Dressing the Part

August 10, 2005

Last fall, I woke one morning to discover I had reached that point in the semester where I was running on fumes: I didn't want to teach my classes that morning, or even make the drive to campus. For that matter, I didn't particularly want to get dressed.

But I did. I pulled on a pair of jeans, went to work, and walked into my first class of the day, only to have one of my female students draw back visibly.

"Whoa!" she said. "Look at you in the jeans. It must be Casual Friday."

Although my usual teaching wardrobe will not be found on the pages of any fashion magazine -- and I'm pretty sure no one would use the words "chic" or "tailored" to describe my attire -- I usually stay away from what James M. Lang, in his recent column, "Looking Like a Professor," called the "extreme casual" dress of some professors.

Of course, extreme casual means different things for men and women. I'm careful about the clothes I wear in the classroom, not because I'm particularly interested in fashion, but because I'm a woman. It should come as no surprise to readers that numerous studies confirm what many of us have known for a long time: Students respond differently to male and female professors in the classroom, and evaluate us differently as well.

During class and on their final course evaluations, students comment on the clothes I wear and see nothing odd about that. My husband, also an academic, has yet to hear a single student comment about his wardrobe, which I'll call "guy casual." Usually he wears khaki pants and a polo or button-down shirt. That's the same outfit he wears out to dinner or on a trip to the zoo with our children. If he tended to wear jeans, I suspect he would wear "all jeans, all the time," as Lang writes in his essay.

My point here is that "guy casual" is neutral: It says nothing more than "I'm a guy," and that's all it needs to say. There's a presumption of respect that comes along with being a guy -- specifically, a white male professor -- and that allows for a certain disregard where the question of classroom dress is concerned.

One of my favorite undergraduate professors transcended "guy casual" and actually wore a suit to class each day. He had two suits: a brown one for fall semester, and a green one for spring semester. But all a male professor really has to do is put on a tie to move from the neutral "guy casual" to "guy dressed up."

There is, however, no neutral position for women. If I go "extreme casual," I'm making a statement eschewing the fashion industry and its hold on me. If I opt for a more formal style of dress, I'm making another sort of statement. In fact, Lang implies, I may be seen as trying too hard, of seeming absurdly authoritarian: He writes that female professors who are sharp dressers seem to wear things like scarves and pointy shoes to establish their authority with students. "The pointy shoes make me the boss," as he puts it.

But there's no presumption of respect or authority accorded to me when I walk into a classroom -- no matter what shoes I'm wearing. I have to convince my students, every day, that I know something about the subject matter and can manage the class effectively. I also have to convince them that they can't push me around, because they'll try to, but they won't try as hard if I've persuaded them that it will be a challenge.

Classroom dress does, then, help to identify the person who is in charge, and that's an important consideration when authority can't be presumed. Although I don't wear suits, I tend to wear dresses and skirts when I teach. My students often characterize my classes as "interactive" and "fun" while describing me as "very demanding" and "a hard grader." It's taken me 20 years of trial and error in teaching to reach the point where I can be called "a hard grader" and not something else.

Part of that learning process involved figuring out how to dress when I'm teaching. When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, just a few years older than my own students, it didn't occur to me to think about what I wore to class. I was a teacher for only a few hours each day, after all. Students routinely challenged my grades, my assignments, my classroom policies.

One of them once asked me, "What's the point? To write a good paper or to make you happy by following your little assignment sheet?"

Over time I learned to handle those challenges, trusting in what my female colleagues told me: "It gets easier as you get older." I assumed that meant my students would begin treating me more respectfully once I had reached a certain age.

What I didn't understand was that, as I got older, I would have less and less in common with my students, including the way I dressed. The greater the distance between my students and me, the easier it was to establish some authority in the classroom. Maintaining that distance by dressing professionally is an integral part of my teaching.

But even that isn't foolproof, because there are far too many ways in which a woman can go wrong. Take, for example, the best-dressed female professor I know. She wears blouses and skirts, hose and heels (probably with pointy toes), often a jacket as well. I've never seen her look anything less than impeccable. But in an evaluation of her teaching several years ago, one of her students lamented that he couldn't learn anything from her; he was too distracted by the fact that she often didn't wear a bra.

Why that student spent his time in class determining whether the professor was or wasn't wearing a bra is a question for another column, but I have yet to hear a student criticize a male professor for inappropriate classroom attire.

And it's not only students who notice what we're wearing. "A woman in a sleeveless top is as good as naked," said one of the female colleagues I most respect, carefully not making eye contact with the several women in our group who were wearing sleeveless dresses. (Mine, I will add, came with a jacket that I had left in my office on a very warm afternoon.)

Female professors are supposed to know how to dress; it's part of the gender performance on which we're evaluated. Failing to dress well suggests an incompetence that might undermine a woman's authority in other areas. If she doesn't even know how to dress, the student thinks, how could she possibly know that this paper deserves a C?

Male professors aren't expected to have any fashion sense, so relying on that old standard, "guy casual," can't hurt them. Professor Lang goes so far as to say, "I wear the clothes my wife buys for me," suggesting that there's no need for him to think about his wardrobe at all, unless he chooses to.

I suspect he means that line to be facetious, but let's imagine a female professor saying the same thing, telling her colleagues or students, "I wear the clothes my husband buys for me." That professor is not only incompetent (she doesn't even know how to dress), but also submissive. There's no way she can garner the respect of her students or her peers.

A professor's choice of classroom dress is far more complex than Lang suggests. It has much more to do with gender, race, and cultural privilege than teaching style. Perhaps someday we'll be teaching in a world where we can all dress according to our personal preferences, without regard to those things. When that day arrives, I'll happily show up for class in my jeans and high-topped sneakers. But until then, I'll be the one in the pointy shoes.

Pamela Johnston is an assistant professor of English studies at Texas Lutheran University, where she teaches creative writing and American literature.