In an interview with Mimi Nguyen, Tanisha C. Ford models a bold personal fashion that connects her to a historical line of people of color professionals. She claims,
“…like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American ‘street fashions,’ we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms.”
Ford’s leading guideline for daily dress? “… there are no rules!” As a group of women earning our degrees in an elite environment and aspiring to enter a range of professional fields, we resonate with Ford’s assertion that those people who came before us and surround us impact the ways in which we come into these arenas — especially in the ways their sartorial choices allow us to imagine how our bodies fit into these spaces. However, we took her words tentatively, because in the one common space we share of Carleton’s campus, we hear a similar claim; within this self-proclaimed liberal community, nothing holds Carleton students back, especially in their self-presentation. Yet the five of us know that this rule has manifested itself paradoxically.
Carleton often boasts about having students from all 50 states and 34 countries as evidence of its cultural diversity. Its admissions website claims that Carleton’s student body is “notoriously difficult to categorize”, and urges present and prospective students to “be yourself, you’ll find your people here”. The common campus sartorial theme, termed “granola fashion”, appears to run parallel with this sentiment. A mix of expensive items that don’t look expensive, such as Patagonia jackets, lululemon leggings, and Chacos or Birkenstock sandals; DIY items such as cutoff denim shorts or overalls; and “quirky” accessories such as funky socks and earrings allow the wearer to cultivate the appearance of casual comfort. In other words, “Carleton fashion” can be described as “trying to look like you’re not trying”. In fact, a second Goodhue floor T-shirt had the words “I woke up like this” printed on the back, referencing Beyonce’s pop hit “Flawless”–often heralded as a feminist anthem.
While Carleton makes sure to highlight that 22% of its students identify as people of color, the unspoken fact is that 78% of its student population is white. Many of Carleton’s “granola fashion”-wearing students are white and upper middle class. The carefully cultivated appearance of “not trying” is a choice made by the majority, a relatively homogenous group in terms of race and class.
“In 1914, the first Feminist Mass Meeting in America – whose subject was “Breaking into the Human Race” – poignantly listed, among various social and political rights demanded, “the right to ignore fashion” (Bordo 18). While Carleton students exercise this “right to ignore fashion”, they unconsciously create a new fashion that changes by necessity after leaving the bubble of Carleton. As the five of us move into different professional environments, we have each found ourselves struggling with the tension between dressing the way we want to and conforming to the expectations imposed upon us. For example, Janis has found herself falling into a trope as an Asian woman of being quiet and obedient in the STEM field, while Kathryn has become increasingly aware of how women of color professors have presented themselves in front of their students. In addition, Caroline has experienced a lack of women in her office and thus a lack of models for what to wear. We find a common theme between these different experiences: the societal expectation to conform by not being too masculine, too girly, or too sexy. Pham writes, “A century later, in the 1980s, women appropriated men’s styles of dress in an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling”. Like those women before us, in one way or another, we have each found ourselves slowly conforming to societal expectations, especially in the workplace, where those expectations are most evident.
Navigating those expectations is made particularly difficult in our often tenuous positions as interns. Examining the intersection between those inherently subordinate positions and working in a male-dominated workplace, we are not only passive because of the gender dynamic in the workplace but also because of how important interns are deemed within different fields or even how different fields allow greater fashion flexibility than others. Tanisha Ford claims that her number one fashion rule is that there are no rules. But as a Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor, Tanisha is in an environment where it is more “acceptable” to dress in that way. Many other jobs require uniforms or a certain way of dressing, and if they choose to do otherwise, these people are putting their job at risk, and we as interns could jeopardize our futures with a company.
Although our peers’ aesthetic aggressively communicates that they are “not trying too hard,” we are well aware that this aesthetic involves a significant amount of forethought, an unspoken “trying.” This has become most apparent in the moments we have shifted into spaces as interns in training, like research labs and banks. We have found that the Carleton expectation of effortless composure downplays our peers’ personal maintenance and masks the inordinate affluence of the student body. Professional spaces beyond Carleton have similarly demanded that we make careful decisions about our self-presentations that emphasize other traits, from our exceptional effort to our integration into the typical middle-upper class culture. The absence of women, particularly of women of color, in our aspired fields, moved us to reflect on how these environments differently communicate expectations of professionalism, and how each of us have navigated these transitions. As Pham writes, in our society “Men do, and women appear,” and we as Carleton women and soon-to-be graduates struggle to find agency within a structure where our bodies, and how we present them, often matter more than our words.
By: Kathryn, Janis, Alison, Avery, Caroline
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 1-41.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “Interview: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual.” WordPress, 2012.
Pham, Minh-ha T. “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion.” Ms Magazine, 2011.