretical question.

E.- S., it’s okay and it’s something I wrestled with.  It’s hard to parse out why I felt more confident and powerful in a blazer and pants when eight months pregnant. Is it because culturally those are clothes associated with power? Are they associated with power because they are “men’s” clothes?  Or, did I feel more confident because the bump was more hidden away? (I don’t think that’s the case.) BUT, I do think that our society has a strange fascination with the pregnant body and the pregnant body has, in many ways, become a public body. People feel much more free to touch you, to talk about your body, etc. when you’re pregnant. And so when you’re teaching, you may want to try to counter-act that “public body” phenomenon to keep focus on the task at hand.

S.- That’s a good point, E., I can see that side of it.

A.- I think this is why I am not sure I agree with your question S. The pregnant body is of course a female body, but I think it is a “personal life” body that becomes the issue in many ways.  By that I mean your body is revealing something about your personal life.  We can’t separate that from gender issues, but I wonder if E was down-playing her personal life as manifest in her body rather than her female-ness.

S.- But I still think that the pregnant body is such a female thing – and especially being a mother is such a female thing – that there is more to wanting to downplay that part of one’s personal life at work than just wanting to keep your private life private. Women deal with so many discriminations when it comes to being mothers and career women.

A.- I completely agree S. I just think it is a different question than down playing the female body.

E.- Do you both think that society has normalized the white male body as the default public body (bodies with no social life)? And so when something deviates from that – like being pregnant, having a crazy hairstyle, etc.- it’s this big reminder that the woman in question is not the “ideal worker,” the disembodied head, etc?

A.- Yes, I think the straight, white, middle-aged, male body is the normalized public body. And I think they are supposed to not reveal their private lives except in appropriate situations like department parties or with a baby photo on the desk, etc.  They can have a wife that keeps the brilliant professor fed and dressed.

E.- Ha ha. Ok, I would like to add that when we ask about dressing without “either over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing the fact that you’re a woman.” that carries a whole host of gendered connotations right there that we didn’t really unpack. How do you “over-emphasize” that? Is it pink, is it ruffles? It’s all part of a social construction of what woman “should” look like.

A.- Yes, and does under-emphasizing mean suits and dark colors? Or wearing frumpy clothes to deemphasize breasts and hips?

E. – I guess I keep going back to the idea of dressing so that you feel powerful and confident, whether that means trousers or a pencil skirt.  But, you should be self-conscious and thoughtful about why certain clothes make you feel powerful.  This is not necessarily so that you change your mind, but so that you remain aware of the fact that we are, as Sally wrote in her guest post on our blog, social beings who ultimately dress in relationship to other people.  Style doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

78/365. Nail polish, originally uploaded by Gudrun Vald.

Q:  Should you paint your nails or are there certain colors you should eschew when on campus?


A.-  Well, I almost always have my toes painted – often in hot pink,  but I never paint my finger nails because it chips off in about five minutes.  To be honest, I can’t really see anyone in my department caring about or even noticing some purple polish, but if you are interviewing for an academic job maybe tone it down.

E.- Agreed. I think that well-kept nails in any color (or no polish at all) are better than chipping, ragged nails. To me, it’s more about overall grooming than anything else.

S.- I think it’s good to think about your overall appearance/image but I think it’s maybe also good to keep things in perspective and realize that if you’re discriminated against because of your nail colors, that just seems like it’s demanding too much conformity in trying to tone down your individuality that much.

A.- I agree with S., you will make yourself crazy if you over analyze every style choice you make and how that might be received. But, I still think purple polish at an interview might not be the best choice.

E.- I would agree about keeping it toned down for an interview. But then again, I’ve never really been one for brightly colored fingernails.

S.- With this case, I think I have to go with the opinion that a bit of individuality even when interviewing (which I see as harmless if it’s not being sexual or inappropriate) should not be an issue. I would personally not choose to tone it down if I liked a bright or bold color out of fear of offending or coming across as unprofessional.

A.- I suppose it depends on what you are wearing it with. Again, I think it’s probably about the whole presentation of self rather than the details. This is hard for me because I don’t have painted nails, but I can imagine other things I would opt not to wear for an interview that I would unquestionably wear at school.

E.- Right. I probably wouldn’t wear my red tights to an interview, for example.

S.- I think this is the European-influenced me talking.  I see older professionals here being much more bold in their choice of clothing, hair, make up. Even piercings have a much more accepted place in the professional world here. So I think it all depends on the context of the scenario – the country, the culture, the campus culture, the department, etc.

E.- I was actually wondering about that, S. Do those observations apply to the academy as well? Do academics dress bolder or just better in general than they do in the States?

A.- E., do you mean are there less polyester suits in the European academy?

S.- From what I’ve seen, yes. I can’t speak for more than what I see here in Munich, but I would say that people here tend to dress in ways that we might deem “bolder” for the lack of a better term.  For example, they wear more “on trend” items, perhaps more figure revealing, or fashion forward clothes than in the Midwest and are still considered professional and appropriate. There seems to be more leeway in how you can dress while still being an authority figure.  There is a general culture of being more accepting of the nude body here anyway (nude sunbathing is a regular occurrence in the city’s English Garden in the summer, billboards or ads with nudity are seen as less risqué) so that translates into a different understanding of the “appropriate social body” as I see it. This has made me question some of the ideas I had about how I needed to present myself in the States.

E.- Like what?

S.- I think it’s made me start questionings some of the “rules” I had decided on for how I should present myself to my professors or peers. What it means to look like “an adult” or a “professional” in the States, or more specifically the Midwest, is different than what it means to look like “an adult” or a “professional” here. So, I’m starting to feel more flexible in what choices I have in dressing as a professional.

A.- Can you give a specific example?

S.- Yes, I think I used to be more concerned with covering my body in the US – a long enough skirt, a high enough neckline – and now I don’t see that as quite so important. It’s not that I would wear a revealing outfit to teach in, but I also don’t think I need to cover every inch of my body in order to not appear as if I’m enticing inappropriate attention. I think this leads into the discussion on gendered outfits since this is a mostly female concern – if I dress up and look sexy, it draws attention to my body and away from my mind…that old tale.

E.- So do you think that this “rule change” will remain in effect when you return to the States? I mean, it sounds like you are being an excellent cultural adapter. So how much from one culture — in terms of expectations, etc. — do you bring into another and how much leeway do you give yourself to change while maintaining a sense of personal style and integrity? I know that if I ever go back to Hawaii to teach I will probably dress much more casually for the classroom, but I hope that I will never start wearing the shapeless dresses that still fill a good portion of the women’s department in Macy’s there!

A.- Yes, I would also probably wear my Danskos and hiking boots more often if I were back in rural Massachusetts, but I’m sure I would still teach in an orange pencil skirt!

E.- I would hope so! So clearly, context matters.

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§ 21 Responses to Roundtable Discussion: Fashion in Academia (Part II)"

  1. Kate says:

    Wonderful as always, and thank you so much for answering the nail polish question! I’ve been wondering about it for a while and have been continuing to wear some crazy colors on my toes, though my fingers have stayed a bit more tame in grad school. My advisor (who has a very colorful and eccentric style herself) usually comments on my nail polish colors, though I think it’s more out of amusement than anything else, particularly since I tend towards teals and purples instead of the typical (and probably more feminine) pinks and reds.

    I agree that context is everything – I certainly dress more conservatively for conferences (and will for interviews, when I get to that stage), and my fingers are bare or a neutral color (and toes hidden).

    I think there’s also the first impression factor, where its important for people to focus on you and what you have to say rather than be distracted by your clothes, jewelry, nails, piercings, or tattoos. Obviously some things cannot be hidden (the baby bump) and some things seem awkward or untruthful to hide. For example, if you take off your wedding ring(s) for a job interview, and then get the job and show up with a family I can imagine the other professors being confused as to why you hid this before, and thus what else you might be hiding. But personal style can shine through without taking the focus, and then can come out more in bits and pieces over time.

  2. Sarah says:

    Fascinating conversation!

    I had 2 babies in graduate school, and I was teaching during both pregnancies. Until I read this conversation, it never once occurred to me to “hide” my pregnancy. I found that my teaching evaluations during the semesters I was pregnant were even higher than usual! Students responded very positively to my visibly pregnant body.

    I did have a maternity suit, but I saved it for conference presentations. My favorite maternity teaching clothes were pre-pregnancy jersey dresses over jeans belted below the belly.

    In my corner of the academy (a large Midwetsern R-1), no humanities scholars or students batted an eye at this attire.

  3. I’m wondering if you ladies saw the recent (controversial) article in the Chronicle about Academic Motherhood: It’s less about the pregnant, public body and more about the limitations that pregnancy and motherhood might bring to the table for a female academic.

    Regarding nail polish, I will say that groomed and clipped nails trump polished nails any day of the week and especially at academic job interviews. I paint my nails relatively frequently, but since I am prone to chipping them, I don’t wear painted nails to conferences, important presentations, or interviews. I talk with my hands, and I don’t want to draw attention to unkempt nails. I also wanted to add that I think some of the (perceived) bias against nail polish doesn’t have so much to do with conformity and bright colors as it has to do with the assumption that it takes a long time to paint nails and let the polish dry, and that during that time no academic work can be done.

    Thanks for another great discussion, ladies!

  4. Jessica says:

    Fantastic discussion. I wonder if any of you have read Iris Young’s essay “Pregnant Embodiment?” I highly recommend it–your discussion about what the pregnant body signifies ties right in with Young (a late twentieth century feminist phenomenologist). Her essays “Throwing Like a Girl,” about female spatial movement; and “Women Recovering Our Clothes” are also fantastic.

  5. admin says:

    Jessica, thanks for those reading recommendations, they sound great!

  6. April says:

    Thanks ladies for your most excellent discourse, as usual! I’ve got a male friend who is looking for some similar advice from the male perspective. He’s a young faculty member and still trying to work out proper dress and finding his style. I thought I remember you saying there’s not much out there, but any pointers you’ve got will be a big help!


  7. I’m very interested in the ideas you’re presenting about the public/private nature of a pregnant body. Having never been pregnant, I hadn’t considered it, but you raise some great points that I’m considering.

    I have an upcoming post to publish about manicured nails, and I wanted to weigh in on that issue. I keep my nails painted at all times because I bite them otherwise, and in my opinion, bitten nails are horribly unprofessional. I hadn’t considered that others might consider this habit “indulgent” regarding my time or money, perhaps because I do them myself and use a quick-dry topcoat. Though I wear a wide variety of colors and have never recognized anyone reacting negatively to them, I am conscious of the colors I wear on certain occasions. I also keep my nails fairly short.

    At a recent international conference, I noticed that the European women (mostly Scandinavian) seemed very comfortable with traditionally “feminine” styling in regards to their nails and their clothing. S.’s comments regarding that difference strike me as accurate. Furthermore, as you briefly mention, the obstacles you ladies find yourselves facing seem particularly mid-western. I attended undergrad in the mid-west but am now a grad student in a main east coast metro area, and the two are (in my experience) very different.

  8. Licia says:

    Thought-provoking discussion on the pregnant body and how we present it. My role at the firm where I work is to negotiate contracts with our clients. When I was pregnant, I had the opportunity to negotiate a couple of very important contracts. While I dressed professionally, I did so in a way that made it clear that I was pregnant. I did feel it necessary to be more serious and “harder” than usual. My approach led to a great outcome in both situations. Although I have not seen any studies on perceptions of pregnant women to in a work context, I imagine that there are some work situations in which it can be disadvantageous. However, I found that a change in attitude went a long way to counter any negative effect.
    Regarding what I considered professional clothing, I’ll provide an example: I wore a pant suit with a button down shirt. The suit was gray and the shirt a very subtle lilac. The jacket let the outline of my belly be obvious. Although painful, I decided to wear heels. In other words, I kept a “business as usual” look. The colors were on the feminine side, but the cut was not.
    After all, pregnancy is one amazing feat that men could never acomplish. We can present it to men as a strength rather than a challenge. As far as other women go, mothers understand how incredibly hard it is to be a mom and professional and they tend to admire the “condition.”

  9. Maeghan says:

    I ate this Roundtable Discussion up! I love hearing all of your perspectives.

  10. Erika says:

    April (and others looking for a male perspective), there is an interesting discussion on wearing neckties and teaching the liberal arts taking place here:

    The central question gets framed here something like this: Is how one dresses part of cultivating and teaching the habits and attitudes of a flourishing intellectual life?

  11. jentine says:

    Very interesting. Especially the parts about emphasizing (or not) one’s pregnancy. I do agree that there is this weird thing that happens when women get pregnant (No, not the cravings etc.) where people feel the need to touch and stroke the belly uninvited and everyone has to guess what the sex and when the actual birth date will be. When a women is visibly pregnant, her bump seems to become public…

  12. Dottie says:

    Fascinating conversation, especially the part about dressing the pregnant body as personal privacy.

  13. If only more people could hear this.

  14. [...] pleased for me, once class began, our focus was on the course and the tasks at hand. Last year, we discussed the pregnant body as the ‘public body’ in the classroom during our roundtable discussion for Sal’s site Already Pretty. E. made some interesting [...]

  15. The root of your writing whilst appearing agreeable initially, did not really sit properly with me after some time. Somewhere throughout the sentences you were able to make me a believer but only for a while. I still have got a problem with your jumps in assumptions and you would do nicely to fill in all those breaks. When you can accomplish that, I would certainly be impressed.

  16. [...] A roundtable discussion on style and academe [...]

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  18. Reviewing this old thread and so incensed by a couple comments that I had to respond.

    @Sony 8mm Camcorder and Chansons Enfants–the lack of specific detail in your own comments is laughable, as is your complete disregard of the nature of this roundtable discussion, which is not designed to convert or “make a believer” out of anyone, only to raise questions and offer opinions on the subject of dress in academia.

    Obviously these words come from the same poster, as a paragraph is repeated word-for-word, and perhaps by someone in academia (hence the B+ grade on a blog post that asks for no grading and no academic criticism).

    Is this garble just spam, and am I responding to a joke?

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  21. Anonymous says:

    Gracias por explicar con tanta claridad sobre este tema.Hay muy frecuentemente que la gente lia y lia para explicar con claridad las mismas y creo que lo nico que logran es fastidiar al lector. Un besito

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