Sitting in a home economics class in the sixth grade was the first time I realized that the clothes I wore were a problem. Our class was between projects; we'd already learned how to make pizza from scratch and weren't yet ready to be unleashed on sewing machines. Our teacher was a middle-class white lady, who regularly wore sweaters with applique and ankle-length skirts. That day, Mrs. S wanted to talk about clothes, but not just clothes, the good, quality kind that we should all be wearing. Quality clothes, I learned, came from stores with names I had never heard of. They cost more money, she explained cheerfully, because they lasted longer.
Clothes and Judgment
Not-so-good clothes (she hesitated to label them bad) came from stores like Kmart and Walmart, the exact stores where my mom and I shopped for new clothes each and every fall. We shopped on a budget to replace all the clothes I had outgrown or worn down in the previous year. Our shopping trip was one of my favorite parts of the back-to-school ruse because the clothes were new; the tags stayed on until I finally was able to wear them on the first day. As Mrs. S kept explaining the merits of quality clothes and the pitfalls of cheap clothing, I looked down at my flowered leggings and matching top from Walmart. I loved this particular outfit; I wore it as often as it was clean. But that day, I realized that my clothes were not quality, and my teacher, with her sad eyes assessing them, had already judged me and my parents for my cheap clothing. I never wore that outfit again. When my mom asked why I wasn't wearing it, I couldn't bear to tell her the truth.
Looking back on that day as an adult, I'm shocked by Mrs. S's casual cruelty. I grew up in a rural North Florida county that wasn't wealthy. Most of the kids were like me with working-class parents, who did the best they could to feed, clothe and shelter us with jobs that didn't pay a lot but required a lot of time and hard work. Mrs. S told a whole class of sixth graders that we weren't good enough because our clothes weren't as expensive as hers. I wonder if she recognized that she made me—a kid who was already anxious about so many things—become remarkably anxious about my clothes and whether other people might judge me solely because of what I wore.
Worrying About Clothes, Still
This anxiety about clothing, a form of class anxiety, is deep-rooted and resurfaces any time I attend a new conference or event. What do I wear? What should I wear? Why are there no clear guidelines or a dress code? What the heck does professional attire even mean? I get panicked, I try not to cry and I stare at my closet, mulling over my wardrobe and trying to decide whether my clothes are appropriate or not. Picking out clothes becomes a battle, as I wonder whether I look professional enough, middle-class enough or just enough.
To ease my nerves, I poll my friends about what an editor of a magazine should wear. Most of them tell me that a blazer, jeans and cute shoes should suffice. I'm not sold. I squint at photos of attendees of previous conferences at their organization's website. Are they wearing dresses or suits? Cardigans or blazers? Some combination of those? I flip through my closet to find the two pairs of dress pants and trusty blazer that I purchased half-off at the Banana Republic outlet. I pull out a few blouses, also discount-priced, and my favorite dress from the Ann Taylor Loft outlet. I combine these with Target's wear-to-work cardigans and my favorite knee-high boots—Amazon on sale—to attempt to look professional, even though I know I am a professional. I still wonder if I look like I am.
Quality Isn't About Clothes
It's been 26 years, and I still think of Mrs. S and wonder if I can ever look quality enough for someone like her. I'm trying not to care about any person who would judge me based on my clothing. My worth is not determined by what I wear; no one's is.
But more and more, I want to trouble the expectation of what professional is supposed to look like. Tattoos peak out from under my rolled-up sleeves, and my nose is pierced. Even when I dress up, the performance is still off a bit, which I appreciate.
Last year when I attended a conference for student affairs professionals, my hair had temporary pink streaks. I worried whether I should change my hair before I left, but I chose not to. I was afraid of how people would react, but the reaction I received was not what I expected. Many folks—too many to remember them all—complimented my hair and the tattoos they could see: thumbs-up in the hallways, exclamations about how much they like the pink and big smiles. I smiled in return. These folks saw me as a person, beyond the streaked hair and my attempts at conference wear.
Quality isn't about clothes, but about who a person is. That's what I wish I could have said to Mrs. S all those years ago, so I'll say it to all of you now.