Teaching Pretty: The Politics of Fashion for Women Instructors

My relationship with high heeled shoes is a fraught one.

Aesthetically, I am dazzled by them. They compliment my body’s shape and infuse more conservative outfits with a bit of pizzazz.  I feel intoxicatingly powerful when I manage to trip across sidewalk grating in high heels without getting stuck or face-planting in a spectacular display of bipedal ineptitude. (I may or may not tempt fate on a semi-regular basis in hopes of experiencing this high. I do know the name of a very good cobbler.) Entering a crowded room in high heels generates a similar sense of confidence and assertiveness – and it generally does not result in bodily harm.

The positive affective powers of the high heel has propelled me to teach most of my classes in them. And when I do, those high heels are almost certainly paired with a dress, or a skirt, blouse, and blazer. But by the time class has ended, and I have trekked back to my office, my feet have sent my brain a read-only version of the Bill of Rights, with the Eighth Amendment circled in red, and arrows pointing at it for good measure. And therein lies the rub: Can I walk in high heels? Yes. Does it eventually hurt like hell? Emphatic yes. As an especially energetic teacher, I often will walk around my classroom, and, no matter how many reviews I read assuring me that “you can totally wear these high heels ALL DAY and you won’t even notice them,” I do notice. I notice big time. Perhaps one day, I will locate the miracle heels that I really can wear for eight hours without chomping at the bit to kick them off, but that day has not arrived.

The day has also not arrived where I have discovered panty hose or tights with an elastic band that does not eventually make me anxious to wriggle free. And fitted blouses? I am forever nervous that one wild gesticulation too many will result in torn fabric.

But regardless of the above, I do love to dress up and take a great deal of pride in my sartorial decisions. I recognize that, while I do seek to fill my wardrobe with clothes that are both classy and comfortable, high heeled shoes that feel like a pair of TOMS are a scientific impossibility. And, if I want to wear high heels, patterned tights, and cute, fitted blouses, then I am simply going to have to accept the accompanying bodily constraints. That is my choice, and I make it willingly.

The real question is why I insist on wearing this sort of highly-feminized attire when I teach. Yes, “looking professional,” however that is to be interpreted, is indeed important to me. I do firmly believe that more formal attire projects dedication to my work as a teacher and a scholar. I am here to work, to teach, to learn, and I take all of that very, very seriously. And, as I said, donning heels and a dress makes me feel quite confident. In my fancy duds, I am prepared to deliver a fantastic lesson, presentation, or to engage in an intellectually rigorous conversation with one of my mentors. Generally, I wait until the middle of the semester to wear pants to class, and when I do, I almost certainly pair them with heels.

But–and I know this is not revelatory–one does not need to wear high heels to look professional. A female-bodied person does not need to wear conventionally feminine clothes in order to look professional. The hesitancy I feel whenever I put on a pair of ballet flats has nothing to do with whether or not I will appear too casual for an academic environment. Along these same lines, my decision to start wearing blush and lip color this year does not impact my overall professional image – in fact, I doubt if anyone has noticed but me. Waiting until the ninth week of the semester to wear pants and heels instead of sporting them by the fourth or fifth week probably has no effect on my pedagogical ethos. So then, why do I set these guidelines for myself?

My sense is that they are the result of inculcated gender expectations – what I believe I need to do as a twenty-something woman in order to command respect from my students and from my peers. For instance, when I walked to my classroom the other day, I passed a male instructor wearing shorts, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. My first thoughts focused on whether he had sustained severe nerve damage. Personally, I cannot not conceive of venturing outside in 30-degree weather without every inch of my body covered, save for maybe one eye. But it also occurred to me that I would absolutely never–never–teach a class dressed the way this man was dressed.

A few things: First of all, I am not attempting to construct a gendered binary where “male” equals “less concerned with professional appearance because…patriarchy.” Part of my surprise at this instructor’s attire simply derived from its being, in my estimation, inappropriate for an academic environment. I of course know many male instructors who take great care in their appearance, particularly on days that they teach. And plenty of female instructors dress more casually than I do, all the while projecting airs of professionalism and confidence. There is, as always, no viable binary to create here. But that said, the fact that I do not feel comfortable dressing casually when I teach is, to a large extent, an issue of gender. And the fact that I encounter far more male instructors who are comfortable dressing informally in front of their students is, too, a result of gendered socialization. Having had conversations on this topic with a number of my colleagues, I have the sense that far fewer women would teach class in a tee-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. The reasons for this extends beyond the simple question of what we consider “professional dress.”

After all, clothes themselves are gendered identity markers. We use them both to send messages and to interpret one another as personalities and as bodies. There is no need for me to recount for you the history of regulated female attire or, for that matter, the anxieties that still surround transvestism. People tend to feel most comfortable when the cultural codes that mark a body parallel their interpretation of the body itself. Somewhere in my social conditioning, I came to an unconscious realization that people would respond to me more favorably if my attire matched my feminine persona and female body – and that I enjoyed the benefits of fulfilling these expectations. For reasons gendered and otherwise–excluding a few years of elementary school–I liked pretty clothes and wanted to wear them whenever the occasion permitted. Once I started my doctorate and began teaching college-level courses, I must have interpreted female professionalism as being, to some degree, tethered to conventional depictions of acceptable hyper-femininity – in other words, dresses that flatter one’s figure (but not too tight, and for goodness sake, not too low cut!); heels that accentuate the legs (but not too high – that’s trashy!); and full make up (but tastefully applied, please!).

I do not mean these snarky asides to suggest that teachers should walk into their classrooms wearing pleather catsuits and crimson lipstick (although, a universe where that was the norm might be kind of fun). What interests me is that female professionals are implicitly encouraged to be modest, yet fetching, and in a markedly feminine way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are encouraged to be sexy – thus the cache of “Hot for Teacher” films and outfits deemed–approvingly–“sexy librarian.” “Sexy nerd” is most certainly a thing in academia, for men and for women. But society encourages women to be attractive to everybody, including our students, even while the official discourse promotes conservatism. And of course, take “sexy” too far, and may the slut-shaming commence.

As is probably painfully clear, I can offer no solutions here. I only know that the way female professional dress is scrutinized is highly problematic, as are the many conflicting messages society sends regarding heteronormative expectations of female workplace appearance. I am only becoming more fully aware of how these various forces have shaped me and, more specifically, my sartorial choices. I realize that many of these decisions materialize because, as a woman, I am especially concerned with my professional visibility. I feel most visible, it seems, when I am dressing the way society asks me to dress. This is a problem.

The matter becomes increasingly complicated because I cannot parse my desire to present myself in a “professional manner” from my clearly socialized conceptions of appropriate dress. I do not know that these issues can be extricated from one another. Do I get dressed with the intent of attracting attention? No, but I wonder to what extent the desire is inherent in the efforts I put forth, even if my “teacher clothes” are neither provocative nor flashy. Visceral aesthetic delight aside, why do I take such pleasure in looking “pretty” when I dress for school? To what extent I am actually dressing for my own benefit?

Ultimately, these questions can be crazy-making. I do want to continue to dress up when I teach and attend department functions. After all, normalizing informal attire in the workplace would only generate new gendered fashion conventions. And I do benefit from the fashion decisions I make, even if I simultaneously am skeptical of their origins. Feeling confident enables me to do my job more effectively. Besides, we all have the right to feel beautiful, whatever that entails for each of us.

What I think we need is a more sustained conversation about what professional attire means for all genders and to what extent we are troubled by the expectations that shape fashion norms. What sorts of privilege are at work here? (I am, for example, fully aware that my ability to dress the way I do derives from a certain amount of economic privilege.) How, above all, do we make our work environments empowering spaces for all who occupy them?

I hope that you will help me to grapple with these questions. In the meantime, I will do my best to leave the high heels at home a bit more often. My feet could use a little respite, and I could use the practice.


When Geeks Collide: Life with a Movie Critic

Before I began my relationship with Paul, I might have known that February is designated by the film-savvy community as “Oscars Season.” But in all likelihood, me possessing that information would be predicated upon someone hosting an Oscar party or bringing up the Oscars in a way that prompted me to ask, “Oh yeah. Those. When do those happen again?”

There are few things I claim to know with certainty, but one thing I can say without qualification is that I will never again NOT know that it is Oscars Season. If you stepped inside our living room, you would immediately understand why: crammed into that tiny space is a veritable cornucopia of DVDs and film scores on compact disc. Biographies of such personages as Orson Welles, Tim Burton and Jim Henson burst from our jam-packed, loosely-titled “American Literature” bookcase.  Above our television (an appropriate enough location), an original Chuck Jones illustration adorns the wall. To be fair, some of the DVDs belonged to me before they became part of the larger Cote-Vorona collective (though, for the record, “Spice World” belonged to Paul). Regardless, beginning a life with Paul meant that my Victorian novels and Pre-Raphaelite picture books could not consume every spare millimeter of the bookcases. And I would have to accept that, given Paul’s aesthetic preferences, it would be unfair for me to smother the walls in Pre-Raphaelite artwork and 19th Century magazine prints. As it stands, our living room exists in a liminal aesthetic space between 20th Century American pop culture and Victoriana. If you leave the framed Oingo Boingo record cover out of the equation, I’m dealing pretty well with this.

My purpose of writing this post was not, however, to grieve my inability to decorate our apartment like the parlors of Thornfield, Thrushcross Grange, or Pemberley. I have always loved movies: watching them in the theatre, thinking about them, and debating their various strengths and limitations with friends. I am a card carrying worshipper of Emma Thompson. Thanks to Tom Hiddleston, I have a renewed interest in Norse mythology. But I do not love movies as much as Paul does. Nor do I possess the inherent ability to unpack them and assess them in the brilliant way that he can. He is a rare, film-whispering, breed of a guy. I love this about him. But I am not always capable of accommodating his passion.

A little modification: When I wrote in the above paragraph that I do not love movies as much as Paul does, I should have added that, in all likelihood, 95 percent of the population does not either. And truly, I believe that it is his depth of perception and innate ability to understand the filmic genre that cultivates his profound appreciation for it. That does not change the insane fact that you could awaken Paul at 3:30 a.m., ask him to rank Martin Scorcese’s five best films, and he would do so with barely a yawn and a blink (in part because there is a very decent chance that Paul would still be awake, watching a movie or writing about one). We once, in the fledgling stages of our romance, completed the grueling, 12 hour ordeal of moving me out of one apartment and into to another. As we staggered back to his place to shower our aching bodies and settle into sleep’s luscious oblivion, I made an offhand comment about a Woody Allen film.** I was under the impression that Paul, like me, was struggling to maintain both consciousness and an upright position as we headed home. And perhaps that was the case…until I brought up Woody. Renewed by the sweet nectar of filmic discourse, Paul dwelled on Woody Allen’s oeuvre for the rest of our walk home – and perhaps even after that. My memory of the circumstances remains foggy because, as astonished as I was by this impromptu verbal dissertation, I was, as I mentioned, exhausted as hell. Yet, even in that bleary, half-conscious state, my mind somehow grasped the realization that Paul had a very particular relationship with film, one that I had never before witnessed. And it was intense.

My own limitations regarding film-talk arise most frequently when Paul and I actually see a movie together. Previously, I tended to be rather lazy about going to the movies. Unless a movie had me frothing at the mouth (i.e.”Titanic” in 7th grade), I would not prioritize seeing it. In fact, I’ve been doing a fair amount of mouth-frothing lately over the new Dickens film, “The Invisible Woman,” and I still haven’t seen that. Being of the loquacious variety, I generally gravitate toward activities that do not require me to sit still and be silent for two hours. Paul, on the other hand, integrates movies into his schedule. He will catch a matinée by himself, on the way home – a practice that has always made perfect sense, but has never been something my exceedingly-extroverted self has been able to try. Sit in a dark theater silently and completely absorbed in a film ALONE? But who will I crawl over when I need to go to the bathroom?

Now that it is Oscar Season, Paul’s “need to see” list of films has both lengthened and become more urgent. (Note: I do not think, before dating Paul, that I ever said that I “needed” to see a movie, which just goes to show how oblivious I was to the critical work involved in viewing a film and, more generally, working in the field.) For one thing, as a member of the International Film Music Critics Association, he needs to vote on the best scores of the year. Working on film in an academic context also means that he needs to be up-to-date on the films being released, especially because he writes on contemporary directors like Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson. And, like me, he blogs–albeit in a more professional context–and it does not make much sense to write a movie review three weeks after a release date.

So, Paul and I have been seeing a number of movies together this winter, and there are more to cross off the list. And while he never complains, I can only imagine that I am a pretty aggravating movie-going companion. If I am confused during the film, I will almost certainly nudge Paul to ask him to explain (I always assume that Paul knows how a plot will unfold by the end of the opening scene). But after the film has ended, I often require a 24 hour grace period before I will enter into any sort of sustained discussion that is not primarily superficial. And if I really loved a movie, I refuse to hear any critique–no matter how small–until the afterglow has dissipated. This can be problematic, because, once the credits are rolling, Paul has about fifty different thoughts prepared to spring from his mouth simultaneously. And these generally are not thoughts of the “OMG NO SHE DID NOT” variety.

For example, while I have been thinking about Spike Jonze’s “Her” almost nonstop since seeing it, my initial conversation with Paul while leaving the theater went something like this:

Me: (sniffling) Wow. That was amazing. Wow wowee wow wowsers.

Paul: Yeah, that was really great.

Me: (immediately indignant because Paul’s reasonable level of enthusiasm does not match my off-the-rails, tearful effusion) IT WAS AMAZING AND FANTASTIC AND I LOVED IT.

Paul: Oh, I did too. It was a phenomenal film.

Rachel: (almost screeching with euphoria) And the performances! I was so impressed with Scarlett Johansson, and that is not something I would normally say.

Paul: (of the mistaken opinion that we are finally getting somewhere in this conversation) She was wonderful, yes, and the relationship between Samantha and Theodore really makes me wonder whether that is the most accurate depiction of romantic intimacy on-screen to date.

Rachel: (Paul’s intellectual remark cannot be matched while inside The Cloud of Many Feelings. Want to feel the feelings, not think the thinks. Unreasonable levels of indignation return.) I don’t wanna talk about this anymore tonight.

Paul: Ooooookay…?

This is not an uncommon scenario in the life of the Cote-Voronas. In many ways, I am probably the filmmaker’s version of Wolfgang Iser’s Ideal Reader. Unless my skepticism precludes–and that means I must find a film VERY problematic–I generally feel just about everything that a film wants me to feel. I am an emotional sponge, absorbing and emitting in equal measure. When Feist released the song “I Feel It All,” I was deeply grateful to her for penning a line that I could steal for all of my online bios. So, when I am moved by a film–particularly one that I loved as much as “Her”–I have to let the emotional waves subside before I can do much critical thinking or be open to hearing any pointed critique. For about twenty-four hours, any variety of the latter will feel like utter blasphemy, and the former will feel like a cold shower.

This is not to say that Paul does not experience these films as profoundly as I do – the beginning of this post testifies to his keen enthusiasm. In fact, one of the things that drew us to one another was the similar way that we experience an especially riveting movie score. Danny Elfman’s “Black Beauty” (yes, I do like Elfman after he sheds the ridiculouslessness of Oingo Boingo), Michael Nyman’s “The Piano,” Patrick Doyle’s “Great Expectations,” Elliot Goldenthal’s “Frida,” Thomas Newman’s “Little Women,” Dario Marinelli’s “Jane Eyre” — Paul and I love listening to this music together, and it all claims, in various ways, intense emotional importance in my life. “Black Beauty” and “Little Women” in particular will always remind me of my childhood with my little sisters, in part because we watched these movies on a weekly basis growing up, but also, more simply, because the music seems to articulate how I love them both. Similarly, many of the scores Paul and I enjoy together become reimagined texts for the ways I love him. (I will also divulge that I cannot so much as hear the first notes of the music from the Season Five finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without dissolving into sobs. By now, the response is almost Pavlovian.)

Paul possesses a more emotionally measured disposition than I do (surprise!), and, at this point, he is a seasoned film critic. So he can exist in a space where he is both experiencing the affective impact of a film and, simultaneously, thinking about its technical intricacies and larger implications. I often wish that I could do the same so that I was a better movie buddy for him. Still, my experience of watching movies seems to be an enjoyable experience for him (primarily a comical one). And while his film-critic mind might not be as compelled by the “WHY DID HE HAVE TO LEAVE HER?” “WASN’T IT SO MEAN WHEN SHE SAID THAT? JEEZY CREEZY!” variety of questions, these are the sorts of things I need to talk about while I am still emotionally processing a film. He gets that, I think, and he humors me accordingly.

And, in turn, he knows that he can always wake me up in the middle of the night after watching “Breaking Bad” in order to tell me of the horrors he has just witnessed. Because even the most experienced film critics have their limitations. (I have not watched “Breaking Bad” myself, but have rather experienced it vicariously through Paul. I am his “Breaking Bad” trauma counselor, if you will.)

As Oscar Season continues, and Paul and I continue to work through his list of must-sees (many of which are on my list too), I anticipate all manner of conversations: the post-viewing chats that inevitably will end with me in a snit and, the following night, long debates over wine – when I am finally willing to submit that, no, that movie was not the Platonic ideal of cinema and, yes, there is more to discuss than its most melodramatic of plot twists.

What’s more, I was actually just as excited for the release of the Oscar nominees as Paul was this year. I guess his enthusiasm has been catching over the years, as much as I loathe to give him credit for that (ask him one day about what a delight I am). And I am eager to watch the Oscars with him–his Superbowl, for those whose minds are turned to that particular sporting event today. The fact that I refer to it as a “sporting event” probably gives you a sense of my own investment in the game as well, although I do hope there will be cute animals in some of the commercials. Also, regarding the Oscars, red carpet fashion, anyone?

Ultimately, I suppose I can say with confidence that our individualized movie viewing experiences will not tear asunder the bonds my beloved and I have forged. That is, unless he persists in criticizing Michael Fassbender’s performance as Rochester in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. My charity only extends so far.

**NOTE: At the time that I made this comment, I was unaware that Allen had been accused of sexual assault. Having just read Dylan Farrow’s open letter, I do not know that I will be able to watch another one of his films. We do worlds of harm when we suppress the voices of those who have suffered such violence and cruelty – and even more so when we continue to champion their (in this case, probable) perpetrators.