Women in Academia: Fashionable Does Not Mean Dumb

So I said I was going to talk about budgeting and grad school, but I got derailed. Today, I am going to talk about performing femininity and professionalism. Today, I am going to talk about how “fashionable” becomes a bad thing. Today, I am going to talk about how a general interest in one’s physical appearance is seen as indicative of a weak mind.

When I went out to interview at different graduate programs, I asked my undergraduate advisor how I should dress for the interview. Her advice: clean clothes, but nothing too dressy. Unlike business or medical school interviews, which often require full suits, graduate programs, at least the ones I was interested in, preferred a more casual look. Even at conferences, slacks and a cardigan is as dressy as I am encouraged to get. At the graduate program, I’ve been given the side-eye for boots that were too, and here I quote, “fashionable.” Spending too much time on one’s appearance, wearing make-up, nail polish, dresses, heels, are all things that are frowned upon.

It’s not like I haven’t been thinking about this stuff a lot. One of my biggest hurdles to overcome was my distaste for all things femme. As a kid, I hated wearing girly clothes, and while I was never wild enough to be full on tomboy (my interest in getting dirty often had to battle with my interest in reading books way above my grade level), I was decidedly not girly. It took a lot of thought and discussion and getting schooled to realize that regardless of what my personal tastes are, there is nothing inherently wrong in embracing the girly-side. Pink isn’t whack. Ruffles aren’t chains of the patriarchy. Putting on lipstick will not drain your brain.

Whatever, I don’t need a cookie for getting through my own internalized sexism (but hey, if you want to give me one, I will take it ““ I never say “no” to baked goods). The point is that academia, as a whole, tends to embrace the idea that femininity is no good. This isn’t paranoia, this isn’t just a neurotic tic ““ while I cannot speak for every program in every university ever, I can say that looking put together is viewed with some suspicion. If you take care of your appearance, suddenly people wonder if you’re a serious academic, as if the color of my nails or the cut of my skirt discredits my intellectual skills.

Lord, lord, lord. All I can do is shake my head. I doubt that anything other than time and a bombardment of intelligent, well-dressed, femme-how-they-want-to academics is going to do any good in this case. I’d say something about how people should embrace their femme sides and flaunt it, just to break those BS stereotypes that pretty girls can’t be smart, that one’s intelligence is inversely related to how many mascaras one owns. But that is also pretty stupid ““ forced femininity is just as ridiculous as forced removal of femininity. There’s no one good way to be, and no matter how much this crusty old system frowns upon fashion, that should not be a deterrent nor should anyone feel shame or guilt for embracing aspects of femininity.

For women in academia, there’s a whole lot of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” floating around. As far as I’m concerned, a healthy dose of “f— the haters” and “I’ll paint my nails if I want to” makes for a pretty good attitude. If a man can look like a hobo and still be highly respected, then a woman should be able to wear a pair of heels. There are too many real things to be worried about (funding, teaching, the job market) to give one of my very limited figs on the secret signals of the color of my nails. You think putting on makeup is frivolous? Well, you’re the one putting in so much effort in judging me based on my style.

15 replies on “Women in Academia: Fashionable Does Not Mean Dumb”

This is SUCH an interesting post, it gives me a lot to consider. Personally, I’ve never noticed any of my peers or profs being particularly judgey about my fashion choices, though I have been known to hide shopping bags with my college porters before meeting my supervisor, who is an old dude in ancient tweeds. I do get comments on my rotating cast of pashminas; little do the old dudes realise, I wear them to draw attention away from the 32G’s I’m trying to keep from busting out all over the place.
I brought this topic up over lunch today with my shopping buddy, a fashion-mad lady who happens to be a totally badass Classicist (so badass that her PhD viva consisted of her examiners giving her publication advice, then having tea for two hours). She was of the opinion that there’s a strong humanites/science divide when it comes to fashion, and that many female scientists she knows have been subjected to a lot of pressure not to appear too into their looks. Maybe this reflects the male to female ratio in certain fields? Or maybe even just the difference between we postgrads who can work in PJ’s most of the time then get dolled up to go out, versus ladies who need to be at their labs at 7am.
Within my field, the divide quite clearly reflects national origin (EU politics, so you get people from all over). Speaking in horrendously broad stereotypes, the Americans and Germans tend to be the most sartorially conservative, whereas you can usually count on the Polish and Italian women to have something a little cute or different going on. The French, bien sur, just look effortless as always and generally put the rest of us to shame!

This is something I really haven’t experienced personally, and I do dress very nicely most days (although today, I look like a sloppy grad student haha). Perhaps it helps that my research advisor is a woman, although the rest of my thesis committee is male, and I can’t even imagine them making a condescending comment about my appearance. One of the other grad students in my lab does get some flack, mostly of the jealous, awkward variety from our advisor. I guess I’m spared that because I’m not thin and white like her, although I do tend to dress up more than her. I think I might have more issues about my appearance if I were considered conventionally attractive.

My boss did tell me before my first big conference to dress nicely even if the men are in wrinkled khakis because women can’t get away with that kind of sloppiness at conferences. I have to admit, I do notice that even for department seminars, a lot of the guys will get up and give a talk in jeans and a beer t-shirt, while the women will at least put on a button-down shirt. There does seem to be a bit of a double-standard there.

I’ve been confronted with this this year. I’m doing my MA in Taiwan, in international affairs, focusing on Asian politics; oddly enough, it’s a rather male-dominated environment, although there are quite a few women with me in class.
The thing is, I’m quite obviously the youngest one there, as well as being bleached blonde and feminine. In a rather rock’n roll way, since I live in black eyeliner, jean miniskirts and leather jackets.
I’ve been sticking out like a sore thumb, to say the least, and some of my male classmates have been…annoying, to say the least. Like the guy who took pictures of me doing a presentation and passed them around, or the dude who harassed me for ages, because of course my time is always available!
Unluckily for them, I’m good at this – albeit as lazy as I can get away with – and I am…not nice. In the least.
I do not see why I should have to change to have some peace, and by now they’ve learnt not to mess with me, which is a relief. But it really pisses me off, that gender, age, and looks all work against me here.

This article, “The Professor wore Prada,” came out in 1997, when I was 17. I tore it out of Vogue and every few years, I still happen upon it–it’s in a copy of some book that I always find myself going back to. It’s something that’s stuck in my head through college to grad school to postdoc to professorship. Still love it, and it is the single piece of writing that has had the greatest impact in my choices of clothing over the last decade or so.

That Vogue article was great! I’m familiar with Elaine Showalter’s criticism, but I didn’t know she was such a fashionista.

Fashion, feminism, and professionalism are complicated issues in all professions but gain an extra layer in a profession that’s ostensibly about judging your intellectual output. The women in my program are fairly fashion-forward by academic standards, and a lot of us have noted some eye rolls from representatives other–let’s say stuffier–institutions. At the same time, I know I’ve been judgmental about a couple of women in my program who take it too far by my standards. This post, and Showalter’s article, makes me feel a little embarrassed about that–which I guess is a good thing in this context. Yay for consciousness-raising!

I have no doubt that this is true, and I’m only slightly in academia (staff at a university), but I have to wonder – while it’s certainly stronger in women, do you think this applies at all to men, too? It seems to me that well-dressed / pays attention to looks is devalued because eccentricity can often be perceived as a sign of intelligence.

I recently put an end to a fellow grad student harassing me (he liked to corner me when nobody was watching and talk about how pretty I looked that day or about my shoes/nail polish; I always came off feeling like he was trying to belittle me and make me feel like I was just a doll or a frivolous airhead for caring about my appearance). I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to be fashionable or overtly feminine in a male-dominated environment, you’d better do it with confidence and a bad-ass attitude or people will try and bring you down for it because you don’t fit in with the boys.

Also, I want to plug a blog that I really like, which is It’s run by grad students/recent grads, and mostly consists of pictures of their outfits, but they often write well-thought-out pieces on what it means to be a feminist woman in academia, and what they think about gender roles/professionalism and how they reconcile that with an interest in fashion, etc. Definitely a good read for anybody who is interested in this topic (or wants fashion tips).

I feel like a whole lot of folks miss the connection between antifemininity and misogyny, which is an especially big problem in settings like graduate school and academia, where women face, uhm, considerable fuckery for just going about their business as it is, let alone sticking some sparkly nail polish on too. It’s really unnerving to me that woman in academia are expected to schlub up to be taken seriously because that says rather a lot about social attitudes re:ladies in academia. Like, you can be one. But not too much of one!

Another awesome post about women in academia… Sadly, other posts in this series could very well include “Sloppily dressed does not mean dumb”, “Conventionally beautiful does not mean dumb”, “Not conventionally beautiful does not mean dumb”, “Married with children does not mean dumb”, “Single and childless does not mean dumb” and, especially relevant to my own personal experience, “Fat does not mean dumb”. In other words, women in academia sometimes can not win. “F*** the haters” is definitely the way to go.


Notably, a celebrated Shakespearean scholar and the head of my English department – the only English teacher with a Ph.D. at my very small university – was once patted on the head and told she “looked awfully pretty for a professor” by one of the university administrators during an academic ceremony involving full regalia. She was wearing patent leather red pumps with her robes.

This was a grown ass woman with a husband, a doctorate, and a department to steer.

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