Can we talk about “professional dress”?
When I first started to work in schools, it seemed like a no brainer that I had to build myself a professional wardrobe. My first few times in the classroom as a pre-student teacher, I wore an older button up shirt and some khaki pants.
Then I started student teaching, and we talked about dressing the part…
No tees, you’ll look like a kid. No jeans, you’ll look too young. Gym shoes are unprofessional. Sweatshirts are sloppy. You get the picture.
So I made a few more trips to Target and discovered H&M, and felt pretty good about myself. I was ROCKING this professional dress thing! I felt a smug sense of satisfaction walking into my first few interviews wearing a grey dress, black tights, heels, black blazer, and pearls.
Never mind that it was July and I was dying of heat, and my feet were killing me after walking from my car to the front office. I was PROFESSIONAL, damnit!
My first year of teaching, I somehow managed to wear dress clothes every single day. Even during spirit week, I didn’t stoop to the level of jeans. That was for the teachers who didn’t care, and had phoned it in. I was a fresh, young professional ready to bring some gravitas to this profession and inject it with some respectability.
Except… I’m white, middle class, and a cisgender female.
It was easy for me to ask my parents for a little extra cash to go get some nice pieces. My mom encouraged me to spend a little more so the clothing would last. When I went shopping, it was right to the women’s section without a second thought.
And then this past year, I tried a little experiment. What if I just started wearing jeans? I’d still look nice. Clean, groomed, all that jazz. But no makeup, certainly no heels, and no dress pants.
A couple of things happened. I stayed warmer this winter because I could tuck my jeans into warm boots, instead of slopping through the snow in my dress shoes. I felt a new freedom to wear shirts that promoted my college, and showed school pride with a hoodie emblazoned with my school logo. My students still respect me. My colleagues still respect me. Heck, I even started teaching our AP course.
So why did how I dress matter in the first place?
Probably because “professionalism” is still coded in terms that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and classist. Probably because the people in power are still the men in dark suits, so of course we must dress like them if we want to be taken seriously.
Of course professional clothes are cut with straight lines and no soft edges. Of course good professional clothes are expensive. Of course the most professional would never dream of adding more than a pop of color. Of course flashy jewelry is discouraged, and don’t you dare wear more than “natural looking” makeup, and make sure your hair is natural (and by that we mean straight and neatly trimmed).
Why would they want us out of their chosen uniform? Then we might realize how few of us there really are among their ranks.