what (not) to wear

As summer winds down, and we get ready for the fall term to begin, I'm apparently not the only one thinking about what to wear. And look, for once these are Chronicle articles that don't make me fume! I don't agree with everything in any of these pieces, but the issues are real ones. Casual dress reads differently in the classroom or out of the classroom; on male bodies or female bodies; on white instructors and those of color; on older teachers or younger ones. It's never just a question about "can you wear X" or "you should wear Y."

I've been thinking about these questions in relation to my own closet as I try to get into the right frame of mind for the fall term. It's always hard, after a summer of slouching around in t-shirts, to even remember how it is that I usually dress for the classroom. I taught summer school this year, but I definitely relaxed my usual dress code out of a mixture of tenured defiance, the enforced camaraderie of meeting every day, and out of respect for the weather. So I even taught in jeans, which I usually reserve for Fridays or the occasional meeting day, but never a teaching day. And the thing is that I love wearing jeans. I have jeans that both feel good and look good, and when combined with boots and a jacket, look quite presentable -- definitely within the spectrum of casual professional dress that's typical on my campus. I have a lot of male colleagues who wear jeans every day -- mostly with a button down shirt, sometimes a tie. And it doesn't seem to detract from their authority in any way. And quite frankly, I don't think my classroom authority depends on my clothing -- if I only had to teach and meet with my colleagues, maybe I would wear jeans every day (with button shirts or jackets).

But now that I'm in a halftime administrative role, I have a lot more meetings to attend, with deans and faculty from other departments & colleges. On our campus, the more money you make (i.e., the higher up in administration you are), the more conservative and formal your dress has to be. So the President's office is super-corporate, the Deans are in jacket & tie but not always suits, and our department Chair wears a tie every day, mostly with jacket but not always. Faculty from some other departments are worse dressed than we are in the humanities (i.e., the chemists and physicists) but the professional schools have much more stringent codes. (Of course, those faculty also make way more money than the rest of us do.) When I'm meeting with these people, I still am trying to prove myself in certain ways -- and it's easier to do if they're not also judging me on my appearance.

When I first came to this campus as a new assistant professor, I definitely cared more about what I wore, and I created a sartorial persona which helped me mark clear boundaries between myself and my students (who were and are often my age or older). I looked younger than I was, and people often commented that I didn't "look old enough to be a professor" -- which I found incredibly demeaning and irritating. So wearing a jacket every day helped me look like a professor, and more importantly, it helped me feel like I was at work. Having clothes that are for work, and clothes that are for play, helps me organize my life. And for a long time that's how I've wanted it.

But lately, my jeans keep calling to me. Is it because they're comfortable? Because I am older now, and I have tenure, and I care a lot less about what people think? What would it mean to wear jeans more frequently to the office? I don't really know. But after mulling it over for a few days, I think that I want to keep my jeans for Fridays and my days off, and the occasional rainy day when I feel crappy and need something extra fun. I think I still need to have separate categories of clothes.

But my wardrobe still needs some overhauling. Too many things that I don't really like any more, or that I still like but suspect that they are too worn or too far out of style. One of my colleagues wears these high-waisted jeans that make me crazy because they look so painful and so ugly. I don't wear high-waisted pants, but maybe my students or colleagues think something similar about one of my favorite old outfits.

So I think I need to go shopping and get some new clothes in honor of the new school year and my new older tenured semi-admin persona, whatever that's going to look like...