I stare at my closet every morning and think the same thing: “What the hell am I going to wear today?” As I look over my multicolored plastic hangers, I enter a trance-like state in which I imagine the audiences, purposes, and contexts that I will need to exist in between this moment and the minute I can finally take off my bra and put on pajamas again. I think to myself for the billionth time, “Why can’t I just wear pajamas to work?”
I should note that, while I’m making this sound a little dramatic, I have a pretty good situation: as a graduate student in a relatively casually dressed humanities department, I have the flexibility to wear a variety of things to “work.” Most days I choose black leggings and an oversized shirt.
As I choose my spandex-blend for today, I hear the voice of the institution in my ear:
“Spandex of any sort is not professional. Be careful about the messages you send to people.”
Next, I choose a polka dot button down shirt and button it up. The part where my bust is the biggest has just a tiny gap. I silently measure the likelihood that anyone will really notice.
“If you write about fashion and body image, people will judge your body more harshly.”
Finally, I pile my curly-ish hair into a bun on the top of my head.
“When you have curly hair, people will take you less seriously.”
I look at myself in the mirror before I pick up my bag and leave for the day. I see a short, white, fat, brunette, able-bodied, cisgender woman looking back at me. She is so full of privilege. She is so insecure.
“Women will judge you the most harshly. Be ready for that.”
These institutional statements are all things that I have been told personally by people who I consider close mentors in the academy: people who I truly believe have my best interests at heart. They tell me these things so that I won’t be shocked at the responses of other people outside of my current bubble.
But why can’t I make a rhetorical statement through my clothing? Shouldn’t people realize that I am intentional with my dress practices? I study this crap, for goodness sake.
Why does this matter?
In a recent piece posted on Everyday Feminism, Carmen Rios made the point that, “dress codes make room to turn a lot of ‘isms’ into policies—especially since typical standards of professional dress are, at the core, racist, sexist, classist, and xenophobic.” The implications of adhering to “professional” dress codes are especially complex for people who exist outside of the white, male, able-bodied, young, cisgender, thin mold.
I hope that one day I am strong enough to resist the dress codes (both explicit and implied) that govern my work life. This is a risky act, but it’s one that many people do everyday.
I started the site Dress Profesh because I wanted to connect with other people who see “dressing professional” as a performance. On the site, I ask for people to submit photos of themselves dressed for work—whatever that might mean for them. The goal is to have a gallery of body positive solidarity that can challenge the notion of what it means to look “professional.”
What do you do in the mornings? Do you agonize over composing an outfit to wear to “work,” or do you have a pretty good uniform figured out? Do you feel like you are wearing “professional drag,” or does it feel like an authentic representation of who you truly are? Submit early and often to the gallery and follow Dress Profesh for images, resources, and community. Together, we can support one another to call attention to problematic dress codes and #effyourdresscodes.
[Headline image: The photograph shows five people in business attire, of different races and genders, standing next to one another and smiling.]