I’ve been thinking on-and-off this week about a question posed to me by a teaching assistant: How should I dress when I’m working with the students (on behalf of your class)? My answer was that I did not want to prescribe her dress, but asked that she dress according to her role as a professional school student. At the time, I thought myself guided by the conventional wisdom that one should “dress for the job you want, not the one you have.”
I realize now what a confusing answer I provided, since a quick glance at sociologists attending this year’s ASA meetings demonstrates the wide range of attire donned by professionals. And my answer does not betray the serious problem I have with gender and sexuality codes applied to dress, and the ways in which they reproduce the status order. I certainly don’t want a male student wearing an earring to think I want him to remove it, lest future employers assume he’s homosexual. (That’s a dumb example, really, but I want something clear.)
What I actually think is important is that she is thoughtful about how her attire impacts her opportunities–specifically, her opportunity to feel like, and be treated like, the professional she is becoming.
That she asks this question suggests she is thinking about exactly this issue, but her asking also suggests she’s not quite sure she’s hit upon the ideal cost/benefit balance.
I haven’t got a better answer than I gave her–this is something I’m still mulling over–but let me throw up a few other passing thoughts, all events that were deeply unsettling to me:
1. I remember once being warned not to become “one of those older, female sociologists who wear big, wooden jewelry.”
2. A (female) colleague once commented of a female student: “I feel so uncomfortable seeing that much of her decolletage.”
3. I once met a student who both had rather poor grooming habits and was sloppily dressed. I was later told his mentor was “gently breaking the news” about the impact of his odor and demeanor on others. His mentor had offered the gift of some new clothes and accouterments because he was from a desperately poor family. The events were compared to a television makeover show.
4. A colleague once recommended I wear a particular dress to a job interview because it flattered my figure.