Tag Archives: style

So You Want to Look Like a Professional?

As part of their professionalization training, Chicago-area law students were invited to attend and participate in the What Not to Wear Fashion Show organized by the Chicago Bar Association. This free event (on Wednesday, April 7) “feature[d] a runway walk with law students in professional attire selected from their own wardrobes. Guest judges and fashion industry experts critique[d] the student’s selections. . . After the Show, panelists provide[d] attendees with ‘Fashion Dos and Don’ts,’ including correct suit fit for men.” There were also “informative handouts summarizing important pitfalls in dressing for the legal setting.” For example, one handout capaciously warns:

This is not the time for self-expression, flamboyance, or eccentricity.

While professionalization events are common elements of graduate schools and professional association conferences, the sartorial sniping that passes for professional mentoring often consolidates and codes under the neutral-sounding terms “professional” and “respectable” normative ideas about gender presentation, homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism.  If the nickname of the event – “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students” (so named by an embedded blogger called Attractive Nuisance) – is any indication of the “professional” culture the Chicago Bar Association is hoping to foment then this runway show is one such example of how “professionalization” is a technology, in Judith Butler’s words in Undoing Gender, for “constrain[ing] the sociality of the body in acceptable ways.” At this Bar Association event, the production of normative middle-class gender formations is achieved through sartorial-sexual disciplining. (Notice how the comment about the “Express ensemble” and the “tramp stamp” in the first “rule” for women attorneys does double duty as class- and slut-shaming.) Some of the advice included:

  • Ditch your Express ensembles: “Maybe you bought your suit at Express or somewhere… and you bent over to get a Danish and I can see your tramp stamp.” (There’s a tattoo post in Minh-Ha’s future but for now read Katy’s recent post on Jezebel called, “Painted Ladies: On Tats and Trashiness”).
  • Microsuede is never okay.
  • If you’re wearing a skirt, you have to wear tights or pantyhose. Get over it.
  • Make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes, do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish.
  • Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).
  • Never wear boots, never show your arms, NEVER wear pink.

The fashion rules for male attorneys were not as far-ranging and did not require men to consider their (sexualized) bodies, their body art, their emotions, or the bodies, body art, and emotions of other men.

  • Wear a suit. No questions.
  • Get your suit tailored. There is nothing worse than pants or jackets that are too long/short.
  • Polish your shoes
  • Microsuede is never okay
  • If you’re wearing a dark suit, don’t wear a dark shirt. Pick a nice tie. Your shirt and tie shouldn’t compete, they should compliment [sic].

Minh-Ha’s written about the ideological operations of “professional” sartorial advice before, specifically in relation to academia. The similarities between the style guidance offered by the members of the Chicago Bar Association and “Ms. Mentor” (academia’s answer to Dear Abby) reflects the expanding corporatization of universities. Ms. Mentor’s advice that academic women wear “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious” is in line with the Chicago Bar Association’s implicit point that professional authority can only be approximated by women who dress in ways that play down their “distracting” femininity. The style rules endorsed by the Chicago Bar Association and Ms. Mentor (who’s authorized by the Chronicle of Higher Education) recall 1980s’ ideologies of “power-dressing” which demanded that career women maintain their femininity (skirts and pantyhose) at the same time that they contain their sexuality (frumpy jackets that concealed breasts).  Joanne Entwistle rightly points out that the sartorial imperatives for career women  “[imply] that sexual harassment is something that women can have some control over if they dress appropriately.” To read Minh-Ha’s original post on this topic, click here.

The most obvious problem with the professionalizing tutorial is the direct activity of disciplining “unprofessional” bodies and subjects via vectors of normality and deviance. Especially in those tutorials that feature a “representative” body to demonstrate both norms and deviations from it –such as the Chicago Bar Association’s event– we see how the body is disciplined via ideas about fitness (with particular regard to the popular equation of fatness with sloth), morality (the aforementioned slut-shaming of tattooed women), class (the suit bought at the mall reveals a poverty in both economic terms but also as the absence of “drive”), and capacity (in which the failure to “look” professional becomes an indictment of a person’s capacity to “be” professional, with all the evaluations of skills or aptitude this entails), which intersect with the usual suspects — vectors of class, race, gender, able-bodiedness, and sexuality, among them.

As we see from the Chicago Bar Association’s advice, “self-expression” is closely policed as undisciplined and self-indulgent. Professionalizing tutorials thus offer tactics for mediating self-expression. (Of course, as Mimi asks elsewhere, before we champion something as tangled as the concept of “self-expression,” perhaps we should query: “For whom is ‘self-expression’ through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable?”) Yet we are meant to believe that by incorporating these style rules we actually reveal our “true” professional selves – not only to ourselves but to our potential employers who may now see us for the truly attractive workers we are. So in a twist of makeover logic, our chosen “flamboyant” and “eccentric” clothes are understood as hiding or distracting from our true professional self which is, let’s face it, the more “valuable” self from the perspective of employers and colleagues.

Thus in most “professional style” tutorials, self-expression is a subtly, sometimes overtly, policed practice of mirroring back a preapproved and unthreatening self. Most notorious are those institutional and informal efforts to discipline black women’s hair via race discourses that consign non-straightened hair to the realm of unruliness, gender disorder, political radicalism, even uncontrollable sexuality. But also troubling are the implications for those who are gender non-normative, and whose presentation is subjected to microtechnologies of sartorial-corporeal policing. (See Mimi’s post that begins with Krista Benson’s discomfort with professional style blogs that assume a cisgendered feminine presentation.) For instance, “How to Be a Business Butch” (from the wonderful blog How to Be Butch) is not a tutorial at all, but a reflection upon the genre. In this piece, the anonymous author navigates some of the  grammars through which others regulate us, and we learn to regulate ourselves. Especially for persons who might stray from a norm, details really are everything.

By non-challenging, I mean that I accept that for many people, butch women are threatening. And I’ve already got butch happening in the basic fabric of who I am. I think butch runs through my personality and the way I speak, not just the clothes I put on. And in addition to that, my body is butch. I’ll probably write a more in depth article regarding what I mean by that statement, but for now, let me just say that I believe that I look butch. My hair is short, my shoulders are broad, and my arms look like piledrivers (well, I’m exaggerating.). But I’m definitely a solid looking woman. So I feel the need to mute my natural presence and energy by not wearing overtly masculine clothes to work.

Business casual for men and women is not that different; at least, not in the way that an average layperson would notice. It’s just collared shirts and slacks, right? For me, it’s the details that kill. In the morning I get up, throw a purse over my shoulder and walk out the door wearing pumps. I think you understand how that is particularly detrimental to someone who identifies as butch.

I compromise with myself by avoiding some things. I never wear skirts or make-up (I dread that in this meeting tomorrow they will say there is no excuse to not wear make-up everyday. I’m not going to spend $50 on that crap.), and I put my purse in a gym bag that I carry to work every day. I wear men’s deodorant. I also let casual Fridays be something of a “free day”, usually putting on my motorcycle boots – I love my motorcycle boots, you might have noticed – and trying to wear a collared shirt. But I would never bind or comb my hair back with a side part, like I normally do on the weekends. I know that many people would say “Go for it!” and “Be who you are – never compromise!” – and many people have said these things to me, but this is the way that I work, and this works for me.

Explicit in the professionalizing tutorial is the not-so-gentle imperative to follow directions; to do otherwise is to fail to “optimize” one’s professional self as a desirable laborer. And we know that failure to follow such directions or to make such compromises does have real-world consequences for access to rights and resources. We are not arguing against professionalizing or tutorials that offer a “how to;” indeed, we understand that these are survival strategies in a neoliberal age that holds out the expectation that each of us be “entrepreneurs of ourselves.” We only observe here that the tutorial can become one symptom of the violence of normalization, when your life may very well depend on your labor –and it is work– to look like a professional. Such sartorial-corporeal labor is both expected to be invisible and at the same time subject to continuous surveillance; and compensation for such labor (employment or promotion, for instance) is more partial and provisional for some than others.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

PUBLICATION: Monica Miller on Slaves To Fashion

Duke University Press’s new release, Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, promises to appear on all my future syllabi, no matter the course. Read Miller’s illuminating essay about the book’s core concepts and their development at Rorotoko, an online venue for engaging authors and ideas in intellectual nonfiction. Below is a long excerpt to whet your appetite:

Slaves to Fashion began with a footnote I encountered in graduate school. While auditing a class on W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, I came across a troubling reference to the fact that the revered Du Bois had been caricatured as a black dandy. In the class, we spent even weeks in detailed analysis of Du Bois’s skill as a rhetorician and lyricist. In order to appreciate the truly interdisciplinary nature of his talents, we took very seriously his training as a philosopher, historian and sociologist. The image of Du Bois that emerged was that of an erudite, punctilious, quintessential “race man.” None of this prepared me for the footnote and accompanying illustration from a political cartoon of Du Bois as a degraded buffoon, overly dressed and poorly comported, whose erudition had been turned into what the cartoon called “ebucation.”

Only when I began to research the history of dandyism and, in particular, the racialization of the dandy figure, did I realize the complex strategy and history behind that caricature. Dandyism has been used by Africans and blacks to project images of themselves as dignified and distinguished, it has also been used by the majority culture (and blacks) to denigrate and ridicule black aspirations. Slaves to Fashion examines the interrelatedness of these impulses and what the deployment of one strategy or the other says about the state of black people and culture at different moments in history.

Although dandyism is often considered a mode of extremely frivolous behavior attentive only to surfaces or facades and a practice of the white, European elite and effete, I argue that it is a creative and subtle mode of critique, regardless of who is deploying it. Though often considered fools, hopelessly caught up in the world of fashion, dandies actually appear in periods of social, political and cultural transition, telling us much about cultural politics through their attitude and appearance. Particularly during times when social mores shift, style and charisma allow these primarily male figures to distinguish themselves when previously established privileges of birth and wealth, or ways of measuring social standing might be absent or uncertain. Style—both sartorial and behavioral— affords dandies the ability and power to set new fashions, to create or imagine worlds more suited to their often avant-garde tastes. Dandyism is thus not just a practice of dress, but also a visible form of investigating and questioning cultural realities.

Anyone can be in vogue without apparent strategy, but dandies commit to a study of the fashions that define them and an examination of the trends around—which they can continually re-define themselves. Therefore, when racialized, the dandy’s affectations (fancy dress, arch attitude, fey and fierce gesture) signify well beyond obsessive self-fashioning—rather, the figure embodies the importance of the struggle to control representation and self- and cultural-expression.

Manipulations of dress and dandyism have been particularly important modes of self-expression and social commentary for Africans before contact with Europeans and especially afterwards. In fact, in order to endure the attempted erasure or reordering of black identity in the slave trade and its aftermath, those Africans arriving in England, America, or the West Indies had to fashion new identities, to make the most out of the little that they were given. Whether luxury slaves or field hands, their new lives nearly always began with the issuance of new clothes.

Enslaved people, however, frequently modified these garments in order to indicate their own ideas about the relationship between slavery, servitude, and subjectivity. For example, there are documented cases of slaves saving single buttons and ribbons to add to their standard issue coarse clothing, examples of slaves stealing or “borrowing” clothing, especially garments made from fine fabrics, from their masters for special occasions. Slaves created underground second-hand clothing markets in major cities to augment their wardrobes and to exchange clothing that identified them when they wanted to escape. In fact, many slaves “dressed up” or “cross-dressed” literally when they absconded, wearing clothing beyond their station or of the other gender in efforts to appear free and be mobile. The black dandy’s style thus communicates simultaneously self-worth, cultural regard, a knowingness about how blackness is represented and seen. Black dandyism has been an important part of and visualization of the negotiation between slavery and freedom.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LINKAGE, THEORY TO THINK WITH

Things I’ve Learned From Students #34: Nontsikelelo Veleko

One of my former students, Janel B., sent me to this post called “Don’t Sleep on Africa” on the fashionable Livejournal community called black cigarette, and thereby introducing me to, among others, South African photographer Nontsikelelo Veleko and her amazing portraits of Johannesburg stylish street denizens.

The entire post at black cigarette begins with this brief intervention into the problematically differential distribution of “style:”

Stockholm. Paris. London. New York. Helsinki. Milan. Tokyo.

These seem to be to go-to places when it comes to “street-style” and what’s hot in general on most fashion blogs, but I just wanted to share some of the street-style you’ll find on the African continent…. South African street style is rarely sleek and chic – it’s irreverent, vibrant and daring. It mixes patterns and textures, with echoes of mid 70s style (and just a splash of “geek chic”).

(Consider too the fact that Feedshion, which collects “the best street fashion photos from all the greatest street style blogs for your viewing pleasure,” happens to feature only street style blogs from the usual suspects and none from South America or Africa. Of course, street style blogs are never accurate snapshots of this construct called “the street” anyway, but that’s another post.)

The photo-heavy post, featuring also African designers, is a wonderful contrast to those editorials in American and European fashion magazines whose visual vocabularies for “Africa” are unbelievably narrow and alienating (Galliano, I’m looking at you and your “tribal” fetish figure shoes). The continued refusal to see the African other as coeval (that is, contemporaneous) with the so-called modern observer, most obviously manifested in the designation “tribal chic,” betrays the still-haunting presence of colonial aesthetics in Western art and design.

In the photographs found at “Don’t Sleep On Africa,” we see a much more nuanced postcolonial aesthetics reflecting multiple modernities as well as unalterable histories: these include the multiple imperial enterprises of the “scramble for Africa,” but also the circuits of what Paul Gilroy called the “black Atlantic,” through which we might look again at these photographs, their performativity and politics of consumption. In doing so, we might find in some of these images a subtle critique of the West’s cultural realities, through which those familiar fashionable markers of “tribal chic” (zebra stripes, for instance), when they do appear, are rendered insistently, assuredly modern.

Edited to add additional links supplied by Sociological Images and Racialicious, by way of the LJ community Debunking White.

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