WIT :: a soapbox, an interview, and a revelation

Last week, Allie @ Wardrobe Oxygen answered a reader’s post that asked whether wearing makeup was necessary for a professional appearance. I heartily advocate Allie’s response, primarily because I’ve long soapboxed over this topic myself.

As a teacher, I’m used to people looking disparagingly down their noses at me. I’m over feeling apologetic when people look at me askance after I tell them I graduated from UC Berkeley, as if a degree from this prestigious university should automatically eliminate me from such a pedestrian profession. I’m even able to chuckle good-naturedly at that old, albeit scornful, chestnut: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

What I cannot abide is succumbing to the censure by dressing/looking the part. Why do teachers – particularly female ones – undermine the dignity of our profession by coming to work in flip flops and ill-fitting shorts? In tank tops or scruffy trainers? With unkempt hair or wind-chapped lips?

I kid you not. In the seventeen years I’ve worked as a teacher and in the eleven years I’ve visited teachers as a parent, I’ve seen it all. For some reason – perhaps because they’re intellectuals and believe appearance to be petty; perhaps because they think they’re really only one step above baby-sitters and comport themselves accordingly – educators in general seem disinterested in “looking good”. (Apparently, education does not have a monopoly on this philosophy.)

My lofty goal is to help transform teachers, one denim jump dress at a time. Now before you all jump down my throat for being shallow/presumptuous/grievous about all this, please know that I’m not asking for complete metamorphoses into haute couture stylistas. I just want teachers to be afforded the respect they deserve. And I want them to realize and believe that teaching is a profession and therefore they ought to feel no shame in dressing professionally.

That said, I decided to interview BFF – a fellow educator and recent initiate of the School of Style – to get her perspective on things. A long-time fashion skeptic (although she was always very supportive of my frivolous ways), BFF has lived on both sides of the fence, and I think her voice adds a richer dimension to this debate.

 an interview with an educator

What was your opinion about clothing/fashion/shopping in your 20s? In your 30s? In your 40s?

20’s – I was a tiny thing then, so I almost always was given compliments on how small I was.  I felt that I could wear pretty much anything (unless it required larger breasts).  My parents would laugh if they read this, but I was raised with pretty Puritan values. Thriftiness is a part of who I am, and I never really lost that.  I also felt a little funny trying to draw attention to myself with wardrobe choices.

lorelei

30’s – I lost my 20’s metabolism and could no longer eat what I wanted if I wanted to stay thin.  Since I’d never really acquired self-discipline in this area, it took me a long time to figure it out.  For that reason, I kept trying to wear my standards from my 20’s.  Blues, greys, and blacks were my go-to pieces.  I didn’t understand why so many women had so many shoes.

before

40’s – Oddly, I now love color!  I don’t spend a bundle compared to many women, but I enjoy having choices.  I buy certain staples that I really want and look a lot at thrift stores for items to liven things up.  I also have more shoes than I can  fit in my shoe cubby (which is amazing for a girl who thought more than two pairs for work was pretty silly).

We did a style makeover for you – at your behest – two years ago. What was the pivotal point that made you ask? How did you feel then?

I begged M to do a style makeover for me at 38…just before I turned 39.  I wasn’t a heavy woman, but I was definitely carrying extra weight.  Since I am small-breasted with larger hips and had a little weight on my tummy, I was constantly being asked, “Are you pregnant?”  M would comfort me like a good best friend, but she once said to me, “Perhaps it’s because you are using the same types of cuts that worked when you were younger and as skinny as a rail.”

I set aside some money one summer, and we spent an amazing several days where I realized I like so many things I thought I hated or would look terrible on me.  I still think M should do style consults.  It changed my life; no kidding!

How do you feel now?

Now, I feel really happy about my wardrobe. Definitely in control of how I look. At first, I was afraid of looking ridiculous in some of the things I was wearing (colors/bold patterns/jewelry and scarves), but now if I feel I’ve made a poor choice on a combination, it doesn’t freak me out. I also will wear things I like just because I like them…even if they do make my hips look big…in fact, I think my hips are kinda sexy.

40th

In addition to this, I should mention that I always used to think I’d buy a new wardrobe when I lost some weight; unfortunately, I had a lot of trouble taking weight off. Once M gave me a style makeover, I started with a running club and dropped almost 20 pounds. I think I needed to feel more confident about my body before I could motivate myself to exercise and eat right. Of course, I didn’t want to go back to my 20’s weight, but it is nice to be less than I was…I feel healthier, too.

What advice/words of wisdom can you impart after having gone through this sartorial journey?

My advice is this:  Consider a style consult or wardrobe makeover before you consider losing weight.  How much money do women spend on weight loss with no (or fleeting) results.  In a few days, I was able to change the way that people reacted to me as well as the way I felt about myself.  I did end up losing weight, but I would have been fine if I hadn’t; changing the way I dressed somehow made losing weight easier.

Also, don’t scorn the thrift store if you enjoy changing things up and don’t have a lot of money.  Wear leggings and a tank top (with a button down shirt and long skirt if you are the modest type)  and then find a couple places that you like in your area.  Ask a friend who already thrifts to take you.  Of course, this would have overwhelmed me before my style makeover…just too many clothes and not enough organization.  Now, I think of it like a treasure hunt and will try on lots of things I never would have tried.
lorelei
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19 thoughts on “WIT :: a soapbox, an interview, and a revelation

  1. Been an educator for 17 years.

    I do think that some in the profession dress like they come from the beach. I had someone tell me that “they connect better with the kids” by the way they dress.

    I do admit to wearing jeans but I always wear a shirt with a collar and in the summer because of the program I run (always outside and on the go) I do wear shorts. But when meeting with parents or when I feel the need I do dress professional.

    • Hullo, Patrick! Happy to hear a male voice chime in on this. I do think that our male teachers can get away with a more lax and casual vibe – jeans are definitely okay as long as they aren’t too distressed or saggy/baggy – but there is a bit of a perception thing for them as well.

      We just recently hired a math teacher who wears slacks and ties to work then really puts casual Fridays to good use by wearing jeans on those days. The other males wear jeans and tees all the time. And I’ve noticed that the students afford the new math teacher a bit more deference and respect than the usual jeans/tee teachers.

      What sort of program do you run? Is it for high school or elementary? And I’m so jealous of your being up north. Had circumstances been different, I would have settled up there too.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scruffy or too casual teacher or lecturer before, there were a couple who were perpetually disheveled but their clothes were smart. I’ve also never heard of unprofessionally dressed teachers from the many parents I’ve known or friends who became teachers. Though people are generally expected to look professional here from retail to back office staff and recruitment agencies tend to act like modeling agencies. The main exceptions are warehouse/manufacturing staff and those who work in alternative lifestyle/fashion. Others have uniforms.

    I do think that the most intellectual of us and the content either don’t put much score in dressing professionally or fashion, or it just doesn’t occur to them. Those who are intelligent and/or intellectual to lesser degrees tend to be more swayed by their profession, peers, media that is aimed at them, how authoritarian their positions are and/or bosses are – or how artistic they themselves are. Even those of us who dress as a form of expression, in an individual or artistic way do so because there is an imbalance. That’s what art is, either the need to copy and change or the drive/urge that stems from something not being as we feel it ought to be. In this case it’s the outside not reflecting/showing the inside sufficiently. The inside needs to be expressed and is not in its current form on the outside hence the outside is made malleable. Those who are content that the outer represents the inner don’t look in the mirror and say/think ‘I don’t need makeup today, big deal’ or ‘I’m only going to the shop round the corner’ for example, they look in the mirror and see themselves as they are/how they see themselves. There is no compromise that can or has to be dressed up or down. Whether they have settled or not at some point or went through a process of acceptance is a tangent topic but there is less conflict and desire in the personal image area or their lives.

    You once asked me where it is I worked that I could dress so outlandishly. Since you started your linkups you’ve become a lot more expressive and flamboyant. That’s not negative nor a criticism, I have no issue with it (not that it’s my personal business). It’s not inappropriate but half of the outfits wouldn’t be considered professional here. Most schools and offices wouldn’t accept such personal style though I remember you saying that your school is different to the norm. That’s not to say there isn’t smartness, but it’s not cookie cutter corporate as most businesses seem to prefer or are told is what they should prefer, and not what is available as work based or smart casual on the highstreet or in the workwear sections from online stores. Why can I dress the way I do it seems you were asking to an extent? In short form because the people I’ve worked for needed/wanted me. That doesn’t mean they didn’t try to copy, degrade or act as if what was associated with me was theirs. However if I dressed in many of the outfits you’ve shown, the gossip and frenemy factors would increase; as an older woman in a respectable position you’d be called eccentric and if permitted without being privately spoken to, perhaps looked upon benevolently if somewhat patronizingly, I would be called a lot worse.

    Thankfully what people look like doesn’t play an important role to me in regards of their personality/ability and I won’t look at or treat others better/worse for it unless it’s inappropriate or parasitic. But it’s true that image is a huge issue to people as a whole whatever their opinions on it and that stereotypes arise and alteration in behaviour occurs from reacting to different people’s appearances.

    I thought the recommendation to wear leggings and tank top interesting simply because most of the fbloggers I’ve come across would spew whatever it was they were eating/drinking at that regardless of where they were worn to – leggings and short tops are such a sore spot to many (though I think it can be done). Other than that the interview was a sweet inclusion from your bff with some very interesting points on weight loss. Sweet pics too 🙂

    • Oh, I see where you got confused. I probably should’ve edited more closely. We’ve just known each other for so long, we have our own shortcuts. The tank top and leggings suggestions was made because most thrift shops in our area don’t offer dressing rooms and if you want to try before you buy (most don’t offer returns either), you need something on that won’t impede the fit of the item too much once on. Of course, one could just strip to one’s skivvies in the middle of the store, but that would just be weird.

      I’d be considered eccentric? YES! My mission is complete! My mother told me once when we were kids that I as eccentric and eclectic and those words, told to an eight-year-old, stuck with me as being both fascinating and grown-up to say and as being traits I wish to uphold and advocate. Bring on the purple and the red hat! http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/warning/

      • Ah I see – yeah dressing rooms and lack of space is an issue, it’s a good point to wear something easily layered with the pieces you’re interesting in trying on.

        Exactly – most people have to get old(er) and more involved in their personal image at some point so would be considered eccentric and eclectic by others around them who are not necessarily close to them e.g. in the workplace. If you do that earlier, or generally look different anyway or aren’t in a meritocratic position , it doesn’t get the same reception. Your current image isn’t professional as a whole, it’s personal and it works for your in relation to what you want, your perception of yourself and is accepted enough for you to continue.

        Great poem 🙂

        • Interesting. I had never really thought of the differences in professional dress between our two countries. And you’re right about my aesthetic not being entirely “professional” per se; I would never be able to wear the things I wear at our County Education Office where the black suit is pretty much de rigeur. It’s fascinating how our environments shape our perceptions. 🙂

  3. I felt so honored by this post as well as the sweet comments : ) I have to say, I like yoga pants (as well as shirts with words on them…to M’s great chagrin). I actually always thought they looked cute! Interestingly, though, I now generally only wear them as pajamas, so….I guess your makeover worked in LOTS of different ways!

    • Oh, I wear graphic tees with words all the time! I figure if someone is going to stare at my chest in a creepy way, it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing, they’re just creepy. 😉
      Yoga pants have their place. I have a friend, a fellow SAHM, who wears workout clothes at all times, and she always looks stylish and put together. Her hair is clean, her minimal makeup is fresh, and she looks sporty and fun. That is her personal style.
      I meant that it makes me sad to see moms who truly look like they just rolled out of bed. I feel like they’re missing out on feeling good about themselves.

    • I didn’t know psychotherapists had a “uniform” too. I wonder if all professions have their stereotypes?

  4. I doubt that anyone has the monopoly on this issue. I see it all the time. Many SAHMs wear yoga pants and unwashed hair as a badge of honor – look, I’m sacrificing everything for my kids! Isn’t it better to set a good example for your children by at least being neat and clean?

    • I wear my wrinkles and my grey hair as a badge of honor but I’m right there with ya on unwashed hair and yoga pants. Sigh. Yes, it is infinitely better to set a good example, especially to girls who will already, inevitably go through that awkward, discovering-myself phase in adolescence. I’m hoping that my blog and my frankness about style will inculcate into Aly’s head the value of good taste and grooming.

      • At only 5, Sweet Potato is already wanting to dress like me, so yeah, I want to set a good example. I want both my kids to know that I care enough about myself to want to look and feel my best. It’s one of many lessons I teach them by example. 😀

  5. This was a great post! I agree that people need to dress professionally, even on the casual West Coast, but maybe a lot of teachers are responding to the way their students dress. Personally, and this sounds radical, but I think that the dress codes we used to have at school were a good thing.

    I love that you helped your friend in her style makeover. Sometimes you need to get an objective perspective. It’s funny, too, that her basics haven’t changed that much – still jeans (or skirt) and comfy top, but definitely better shapes. I’m working on finding better silhouettes for my body shape, too, since I’ve seen more references to this on blogs like You Look Fab. I used to follow instinct, but it’s good to know why a certain shape works on my rectangular frame.

    Feel free to give me some advice anytime!

    • Not radical at all! At my school, kids have to do end-of-semester presentations and they always “dress up”. In their slacks and ties and heels and hose, my students look grown up and act grown up as a result. I say bring back the uniforms!

      And your instincts are pretty spot on, Val. I love your style sensibilities. 🙂

    • I, too, was humbled and gratified by BFF’s story. The teacher in me had a blast enlightening her to the wonders of color and pattern and fit while the fashionista in me glowed with satisfaction that we had developed – even this late in our friendship – yet another thing to have in common. Shopping with her is now such a blast!

  6. Always something interesting from M! There is a type of ill fitting trouser that to this day my daughter and I refer to as: Teacher Pants. High waisted not in a good way, baggy in the butt, too long, usually worn with neutral colored flats. Sorry but it’s true. I could go on and on about Comfort Dressing but I will spare you. Have you read “The Thoughtful Dresser” by Linda Grant? Recommended by the fabulous Vix of Vintage Vixen no less! If you have time for an extra read, there are NO dragons or fairies in this one, pop your address into my email and I’ll send it to you.

    • Oh, good. I was worried that people might take offense at this post. I even had the more level-headed BFF proof it before I hit “publish”. Sometimes, I’m a bit of a gunslinger and shoot from the hip when I write; I don’t much think of the consequences of the content until after. (Does that make me a ranter?) But, although I feel REALLY strongly about this topic, I did try to rein it in as best as I could. I’m relieved that you, at least, have understood the tone and intent. I hope others do too.

      And I’m shooting you an email now.

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