Follow the Leader?

Here’s the thing, internet. I’m new to this dressing professionally thing. A little over two years ago I wore the same yoga pants everyday, rarely showered and was renowned for my morning hair, which often made an appearance in a public forum (seriously, I once ran into a colleague and his wife in the frozen food section and they could not refrain from stealing glances at my lid. I could not refrain from noticing.). I spent most days at my desk, in a mad panic, weeping and eating chips which I had to share with the Vampire Cat and Yelly Kitty. I taught, as an assistant, one day a week and I made a conscious decision on those days not to wear jeans and to assemble something that would command a modicum of respect from my students (with varied results). While I did not dress “professionally” per se, I did manage to cobble together respectable non-denim, non-yoga ensembles once a week.

When I interviewed for the job I have now, I wore a grey-taupe shift dress and blazer from Banana Republic that I could not afford, with grey tights and an excellent pair of pink and purple mary jane wedges. I looked like a nun on outreach (except for the excellent shoes). I wore the suit with the tags on and returned it after the interview (BR should be ashamed of themselves for charging a king’s ransom for an ill-cut blazer; I would have returned it even if I could have afforded to keep it.). What I discovered while desperately seeking interview-wear was that I do not look good in a suit. Something about all one colour on my average frame with my pale (read: pasty) skin and bottle-blonde hair made the suit look like it was inhabited by the invisible woman in lipstick. Not a good look.
So, I think suits are out for me. Even if I could afford them. That said, if I could dress like Veronica on Better Off Ted, I would. If I had Portia de Rossi’s figure and eyebrows and a wardrobe department tailoring adorable lady-suits for me, I would be all over that like some kind of clever simile (I cannot think of a single witty thing to be like). She is brilliant on that show and brilliantly dressed.
In any case, I’m not even certain that a daily suit would be the way to go for this department or for this university, but I find that dressing for work is one more challenge I did not anticipate being as difficult as it is, even laying aside for the moment budgetary constraints and a limited start-up wardrobe. I’ve tried to gauge the formality quotient of the department but it is difficult. One of my colleagues–an excellent scholar–wears jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops daily (even in winter). He is young, handsome, and male and gets away with casual socklessness, I think, because it is part of a persona (or personality?). I guarantee that I could not manage it, and I think it may well be due to my gender but also my own comfort level. Another of my colleagues–also an excellent scholar–is a super-styley dresser. She wears brilliant, edgy outfits: fab scarves, baby doll dresses that somehow do not seem babyish or dollish on her, long skirts (even though she is petite). She does not often wear a suit but she does rock a well-tailored suit (with a waistcoat!) and she also sometimes wears jeans (over-dyed skinnies with kick-ass booties). Another colleague whose dress sense I admire, who is also more petite than I, wears more conservative clothes than Edgy Modernist, but always looks well put together: crisp shirts, tweedy pencil skirts,gorgeous caramel boots. She also wears jeans on occasion, also over-dyed but with a tucked in shirt and usually a cardi. I think I should look to these colleagues, senior to me by about ten years, for inspiration and the tenor of the department/university/students though I’m still working out what my “professional” style is (and my teaching style, for that matter. Right now it’s bordering on goofy if enthusiastic.). So, internet, when I figure out how to work the timer on my camera, I’ll need you to weigh in on my teaching wardrobe, which is under review (as are many things).
Finally, however, I come to the question I’ve been wondering about. I do not teach everyday, though I often go in everyday during the week to work in my office as I’m less inclined to be distracted by cats and chips (and weeping) there. As I have a limited teaching wardrobe, I am loth to blow a teaching outfit just sitting in my office by myself in a mad panic. Nonetheless, I am among my colleagues, at work, so I can’t wear unwashed yoga pants and my grandpa’s plaid shirt (and the morning surprise hair). What do I wear? I can’t wear jeans (I don’t own any that are over-dyed and what I do own are all a little the worse for wear), but is there something less formal than standing-up-and-teaching attire that is still appropriate? What do you wear on non-teaching days on campus? Or at department meetings (many of my colleagues wear jeans to department meetings; I do not.)? The Chair of the department–a very laid-back guy who thinks of me as “one of the younger generation of scholars”–never wears jeans but I have seen him as casual as chinos and a sweatshirt, but still quite put together. I think I should follow his lead and avoid jeans for now. Academic Writer thinks I just need to blow a teaching outfit on these days and shop for more variety. I think she’s probably right a) because she is more savvy than I about these things and b) because shopping is awesome. What do you think, internet?

5 thoughts on “Follow the Leader?

  1. Dorky Medievalist, I get the predicament. I often go in on non teaching days (which I dislike, intra urban commute is long). I don't waste a teaching outfit on a non-teaching day, but I go 1/2 way. Like a decent top, but with a shorter skirt. Or a casual dress, with a nicer cardigan. I recommend that since we assistant professors are hardly rolling in it, that you hit up vintage and thrift shops for you teaching non teaching gear. For reals. Ebay and Etsy too, if you know your measurements. Ebay is great for shoes. You can get more for the buck, have a few pieces that you can have fun with, and not worry about getting sick of them.You could also just come in with your non-overdyed jeans and a comfy top and continue to do the great work that I am sure you do, and screw anyone who would judge you otherwise. I am a big fan of that option as well.

  2. Hey I've been thinking a lot about this exchange. Probably it's a different situation for me because even though I look young, I don't look like one of the students because they have their own urban hip-hop youth thing going on and I'm way too square for that. And no matter how formally I dress, some students will go over the line with me. On my days "off" when I go in, I don't make contact with students in the hall way. Maybe thrift a blazer than you can leave in your office (i have one) for days that you dress casually but might need to venture forth from your office and see a student by accident? And you'll get there. Maybe not Cambridge (I never bothered to send my manuscript there) but your work will shine too! And in the meantime, have fun with the clothes.

  3. Thanks Rad and AW, this is helpful. In spirit I agree with Rad and that the work should matter more than the jeans and if, like my sockless colleague, I had a book that just came out with Cambridge, I might be less worried (though I so appreciate your blind faith in my "great work"). Though it is also an issue with student perception, perhaps even more of an issue than with colleagues. My students need to remember, as they seem to forget at times, that I am their prof and not their friend or their contemporary. And if I can't yet do that with my bearing, then I need to do it with my outfits (for now). Again, Casual Sockless seems to manage it. But his book just came out with Cambridge.

  4. If it wouldn't be completely wienerly, I'd reiterate all of what Rad_in_Broolyn said. Except for the non-overdyed jeans part. But that is because I obsess about being taken seriously. As a young(ish) woman and a new presence in my department, I worry that my everyday jeans will do irreparable harm to my credibility, especially if I bump into any students from my intro classes.

  5. Dorky Medievalist, I get the predicament. I often go in on non teaching days (which I dislike, intra urban commute is long). I don't waste a teaching outfit on a non-teaching day, but I go 1/2 way. Like a decent top, but with a shorter skirt. Or a casual dress, with a nicer cardigan. I recommend that since we assistant professors are hardly rolling in it, that you hit up vintage and thrift shops for you teaching non teaching gear. For reals. Ebay and Etsy too, if you know your measurements. Ebay is great for shoes. You can get more for the buck, have a few pieces that you can have fun with, and not worry about getting sick of them.You could also just come in with your non-overdyed jeans and a comfy top and continue to do the great work that I am sure you do, and screw anyone who would judge you otherwise. I am a big fan of that option as well.

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