First day back Spring Term. What to wear? I would be making a first impression on my professors and my classmates. So then, why did I opt for black leggings, an oversized white t-shirt, black puffy vest, or the “carleton casual,” instead of a more “put together,” “feminine” skirt, tights, nice sweater, and heeled boots? I seemingly “chose” this outfit, but my choice was dictated by my desire to fit the Carleton norm and influenced by what other people would think about me. What did this outfit say about me?
The leggings and t-shirt show I don’t put that much effort into my clothing choice, and value other things over my appearance. But the black quilted puffer vest and grey tote bag balance the outfit, adding a “feminine” touch. Why did so much thought go into looking like I put in such little effort?
The “Carleton casual” look inhabits a fashion purgatory of sorts. Though a counter-example to the normalized style of female dress in the wider world, it nonetheless represents a dominant norm within our particular community. As Susan Bordo states in the introduction to her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, “to struggle effectively against the coerciveness of those [dominant] forms [of racial and gendered beauty] it is first necessary to recognize that they have dominance” (Bordo 29). Can Carleton’s normalization of casual dress be considered a struggle against the dominant forms of feminine beauty in the wider world? Or have we just normalized another type of fashion image that students now feel pressured to follow?
In “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion”, Minh-Ha Pham briefly outlined the dynamics between fashion and feminism. A particular line that spoke to our experiences as a Carleton students was from English Professor, Elaine Showalter; she stated that, “my passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life” (Pham 1). Her
comment was unsurprisingly criticized by her colleagues, many of which said, “surely she must have ‘better things to do’” (Pham 1). These comments allow us to reconsider the attention fashion attracts on a college campus like Carleton. In plain sight, fashion seems to be the last thing on the average Carleton student’s mind; a quick look around the campus will demonstrate many students wearing casual appeal like jeans, sweatshirts, and socks with Birkenstocks. Dressing outside of the causal look results in many people, specially women, having to justify their reasoning for dressing up.
Indeed, “Fashion, like so many other things associated primarily with women, may be dismissed as trivial, but it shapes how we’re read by others, especially on the levels of gender, class and race” (Pham 1). At Carleton, people are respected for their ideas, not their appearance. With a political climate that constantly problematizes class, race, and gender power hierarchies, one doesn’t want to be perceived as perpetuating these power hierarchies by flaunting wealth through expensive looking clothes or buying into the normative ideals that often define what women should or shouldn’t wear. I don’t want my peers to judge me as a try-hard, or vain, or materialistic, or too privileged. I don’t want people to think that the time I put into my appearance takes away from the amount of time I spend on my studies. I want to be taken seriously in the classroom.
In an interview with Haute Couture Intellectual, Tanisha C. Ford brought up this same issue when she stated, “Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves” (Nguyen 2012) In light of this reality, students’ decisions to dress in “Carleton casual” can be interpreted as a sign of agency, a conscious choice to create a new dominant image for feminine style. This image navigates “the tension between ‘needing to act as women and needing an identity not overdetermined by our gender’” (Bordo 36). The casual look normalized by female Carleton students fulfills the need to act as women while providing an identity “not overdetermined by gender,” in its rejection of the more typical feminine dress prevalent beyond Carleton’s campus.
— jt784 (Tori), esotericks, milquetoastrebel, jorleee, amairanyfuentes