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.