How I Learned To Be Taken Seriously -- And Stylishly -- As A Young Woman In Academia

I couldn’t control what students or colleagues would say or how they would behave, but I could control how I felt about my presence in the classroom. I did that by embracing my personal style.
Publish date:
July 15, 2014
teaching, outfits, academia, professionalism, work clothes

Don’t show fear. Dress conservatively. Don’t wear anything tight. Don’t wear too much makeup -- just enough to make yourself look older. Don’t smile.

These are the tips I heard most when I first started teaching at a university. I was afraid of how to get through a semester and unsure whether I could teach anyone anything, but here I was being coached on appearance.

I couldn’t figure out why, either. I had worked in media relations for a nonprofit before returning to school; I felt fine about dressing in a business-casual environment. Nonetheless, I took the advice. Anything that exhibited any of my sharp, mod, colorful personal style had been axed because I wanted to be a Serious Professor Respected By All.

I was reminded of this semester back in February, when I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's article in Elle, “Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion?” She writes of the reverse snobbery in intellectual circles towards caring about appearance; as Adichie describes her descent into learning how to dress down, she explains her willingness to do so: “Young and female seemed to me a bad combination for being taken seriously.”

That first semester, I had a difficult afternoon class. Several young men in it often interrupted me and other students. They sat and snickered in a back corner. They would come and go as they pleased. I naively thought I wouldn’t have to deal with behavior problems by teaching at a college. Wrong. I was young, female, junior, and teaching a required course -- I might as well have had a “Kick me” sign taped on my back. I had a sneaking suspicion that “dressing older” just made me look like a kid playing dress up, hoping no one noticed that the shoes were too big. My troublesome class was proof, to me, that the shoes were never going to fit.

In the middle of that semester, I gave up. Convinced I would not be rehired, I figured I might as well be comfortable in who I was. I put on my favorite dark jeans, a bright green T-shirt and my favorite black blazer. I put on a little makeup (which I hadn’t been wearing, because, ew, feminine). I put on jewelry (which I hadn’t been wearing, because, ew, ladylike), including one of my beloved vintage enameled brooches (which I hadn’t been wearing, because, ew, personality). For the first time in a while, I looked like me.

That afternoon, a student rudely interrupted me several times, asking off-topic questions as his friends egged him on. This time, I didn’t pretend to reason with him or save face; I didn’t even blink. I told him to get out.

The class froze. The student asked if I was joking.

“Nope,” I said, and then I waited, arms folded. This was me: no bullshit. He turned red, collected his things, and rushed out of the room.

“Anyone else, or can we finally talk about writing?” I asked. This sounded like me. One young woman put her hand up and immediately asked a question about the assigned reading. That day was the first time I remember that class having an engaged discussion.

I started wearing what felt right but still showed I was at work. I wore my vintage dresses with cardigans or jackets. I wore prints and color. I had pants I already owned hemmed and taken in. I wore my one pair of nice jeans with small wedge heels.

I couldn’t control what students or colleagues would say or how they would behave, but one thing I could control was how I felt about my presence in the classroom. Above all else, I needed to feel like myself. Perhaps I wasn’t dressing up, but I wasn’t dressing down, either. I was dressing professionally, and that nuance is often lost.

Most universities can be described as having business-casual or downright casual work environments. I hear colleagues say things like, “Thank goodness I’m in academia, because otherwise I’d have to wear real clothes to a real job.” I’m grateful I get to do something I love, and I’m grateful for having more control over my own schedule than most nine-to-five types do, but let’s not kid ourselves: scholarship, teaching, and writing are very real jobs. 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.

The first thing any academic says when asked to dress more professionally is, “I’m not paid enough to dress well.” Yes, we’re not in this line of work for the cash, but that fitted black blazer I just mentioned, with its chic three-quarter-length sleeves and slight peplum waist, cost me all of $19.99 at Kmart a few years earlier; I had to mend holes in the lining and always wore a pin on the lapel to cover a spot I could never get out, but it lasted another few years of teaching.

The fashion snob in me was embarrassed as hell to be buying something from the Jaclyn Smith line when I bought it, but I was broke, it fit well, and I needed something I could mix and match. I wore it with dresses, skirts, pants, jeans, and probably some formal shorts for years. Cheap doesn’t have to be synonymous with ugly, and expensive definitely isn’t synonymous with flattering. I have found clothes for work at thrift stores, outlets, and clothing swaps.

Another thing I often hear when I bring up professional attire is time. Whether running between classes, juggling several teaching gigs as well as other jobs, and/or taking care of others, none of us has time. But you do have time, and you’re smart enough to juggle 50 other things, so take five minutes from your usual Facebook procrastination. Find mix-and-match items so you can pull on something quickly without it looking like you just pulled it off the floor.

That brings me to another point: take care of your clothes. I worked at a friend’s dress shop for a few years and saw how simple alterations, a quick steam or iron, or simply a lint roller gave new life to clothing. I learned that taking care of what you have really does make the difference between a dress that lasts a year and a dress that lasts for five. Learn to sew a button on or mend a small tear in a seam (it’s really not that hard!). If you’re on a tight budget, you can save some cash by making what you have last longer.

It’s been eight years since that rough transition period, and the older I get, the more confident I am in my abilities. 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. I tell them those papers represent the most polished, well-reasoned ideas they take seriously, the ones they want to others to hear. I tell them their work is their own, but no one will take the arguments and research seriously if the work is sloppy.

Like it or not, appearances matter. Unfortunately, being young and female is tough when you’re starting your academic career, for any number of reasons. But instead of looking at those two characteristics as things that need erasing, embrace them as being part of who you are as a scholar, writer and teacher. Walk onto that campus knowing your appearance represents the most polished version of the intelligent, hardworking person you are, who deserves the respect of others and who respects herself.