I’ve been thinking about my wardrobe ever since I read Susan O’Doherty’s piece  today in Mama, PhD. While I’m grateful not to have been the subject of a wardrobe intervention like Jerald Walker , whose column O’Doherty references, I have to confess that I’ve occasionally wondered what Stacy and Clinton of What Not To Wear  would do with me. I’m pretty sure my attire screams “professor!” and for the most part, that’s ok with me — I don’t need to be in style as long as I’m comfortable, clean, and appropriate.
But those pesky ratings! As both O’Doherty and Walker note, student evaluations sometimes do seem to correlate with wardrobe, or something about wardrobe. Years ago a graduate school colleague of mine quoted a student evaluation that said, in its entirety, “brown shoes do not go with black pants.” Does such a comment suggest that the course went so well that the student had nothing else to say, or that s/he was so distracted that nothing else sank in? At least there wasn’t a plunging neckline issue in this case.
The truth is, we often don’t know what message we’re sending to our students, sartorially or otherwise. I may think my instructions are clear, but the papers I get back suggest that at least some students didn’t think so—or, they did, but misconstrued them nonetheless. Similarly some may think my shawls are a stylish accessory while others see them as frumpy. (There are days when it’s hard for me to tell the difference, either.) Probably the majority don’t notice at all, unless they get in the way of my writing on the board.
It works the other way round as well — I doubt that my students give much thought, if any, to the messages they send me with their clothes; I’m not their target audience. But the pajama pants, the backwards baseball caps (now, thankfully, mostly a thing of the past) and, yes, the plunging necklines can all be distracting. I often supervise students who spend an hour or two a week in local public elementary and middle schools, and every semester someone is sent home for inappropriate attire — the schools, unlike our university, have a dress code, and if the public school students aren’t allowed to wear extremely short skirts or low-cut tops, neither should my college students. But they forget, and sometimes I do, too, walking into class with my reading glasses perched on my head and another pair on my nose.
I wore a uniform all through high school, and resented it bitterly. It was less strict than many uniforms—in fact, it was more a wardrobe, with choices for skirts, tops, sweaters, and pants. But the choices, as I and my friends saw it, were all resolutely unstylish and, more to the point, the boys in our school were exempt from it—they had to wear coat, tie, and collared shirt, but were not constrained as to color and style the way we were. Years later I learned that many of them didn’t actually realize we were wearing a uniform — they just thought we all had the same really bad taste. Still, a uniform helps, and lately I’ve tried to adopt something of one: dark skirt or pants, print top, cardigan or, yes, shawl (I knit — what else am I going to do with them?); comfortable but reasonably stylish sandals in the summer, black tights and boots or comfortable shoes in the fall and winter. There’s some variety in it but I don’t have to think too hard in the morning — and now that my best fashion consultant, my daughter, is off at college, it’s the best I can do.