You should always dress to impress clients, investors, and customers, because a winning sales pitch is not enough to seal the deal. A woman’s professional appearance needs to support her professional accomplishments… If your business attire is distracting because it is too sexy, drab, or colorful, your business contacts may focus on how you look, not on your business skills. (from “Personal Grooming Tips for Business Women” by Lahle Wolfe http://womeninbusiness.about.com/od/businessattireforwomen/a/groomingtips.htm)
Women in most professions, but especially in male-dominated fields such as academia or business, walk a fine line. They balance the degree to which they express themselves relative to the expectations of their profession. Women’s bodies are expected to appear in a particular way, take up a particular space, and have a particular influence. These factors are defined and limited by standards which are read onto them.
As a matter of fact, many women harness and utilize fashion for various purposes, but not every woman is following the same rulebook, nor has the same degree of authorship over that rulebook. Some women don’t have the privilege, based on race, body type, class, and profession, to dress freely. Meanwhile, other women’s situation does provide them that opportunity to write their own rules. Nevertheless, both groups face criticism from society and must decide whether to go with the flow or to challenge that judgment.
Coming from a middle-class household, Em has seen the effect of privilege on how one feels they are allowed to dress–outside a professional context–firsthand. She related a personal anecdote: “My mother was incredibly concerned with weight and self-presentation, I learned that there was a specific way to dress to feel good, to feel “pretty”– one which could be easily accomplished, at least economically speaking. However, as the survivor of early (an on-going) childhood abuse and the oh-so-fun weight that came with puberty, I was not only left without many fitting pieces of clothing but also deeply ashamed of my body and what felt like my right to feel good about myself and dress the way I wanted (which was a combination of my mom’s “pretty” and my own style). I felt most safe in baggy clothes (often worn-out) that made me less likely to attract negative or shaming attention. A friend of mine at school, who came from a working class home once asked me why I dressed so “grungy,” when I had the resources to dress in much nicer clothing (the clothes that weren’t the schmata I wore every day, as my mother called them). This friend always dressed in a way that made her look slightly too formal, it seemed to me. She explained that she had been raised with the idea that one’s appearance should exhibit the potential for wealth or success– or, more generally, respectability. “I like to feel pretty,” she said to me once– which left me, who wanted to feel safe, confused. For her, the pressure of appearing “respectable” was greater than for me, who automatically had that privilege. On the flip side, she had the privilege of “feeling pretty,” with a supportive family and positive body image (for the most part), while I felt the need to appear in a way that made me “safe” and unexposed. A great deal of things we learned from our families, our culture, and our other experiences (potential and past) went into the simple act of getting dressed every day; an act which was meant to provide for us or save us from a particular outcome.”
In an interview with fashion blog ihearthreadbared.com, fashion expert and Gender Studies professor Tanisha C. Ford discusses how Africana women use style to “express their unique personas while also communicating something critical and important about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationalist politic.” In other words, for women who have never been able to “check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door,” getting dressed can be an act of agency and often radical self-expression. This act of getting dressed is “ordinary and intimate,” but also has “very real political and economic consequences,” writes Minh-Ha T. Pham of Ms. Magazine.
Though Ford spends most of her interview explaining how she and other Africana women use fashion to defy stereotypes about gender and race, she breezes past the implications of her fashion choices: by actively deciding to style herself one way, she is actively rejecting another way to style herself. She does not confront the implications for others as she gains voice and power through fashion.
As we read Ford’s article, the most troubling part for us was actually a comment by one of her readers who felt disappointed in Ford as she fails to exemplify the message she attempts to send. The interviewer’s last question relayed a personal anecdote about her first day as an Assistant Professor, and the conservative “all-black secretary outfit” that she regrets wearing. The reader found the interviewer’s disdain at the possibility of looking like a secretary and Ford’s lack of response to the comment offensive:
Wow. As I read this article, I was nodding my head in understanding and solidarity until I reached the passage, “I ended up in an all-black secretary outfit.” As a secretary at a university, I get the message, professor: denigrating me lifts you. While a casually offensive attitude to professional “lessers” isn’t a surprise, I expected better from someone who spends her days critiquing the politics of fashion and its impacts upon women. I guess, sometimes, the oppressor masquerades as the liberator.
This reminded us of Bordo’s article, in which she recounts losing twenty-five pounds in 1990. This was seen as a betrayal by some of her colleagues and students and she was then viewed as a hypocrite by some of her colleagues, given her work “Unbearable Weight.” “Although my weight loss has benefited me in a variety of ways, it has also diminished my efficacy as an alternative role model for my female students,” says Bordo in her book. As readers, we also feel that her choice of participating in a national weight-loss program weakened her credibility as a feminist who strives to minimize stereotypes caused by body beauty in society. This seems like a trade-off and also a dilemma for her; she needs to choose between appearing more physically attractive and being consistent with what she has been telling the world. Despite her assertion on how society should not discriminate against fat women, she, herself, is not a believer. Does she, too, discredit her greater message like Ford?
The division Ford creates between herself and the darkly-clothed secretary can be related to Nguyen’s idea about the distribution of beauty. In The Biopower of Beauty, Nguyen writes, “Distribution must imply beauty’s absence or negation by the presence of ugliness.” Beauty, it seems, is merely a comparative term. Its power is in its relation to ugliness, and one cannot exist without the other. Is Ford’s use of professional fashion to defy stereotypes of gender and race only powerful when it is compared to the “safe” all-black ensemble stereotypically associated with a secretary? Like beauty and ugliness, is power only powerful in relation to weakness? The commenter certainly felt weakened. Perhaps Ford’s fashionable empowerment, while meant to equalize the professional playing field by defying stereotypes, in fact shifted limited perceptions from one stereotype to another.
Another interesting link about “appropriate” dress for women, and how the clothes they wear has an influence on their success professionally: http://amdt.wsu.edu/research/dti/women/