Say yes to the dress? (Feminist edition)

A couple of weeks back I attended the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa, Ontario; “Congress” is where one of my most valued professional associations, the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (CATR), meets each year. Unlike most conferences, CATR is good fun as well as productive: I get to see friends and colleagues I genuinely like, I get to hear brand-new research that is directly relevant to my own, I get to attend a bunch of important business meetings (OK: that’s not so much fun as just necessary, and nice to get over with), plus there’s always plenty of time for socialising with those cherished pals I haven’t seen for a while. Theatre and performance teachers and researchers from across Canada and beyond attend, and we all look forward to hanging out together and having a really good time.

I’m extremely fortunate to be part of a cohort filled with smart, wonderful female scholars. We all graduated with our PhDs about ten years ago (several of us from the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto), we have been lucky to get good academic jobs and then tenure, and now we find ourselves in the privileged position of being “mid-career”, acting as mentors to younger men and women coming up in our discipline today. We are also important supports to each other. In addition to being close friends, we also mentor and advise one another around the kinds of things mid-career professional women often face alone: coping with children alongside careers, managing work-life balance, struggling with partners and relationships with ageing parents. To say I respect, admire, and love these women is a complete understatement. In fact, I don’t have language adequately to describe what they mean to me.

This lovely group of women are all ardent feminists in our scholarship (check out some of our recent, award-winning work here, here, here, and here), as well as in our pedagogical practices and, as much as possible (which is to say, imperfectly), in our daily lives. We all identify as primarily heterosexual, and save for two of us we all have children. We are also, if I do say so myself, rather sartorially well turned out. One of our younger graduate student colleagues has nicknamed us “the well-dressed ladies of CATR,” a cheeky moniker that nevertheless makes me smile. Yet, during this most recent CATR conference, I found myself thinking critically about it – specifically about its teaching and mentorship implications – and I found myself worrying a bit about the possible side effects of the image we were collectively, though unintentionally, projecting.

Early on the first day of the conference we found ourselves attending a panel presentation headlined by two of us, Nikki Cesare Schotzko and Laura Levin. The rest were seated quite near the front. It was at this point, as I was glancing around, that I realised we all looked more or less the same. We were all wearing mid-length skirts or summer dresses; most were in heels or open-toed shoes displaying proper pedicures, nails brightly painted. Many of us had beautiful manicures, too – in short, we looked like a group of professional women dressed in a quite feminine style, or in what Alyssa Samek and Theresa Donofrio might call “academic drag” (more on that in a minute)*. On this day our choices stood out to me not because our outfits were unusual for us (they were not), nor because they somehow conflicted with our feminist beliefs and practices (I don’t believe they do), but rather because we seemed so totally uniform, as though we’d consulted one another on our outfits that morning (we hadn’t). I began to wonder if we’d unconsciously been influencing one another’s style over the years, as we’d shared our struggles and piled up our academic and professional successes. Then I thought in turn about how we might be influencing those we mentor now. Did we read as a unit – feminine, successful, privileged?  What might that message be saying to younger scholars looking to us as models?

Growing up, I was a tomboy. I favoured baggy clothes to hide what I believed was my fat, dumpy body. Neither “well-dressed” nor “lady” would have described me until about age 25, when thanks to a wonderful therapist and a generous friend who loved to shop I began to realise I enjoyed dressing in skirts and identifying at least partly in a feminine way. (NB: to identify as a woman is different from identifying as a feminine woman. There are lots of different ways to perform our gender!) I haven’t worried much about my sense of personal style since then; instead, I’ve enjoyed developing the woman I want to be by styling her accordingly. I own a lot of simple jersey dresses – they are a saving grace for travel! – but I also own a plethora of killer trousers, interesting shoes (flats, heels, boots; boxy, slim, hard-core, you name it [Fluevogs!]), superb spectacles, and plenty of cycling jerseys and shorts. I’m a lot of different things in my woman-ness – there are lots of different ways for me to embody the Kim I am, and my colourful closet proudly reflects that. But I suddenly realised, sitting in that panel presentation and looking around at my friends, that I haven’t been wearing my diversity in professional settings very much lately. And I started to wonder why.

(Here are four different Kims: in wintry Montreal; with Roberta Barker at the CATR banquet last month; in Napa Valley; and on Nanjizel Beach in West Cornwall [for all you Poldark fans]. Apologies for the shameless self-promotion!)

Technically, we're in Marché des Saveurs. I look like a supervillain!IMG_0163

Kim, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, St Helena, CA, 1 August 2010

Nanjizel beach!

“Academic drag” is a term Samek and Donofrio use to describe the practice of projecting a certain image of professional power and privilege in the academic workplace; both identify as queer, and both became interested in how “the maintenance of ‘professorial identities'” in their jobs meant marginalising the image of queerness that forms the basis of their scholarship and their extra-curricular lives. Provocatively, Samek and Donofrio argue that the liberal arts academy (in which my friends and I also work) is one of those places where talking the feminist/queer talk is often covertly separated from walking the feminist/queer walk; Samek, for example, speaks candidly about “cash[ing] in” on the power and privilege that comes with performing a conventionally feminine persona in the classroom, even though she identifies as a queer femme. (What’s a femme? Click here.) Wearing her straight white girl version of academic drag, Samek isn’t challenged about her sexuality or her gender identification by her students and colleagues, and she can move “unmarked” through the world in a way that a butch lesbian, a black woman, or a transperson simply cannot.

My love for my fab wardrobe aside, I have no doubt that I (like many women and some men I know and work with) have been practicing a form of academic drag for some time. I always make conscious choices about what to wear and when, and alongside asking myself if I am “in the mood” for this or that outfit (of course I do this – we all do!) I’m always mindful to note how my clothes will project confidence and power, or pleasantries and lack of threat, in the spaces through which I expect to move each day. (I recently experienced some angst about wearing my “feminist” headband in mixed public company, for example.) But I also suspect I’ve not been conscious enough about all or even most of the potential implications of my clothing choices for my studentsmany of whom are at an age where they may be experiencing the kind of identity-shifting moment in their own lives that I had when I was about 25, feeling like utter shit about myself and casting around for models to help me become something else.

What image of a successful and strong female university professor do I project? Looking around my classrooms I see a lot of young women in uniforms that signal “sexy young undergraduate girl”; plenty who dress in opposition to that uniform; and a few who, like me in my teens and early twenties, cover their bodies out of shame. When they look at me, do they see “successful woman = feminine woman” (the message sent by far too much professional drag, academic and otherwise)? Do they see my sartorial creativity, my cheeky love of colour? Or do they see a uniformity of image that I’ve become increasingly blind to? Students look at us: they observe our bodies, they sense who we are in large part by how we read, as a whole package, when we are teaching. (Women often get dress-related comments on teaching evaluations, for better and for worse; one among my group of friends gets high praise for her footwear, while another colleague gets troll-like comments about her affinity for trousers.) Our clothes, in other words, are part of the lesson. If we’re wearing “straight white girl” academic drag, the students notice and internalise that.

Watching my well-dressed cohort command the stage during CATR last month, then glancing around at all of the different ways our graduate students and younger colleagues style themselves, I realised that I for one need to make a more concerted effort to represent the variations in my own personal style when I am in front of my students, in order better to reflect who they might also want to become. Maybe my version of academic drag needs to leave the closet, too, and become a part of my classroom’s conversations, so that when I do wear a nice dress and a pair of heels I’m clear about why this outfit, and not another (because there’s always a reason). I want all of the young men and women I teach to look at me and know they can achieve what I have achieved, and that their style, whatever it is, should not (will not!) hold them back. And if it does, well: that just means we all need to fight harder against the coercive powers of professional drag.

Say yes to (more than) that dress!

Richmond Park glory/no snow!


*Thanks to Marlis Schweitzer for alerting me to this linked article!

6 thoughts on “Say yes to the dress? (Feminist edition)

  1. Hi Kim, Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I respond as a much older feminist theatre scholar (who, like you, loved the CATR/ACRT conference this year) who was also struck by sartorial matters and who, also like you, was struck by that which separated those of your scholarly generation from mine. I gave up many years ago on summer dresses, knowing that a flouncy dress that looks gorgeous on you just would make me look like a “bonne femme.” So my dress is in pants, is neutral, although sometimes deliberately outrageous, even in a classroom. Now that I am old, I often wear purple. So … I hope that you and your “consoeurs” will enjoy your fun clothes and will not hesitate, at least occasionally, to push them over the top as a glorious performance of who you are as proud and dynamic women making a difference in the system while opening still unexplored horizons.

    Louise Forsyth

      • I should add that it’s also a very useful reminder that academic drag comes in many forms, and that it is not necessarily something that prevents the expression of personal style. Rather, it’s a shaping mechanism. It encourages certain aspects of one’s style while discouraging others.

  2. One of the interesting questions to consider is that of budget. When I was an undergraduate student, my financial resources were very limited. One question that can be asked is what would the students wear if they had an unlimited clothing budget?

    • A great point. One of the things that happens mid-career is that you’ve been salaried long enough that you get to stop worrying about money (at least, in the way you worry as a grad student – about having enough for basic things, clothing included). This isn’t universally true, of course, but in general many of us in the mid academic ranks, in tenured jobs, are privileged to be quite secure. So buying nice things is much easier, and we don’t think so very much about cost as we are doing so. I suspect this is a clear part of the privilege we project when we wear those things in the classroom, and we need to be mindful of that too. It’s not just grad students who are struggling these days; it’s also our colleagues teaching on sessional contracts, and our undergraduate students working to pay their way through school.

  3. Thanks so much for this! The struggle of dressing for teaching can be especially fraught for grad students–and we do absolutely look to the “mid-career” women around us to see what they wear, down to the pedicure. That’s partly to get a sense of the culture of the department (how are professionals here expected to dress?) but also, as you say, out of aspiration and a desire to follow you in success (dress for the job you want, right?). Thanks, as ever, for giving me so much to think about!

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