I call it “my conference dress.” An afterthought purchase at Kohl’s back in my second year of graduate school, the dress is now always the first thing I pack when going to any major conference where the outside temperature will be above 50 degrees. It’s black, made of a stretchy, drapey material that doesn’t cling but seems to ensure the dress will fit regardless of how much weight I lose or gain between wearings. The dress is short-sleeved and falls to my knee; its slight cowl neck and belt make it a little bit more interesting than a plain black dress. But even after I add jewelry and nice shoes, the dress is still too boring even for me (not the world’s most exciting dresser). I rarely wear it outside of conferences.
This is my conference dress for a number of reasons: it travels well, doesn’t take up much space, doesn’t require ironing, and can be quickly washed in a hotel sink and will air-dry overnight if necessary. Those are the practical reasons. Why else does the dress find its way into my suitcase? Because it’s my professional armor: not too tight, low-cut, revealing, sexy, or colorful. It is beyond reproach. No one would look at me in this dress and accuse me of showing off anything or trying to attract attention.
I’ve been thinking about how secure I feel in my conference dress since attending a panel on female historians and professionalization at the Western Association for Women Historians (WAWH) annual meeting in Pomona, California yesterday. The roundtable was led by three graduate students and a professor from UC Riverside, who had come with a list of topics to discuss that included the practicalities of changing one’s name after marriage/divorce (if a scholar has published under one name, she might seem to have disappeared if she starts publishing under a new one); balancing academic work with family and childcare; family-leave policies; and self-presentation in academic settings.* That last one is the topic that interested me the most.
I hate shopping. Figuring out what to wear in any given situation makes me frustrated and cross: one of the things I like about Southern California is that jeans and Birkenstocks are never unacceptable (and that’s what I’m wearing to WAWH). But I’m also very aware of how I want to present myself to colleagues—as a serious scholar who spends more time worrying about her dissertation than her hair. Consciously or not, I make choices about how to express that, always going for discreet and low-maintenance over flashy and fashionable. I rarely do my nails, even though I have a large collection of nail polish sitting at home; I wear just enough makeup to not look like an Irish zombie; I have two hairstyles (loose and ponytail).
To a certain extent, I would be like this no matter what career I had chosen. I’ve never been a fashion plate, and people have been joking for years that black is my favorite color. But I’ve never made much effort to get better at dressing myself because I’m in a field where women who focus too much on their appearance run the risk of being judged as less serious academics. As this humorous essay states, “academics were trained … to divide the world into two parts, with the physical being relegated to a dimension below the intellectual.” We’re supposed to spend our time revising journal articles that a dozen people will read, not worrying about which dress we’ll wear to give a presentation in front of two hundred people.
It would be so much easier—though, of course, ridiculous—if we just wore our academic robes all the time. Short of that, my conference dress is the next best thing. I wish I’d bought two.
* I should note that although there aren’t conference panels devoted to how men should dress, or how they can balance devotion to scholarly work with devotion to their families, professionalization isn’t just a women’s issue. It might be more fraught for women, who face a complicated set of cultural expectations about attending to both work and family life, but these are issues that affect us all.