Friday, January 25, 2008

Clothes Make the Man

You all know about my travails in the realm of fashion. Since I was slammed with the "you don't look professional enough" criticisms, I've been working on my appearance.

Today is the first day of my new job that I haven't worn a suit. Today is a sky blue silk georgette blouse with grey wool trousers and a black silk cardigan. I gave myself the day off from heels, too, and settled for my Chinese embroidered loafers. So it's not a suit, but it's definitely high professional fashion.

After all the trouble I encountered in the clothing department while working in academia, I had to chuckle at Thomas H. Benton's musings on trying to build a new wardrobe while still retaining his professorial air.

...I probably irritated some of my colleagues, a few of whom are aggressively informal on principle: denim, work boots, sandals -- anything goes but formality. The situation is not unique to my home institution. Professors (in the humanities, at least) don't make much money relative to other professionals, so we press our sour grapes into the sweeter wine of smugness: "We are too important to pay attention to such trivial, privileged matters as clothing."

One day you put on a tie, the next day you are driving a Hummer and voting Republican.

There is some truth to that criticism. After a while, the dramatic change in my clothing began to make larger demands for a complete change in my lifestyle. How could I possibly live on a farm? And drive a 10-year-old Jeep Cherokee? I started to covet glass and steel urban loft apartments, and I began visiting the Web sites of Volvo and Mercedes. If I pursued this course to its logical end, I would need to get an entirely new life, when I am mostly happy with the one I have.

Although it got out of hand, I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment. In general, professors at liberal-art colleges are encouraged to be nurturing. But I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with "Dear Professor" instead of "Hey."

This last point is exactly what I'm striving for. I want to be treated with more respect; it's amazing to think that I can be this wonderfully intelligent person, but in my past few jobs I've been treated as "The Secretary," and some of it was definitely due to my appearance.

Yesterday, I went to a lunch meeting with my boss and four other Research Administrators. Aside from my boss, I was the only one wearing a suit. Two were wearing jeans, one a casual sweater and slacks set, and the last one a rumpled button down shirt and khakis. For a moment, a lightbulb went on in my head: "I don't have to be wearing a suit to this job."

And then I remembered what one of my mentors had said when I first encountered the appearance trouble: "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." A first impression is very important, and I want to work at this place and be promoted after a few years. And if I want that promotion, I want people to imagine me behind the boss' desk. Like the term "managing up," "dressing up" could apply to this idea. I want to "dress up."

And so, I'll keep striving for formality, and leave the jeans and sweaters at home.

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