Inside and Outside the (Carleton) Bubble: Grappling with “Granola Fashion” and Workplace Expectations

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. 13816966_10153956767429545_1763674195_nA 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.

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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.

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9 thoughts on “Inside and Outside the (Carleton) Bubble: Grappling with “Granola Fashion” and Workplace Expectations

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  1. I really, really enjoyed this connection between the articles and the Carleton aesthetic (if you will); it is something I think about so often. I read a really interesting article sometime last year called “The Queer Poor Aesthetic” (http://www.the-hye-phen-mag.org/2016/09/10/the-queer-poor-aesthetic/) that really made me think about the way I dress and the way my peers dress on campus. The basics that I took away from it are that people who go to small, liberal schools like Carleton, or exist in liberal bubbles for that matter, will acknowledge and talk about race privilege, or cisgender privilege–but the thing that is missing from the conversation is class privilege. The author found (and I have subsequently found at Carleton) that students at liberal arts schools often try to hide their class privilege and wealthy backgrounds, which is an easy enough thing to do when ripped jeans and sandals are in style. But a quick look at Carleton’s “Free & For Sale” Facebook page tells a different story: plenty of students are selling their clothes from pricey brands–Free People, R.E.I., lululemon–brands that make their large profit by appropriating what the author terms “the queer poor aesthetic.” Most students are surprised to learn that more than 50% of the Carleton student body does not apply for financial aid because their household income is well above the cutoff for government support. This is not to demonize those students who do come from wealthy backgrounds, but to ask the question of why there is so little talk about this fact on campus. By creating an aesthetic built around looking like they “aren’t trying” and “just thrifted” everything they are wearing, Carleton students are excluding lower-class people on two levels: silencing a necessary conversation about class privilege on campus, and creating a “look” that is unattainable for a student who cannot drop $100 on a pair of Birkenstocks.

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    1. This is so interesting!! I’m wondering if on the flip side of the appropriation of the “queer poor aesthetic” (Birkenstocks, Chacos, etc. – all the expensive but not-expensive-looking items listed in the blog post above) is something like a Canada Goose jacket. During this past winter term, I started to think about winter coats as class markers, and also noticed a lot of jokes (on Carleton facebook groups and in person) about the hatred of these incredibly expensive and arguably unnecessary jackets. It’s almost like the Canada Goose jackets are a reminder of how wealthy so much of the Carleton population really is. Those wearing these jackets, unlike those wearing leggings and Patagonias, are not even attempting to hide their class backgrounds. I am not attempting to make a value judgment here on making fun of or not making fun of upper-class students, I just wonder if it directly ties into what you’re bringing up here – that these jackets may be acting as an unwelcome reminder of the class breakdowns of Carleton’s campus.

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    2. I remember a friend who goes to another LAC mentioning something similar about the appropriation of typically working class clothing like Carhartt, work boots, overalls, etc. Like @laylortynn mentioned, I haven’t heard it discussed often, even in conversations about other types of appropriation. This is similar to what Bordo says about beauty and whiteness. “High-fashion images may contain touches of exotica…But such elements will either be explicitly framed as exotica or, within the overall system of meaning, the will not be permitted to overwhelm the representation” (25). Often the appropriated dress is worn with subtle displays of privilege, as mentioned in this post. “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.” Here, appropriation of a style of dress rarely completely replaces indicators of privilege, and does not allow for a complete, authentic representation. This relates to the original post. “We have found that the Carleton expectation of effortless composure downplays our peers’ personal maintenance and masks the inordinate affluence of the student body.” People with more class privilege have a greater ability to have agency in choosing what they wear.

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  2. I love this piece because it points out many aspects of Carleton’s sartorial culture that go unmentioned. I was particularly drawn to this comment: “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.”

    When I was younger, my dad Enrique told me “don’t let them use your dress as a reason to dismiss you because they will try to do so.” As a Latinx person on campus, I have been informed that I only attend Carleton because of “Affirmative action” on numerous occasions. This reinforced my father’s advice and I found myself changing dress to prove I “fit” at Carleton. A notable example was the incorporation of items, such as my Resident Assistant gear to assert my belonging within a space. At a minimum, I find myself wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a nice sweater/ sweatshirt. At a maximum, I wear a full suit and tie to class and/or events on campus, all in an attempt to fit in.

    I wonder if this lack of pressure to assert belonging is what allows granola culture to flourish at Carleton. Students who are predominantly white and upper-class, and I would argue more often male than not, don’t feel the pressure to prove that they belong at Carleton because their belonging in higher education is assumed. They rarely, if ever, face someone saying “You got in because of x outside factor” instead of their academic talent. This security allows them to not have to make up/ address this feeling of exclusion through sartorial choices.

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  3. I found the part of this post detailing the casualness of the “Carleton Aesthetic” clashing with certain racial expectations to be all too relatable. While the general understanding is that students here dress casually, there is a very clear concerted effort to fit in with the look. This has caused me a little bit of grief personally. In high school, I was someone who would honestly not think twice about what I was wearing as long as I felt comfortable in it. This was a privilege I had because I am guy and am not often judged as sternly over what I am wearing, but also because people around me (a more racially diverse population than Carleton) knew who I was and did not judge me as much based on my appearance.
    At Carleton I feel more conscious as one of only a handful of Asian American males (in comparison to my high school at least). I often feel as if I need to dress in a way to subvert the negative stereotype of being nerdy, anti-social, etc. instead of just wearing what makes me most comfortable.
    I guess what I am trying to say is that I very much so feel the dissonance between Carleton students purporting to be casual and “quirky”, but also desperately adhering to accepted, and often class exclusive, standards (like Patagonia fleeces).

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  4. This appearance of “not trying” reminds me of the sense of ease put forth by elite students at St. Paul’s in Shamus Khan’s “Privilege”. Does this ease extend beyond fashion and dress to other aspects of an elite collegiate experience? That is, is there a similar expectation that in our work and academics that we pull it off effortlessly? In a sense, I think the answer is no; I feel there is a culture of stress at Carleton where students are constantly expressing how much work they have to do and how overcommitted they are (I am quite guilty of this) without talking to one another about how they are taking care of themselves. On the other hand, I have heard plenty of Carleton professors justify their work by saying that we are Carls and that, because of that fact, we can handle all this work and duress. If not a sense of ease, then perhaps a sense of resilience. But if dress is how we speak to the world about ourselves, can we say that Carleton’s ease of dress does not reflect in some way our approach to academics? What other realms might dress affect? Also, certain Carleton professors have a more casual style of dress as well (in a gendered way). How does that contribute to Carleton’s aesthetic?

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  5. This post struck a cord with me too. I’ve been thinking about how my habits of presentation that extend beyond clothing relate to my beauty capital and other forms of privilege. I have never worn makeup on a daily basis. And, after coming to Carleton I made the choice to stop shaving or removing my body hair. I conceptualized these choices as an outward display of my feminist ideals, but I wouldn’t have been able to take these liberties without my class, racial, and gender privileges, which all play a role in my beauty capital.
    I am white and have features that fit Western beauty norms. I think because of this I haven’t felt as much pressure to alter my appearance with makeup.
    And even though I have leg hair, armpit hair, and hair on my upper lip, I have never been questioned about fitting into a binary gender identity.
    Because of my class background I didn’t feel that I had to prove my belonging at Carleton through my appearance. And in fact do downplay my socioeconomic status with the “granola fashion” described in the post.
    In these ways the beauty capital of my own body has allowed me to adopt the fashion this post describes as “trying to look like you’re not trying” in more than just clothing, in my life before coming here, and at Carleton.
    I do wonder how the fashion pressures of the professional world will alter my freedom of appearance or if they will.

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  6. My fashion choices, one of which tries to include granola fashion, are constantly reflecting the different identities I hold as a person. Coming from a low-income background, I grew up with my grandmother giving me clothes from her wealthy friend and telling me to wear them in order to appear “upper class.” Fashion served as an avenue to move up a social class at least for a short period of time, so I had it ingrained in my head that every fashion choice I made was a reflection of who I could or wanted to be.

    The “trying to look like you’re not trying” Carleton fashion strikes me because it opposes society’s perspective of fashion as a method of gaining power in the workplace. I find myself constantly juggling my identity as a Carleton student with socioeconomic identity to fit the norm of my surroundings. Just this past winter, I found a cheap, comfy winter coat that had a circular patch similar to the one you’d see on a Canadian Goose logo. I decided not to get it because I was afraid I would give the impression that I was wealthy, an identity that people did not want to associate with openly. I found it ironic that I was trying to look wealthy by trying not to look wealthy. How is it possible that poorness can be, as @laylortynn‘s suggested article “The Queer Poor Aesthetic” states, “appropriated”? What do I do when cheap-looking expensive fashion is not accepted at home, but expensive-looking expensive fashion is not accepted at Carleton? Fashion covertly reinforces the large income gap that continues to exist at not just Carleton, but also other small, liberal arts schools throughout the U.S.

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  7. I had never heard of granola fashion before this post and it made me realise how different my experience at Carleton has been from that of the majority because I’ve associated myself with primarily POC during my four years here. Although my POC friends and I have pointed out the trend for many Carls to downplay their fashion, we often attribute this more to Carleton whiteness than Carleton in general. In a way, many WOC on campus are replicating Ford’s discussion about women professors of color by actively rebelling against the “granola aesthetic.” Of course, the fact that we (my friends and I) go to Carleton and can even think about going against the grain (pun intended?) is a privilege in itself.

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