I know that my mother and mother-in-law laugh at me behind my back. After all, I’ve taken some pretty ridiculous stands in the name of feminism since my daughter was born. To my mother-in-law I implored: “Please. No pink or frills or lace. I know she’s your first granddaughter, but I want to go easy on the girly-girl stuff.” Ha! Somewhere around age two my daughter mysteriously gravitated toward ruffles, lace, and sparkles, despite my best efforts to steer her toward practical, sporty, gender-neutral clothing. Ever frugal, I was frustrated by her refusal to wear her brother’s hand-me-downs, but they just couldn’t compete with the clothes generously passed on to us by friends with older girls. My daughter loved sorting through the stuff we received, and before I could filter out the tutus and pink tights, they became part of her wardrobe. So much for gender-neutral. Thanks to our generous friends, my daughter had plenty of previously loved clothes to choose from during the summer. To meet her discriminating approval, dresses and shirts had to have spaghetti straps and lace, and bottoms had to be pink, purple, or flowered. We got through the warm weather with few problems—so what if the paisley-swirled tank-top clashed with the pink polka-dot capris.
However, as the cold weather approached, I started to worry. My daughter’s first day of pre-school was cold and rainy, but she insisted on a perky sundress and refused a sweater because it covered the lacy spaghetti straps. A winter wardrobe of turtlenecks and sweaters simply did not fit my daughter’s sense of style. Then one day my daughter rediscovered a shiny, blue velvet dress she had ignored last winter. With a gauzy rose on the chest and long fuzzy sleeves, this garment has become the new favorite, and she wears it two or three days in a row, sometimes sleeping in it. As long as it’s not obviously soiled, I’m just happy she’s wearing something relatively warm. One day we were an hour late for pre-school because the blue dress was wet in the washer; we eventually found something else to wear, but it required lots of cajoling, cuddles, and gentle persuasion. Was my daughter’s insistence over the blue dress a stand-in for some other anxiety? Perhaps, but once we got through the impasse over clothing and found another acceptable outfit (all purple, with sparkles), my chipper little girl sang all the way to school.
I think I know how my daughter feels. My own clothing is sometimes important to me too. When I was teaching, I always worried about looking too young, and days before the first class I would rehearse my outfit so as to make the exact first impression—authoritative, yet comfortable and a little stylish (but definitely no pink, lace, frills, or flounces). My husband, on the other hand, shows up for his first lectures of the semester wearing jeans and a T-shirt from some conference he’s recently attended. How come he doesn’t have to worry about first impressions? I envy his confidence to just be himself without worrying about what his students think. Certainly it was the content of my classes and my ability to be an effective instructor that mattered, not something as trivial as how I was dressed. But wearing particular clothes gave me that extra boost of confidence going into the classroom. From high school to graduate school, I had only two female instructors in science courses, and somehow I developed the idea that women faculty had to be conservative in their clothing choices. However, some of the women I most admire in science aren’t afraid to flaunt their own senses of style and dress in stereotypically very feminine clothing. One such highly successful scientist wears beautiful flowing clothes, often pink, and even accessorizes with scarves she can use to illustrate points in her lectures. Far from being judgmental about the clothing other women choose to wear, I sometimes wish I could free myself from the “Dress for Success” mould.
My daughter’s not quite four years old, and I celebrate the determination and strong sense of preferences she’s already developed. She has far more flair for fashion than I do, and I love seeing some of the combinations she creates. I’m sure we’ve experienced just the first of many disagreements we’ll have over clothing, and lacy frills seem pretty innocuous. In fact, I’ve come around in my thinking—a few weeks ago I went to the fabric store to buy, of all things, yards and yards of different kinds of ruffles, lace and sequin trims to sew on the “boring” clothes. Anything to increase my daughter’s clothing options and make the winter shirts and pants “prettier.” If it has to be practical, it might as well be frilly too. And if she ever stands in front of a lecture hall filled with students, I hope my daughter has the confidence to wear her pink lace and frills with pride, if that’s what she’s still into.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts