The last question was the hardest: “But what should I wear?” I was on a professionalization panel for graduate students, brought in to discuss protocols and strategies for attending academic conferences. “Well,” I answered. “Deciding what to wear is really hard. ”
Probably it shouldn’t be hard. After all, if there’s any place when the liveliness of your mind should clearly be valued beyond the niceties of your style, it’s an academic conference, talking about the ideas you love with other people who love those ideas. Why would clothes matter?
And yet the “But what should I wear?” question was a deeply amusing stumper. Not half an hour before the professionalization panel, I had been frantically facebook chatting with a cadre of other Lady Professor types about this very problem; none of us had much clarity. Is this dress too much? Will we need tights? BLAZERS! No one has or can afford the right jacket.
But emphasizing my sense of bafflement is misleading, too. If I’m fretting about what to wear it’s partly just writing nerves. I do know what Lady Professors don’t wear. In the week since this question was posed to me I’ve realized that there are some things rules I know in a deep and abiding way that only come to consciousness at odd times. I’ve learned them from various people—maybe you?
Here is what I would tell that graduate student about Lady Professor Conference Fashions, if she asked me now.
1: You can’t work the hair.
Somehow—with very few exceptions—hair that is styled in a way that shows effort connotes lack of seriousness. Lady Professors can blow dry but shouldn’t hot roller. Braids are a sort of cusp expression of effort that you can maybe pull off, but maybe not.
2: You can work the shoes.
Shoes express taste and sexuality but, as they require no effort, are not a reflection of Lady Professor seriousness. If you wear super high or aggressive shoes, you will be judged by women who do not wear super high or aggressive shoes. But the judginess is not particularly acadmic; it’s just what you’d deal with anyway. No particular Lady Professor rules apply.
3: The ideal is to look better dressed but less materialistic than your students.
Someone once said this to me and I think it is precisely right and I know when it happens but it’s hard to quantify. It’s like: wear a cool brand, but not a famous brand? Lady Professors, despite being impeccably tasteful, are down with the people and can’t look like they care too much about the neoliberal fashion industry.
4: Looking too “professional” can imply you’re looking for a job which makes you look junior.
I totally did not realize this as a graduate student, when wearing suit-type clothes seemed terribly mature. But conferences are about hiring, and that changes the rules! Lady Professors look like they have the Lady Professor position they want. Lady Professors dress like they think they’re keeping it. Too much suit-type material makes it look like Lady Professors are thinking thinking about their CVs not their manuscripts.
5: But maybe it works the other way too?
Lady Professors should look like they’re not settling? Like they’re dressing for the institutional status Lady Professors want to have? Be serious before the institution for maximal institutional approval.
5: Jeans 4Evah.
This was good to learn! Jeans! Lady Professors are confident but are not gunners. To work the jeans, Lady Professors just need to fancy it up somehow, and there are a lot of choices: jacket, jewelry, belt, shoes. Lady Professors see no reason why grad students cannot wear jeans.
6: Look like following the rules doesn’t cramp your Lady Professor style.
It’s a jacket but a funky jacket. A blouse but a surprising pattern. Lady Professors are interesting but don’t rock the boat! Yay! Lady Professors will be fun on committees and make good Q & A jokes!
7: Know where your Lady Professor towel is.
Spiritually speaking there are three Lady Professor “towel” equivalents: pens, breath mints, and conference programs. Do not fumble in your bag; do not make a joke. Know where your pen is. It’s a nice pen. You are competent. Your paper was done ahead of time, as was your grading. Guess what: you are not a graduate student. As if by magic, you are a Lady Professor peer.
Sarah Mesle: A Little Judgy
 Here’s the risk: once when I was a graduate student a senior male professor who I did not know well came up to me with a huge smile, patted me on my braided head, and said “Charming! Like Heidi!”