Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Unfashionable advice

One of the smartest men in academia once (maybe twice) gave me the following piece of advice: dress down and less conspicuously; people should remember you for your work, not for your looks.

The same was to hold for my personality. A socially skilled Latin woman who is capable of mingling both with a crowd of students and a group of senior faculty is not someone academics take seriously. I would be judged for the width of my smile and the buoyancy of my curls, not for the rigor of my arguments. According to current academic protocol, my way of being would be interpreted as trouble instead of talent.

When I first heard this I was stunned, and silently retreated to the comfort (inappropriateness?) of my Bebe lace trim top in Mexican pink. But the Professor’s comment stuck to my thoughts. It messed with my brain and it spurred mixed feelings.

I couldn’t decide whether to tell him off -after all, if he had an opinion of the extension of my V-neck it was because he had taken a peek-, advance a furious feminist discourse -even as your average feminist does not wear hip huggers and heels- or thank him for the tip.

Because the fashion review came from someone who is profoundly knowledgeable of the institutionalization of American academia, I could not simply dismiss it; it was genuinely offered as knowledge that, appropriately applied, could increase my success on the job market.

On the other hand, the mere thought experiment of conforming to the unsightly stereotype of the competent female academic made me feel utterly defeated (never mind unattractive). Doing so would mean that I was consenting to be judged for my looks instead of my abilities.

For someone outside the world of academia, manly shoes, over-sized clothes, un-manicured hands, reckless hair, a long face, and not a hint (ever!) of makeup, seems far from proper working attire. But that was precisely the dress code I was being suggested, and the hypothetical role model I was being proffered was someone who went to great lengths to give the impression of not caring about her image.

Some years ago, journalist Guy Trebay asked why "fashion remains the most culturally potent force that everyone [i.e., academics] love to deride." The received view in academic circles is that fashion is not a legitimate form of art or culture, but rather, a form of frivolous consumerism; that a patent interest in it is a sign of vanity and shameful counter-intellectualism.

How was I, someone who gave ELLE the same analytic deliberation she gave to philosophy journals, to survive graduate school or PSA meetings? Convinced that whether you repudiate them or you follow and take pleasure in them -even if you claim to be impervious to them- the marks of fashion are here to stay, I did a careful inventory of my closet and braced myself. The sound of smoking stilettos is still audible in the university’s hallways.