Professional Dress? YAAAAAHS.

One of my favorite posts from The Feminist Wire is “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics” because it acknowledges and explores what ‘professional dress’ is and means for women of color. As you know, I’m always excited to talk about style and style politics as I also navigate my identities as a woman of color, a student affairs professional, a writer, and an artistic soul.

In “You Betta Werk…”, Dr. Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass-Amherst and trailblazer of important work on style politics, asks the questions:

  • How do you incorporate your personal fashion sense into your professional attire?
  • Do you think women and/or men of color in the academy face unique challenges that are (directly or indirectly) linked to a politics of dress and adornment?

Today, I’m adding my own answers to the questions, along with pictures and examples of what professional dress looks like for me. (Shout-out to my colleague, N.S. for the photography and for her on-point make-up & nail tips from @san_bellisima)

My Personal Fashion Sense

A few staples of my personal fashion sense that I incorporate into my professional wardrobe include a) mixed prints / colors / textures, b) detailed, eclectic accessories (hair, nails, & jewelry), and c) showcasing art.

  1. Mixing lines, textures, & prints
Pictured in my office with one of my favorite work outfits: a crop top sweater with a zig-zag pattern and a pencil skirt with a lipstick pattern.

Pictured in my office with one of my favorite work outfits: a crop top sweater with a zig-zag pattern and a pencil skirt with a lipstick pattern.

I typically like to push the boundaries of what ‘professional dress’ means by incorporating surprising elements: the crop top, the leopard print jumpsuit. However, I pair them with more traditional elements and pieces: the pencil skirt, the cropped blazer, the leather shoes. This is what pulls my look together (and makes it really easy whenever I’m transitioning from day-to-night looks). I know that crop top is not the first thing most people think of when they think of professional wear. However, when you pair a crop top with a high waist pencil skirt, the results can be fabulous and SNATCHED! 

Leopard print jumpsuit in black and brown paired with a burgundy blazer & caramel colored leather shoes

Leopard print jumpsuit in black and brown paired with a burgundy blazer & caramel colored leather shoes

I wear my prescription glasses every day and I usually like to get a few funky frames in neutral colors that will compliment each outfit. I also mix prints according to the tasks I have for the day. If I’m going to a conference, I may work with a more neutral color scheme but keep the prints. If I’m working with students, I’ll incorporate a bit more color or items that are on trend in the season.

Conference Wear: A lot more subdued with color but still utilizing print and a pop of color (lipstick: Ruby Woo by MAC)

Conference Wear: A lot more subdued but still utilizes print and a pop of color (lipstick: Ruby Woo by MAC)

2. Accessories… and then more accessories.

I know many people go by the style adage, “Less is more” buuut… I am not one of those people. For me, accessories are what make the outfit uniquely yours. Hair, makeup, nails, shoes, jewelry are all things I use to signify a style that says, “This is Jade”.

A Closer Look: For this outfit, I've incorporated my favorite head wrap and a body necklace. Since these items do stand out, I chose to do simple earrings, no bracelets, and a dark muted lip color to balance things out

A Closer Look: For this outfit, I’ve incorporated my favorite head wrap and a body necklace. Since these items do stand out, I chose to do simple earrings, no bracelets, and a dark muted lip color to balance things out

I don’t wear too many soft colors at work, due to the fact that I already look very young (and I hate the question, “May I ask you how old you are?” In WHAT world is that okay to ask?! I ranted about that here). However, every now and then I just can’t pass up a good pink that makes my skin tone POP.

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A Closer Look: I cannot resist a good lip color. This is MAC’s Saint Germain lipstick with a pink dazzleglass on top for shine.

3) Showcasing art.

As you can see from the pictures above, I see fashion and even professional dress as a way to incorporate art. Typically, I do this with my choices in hair and nails.

The Challenges Linked to “Politics of Dress”

One of my favorite academic articles is Tara Yosso’s ‘Whose Culture Has Capital’ (2005). In this piece, Yosso challenges the notion that only dominant culture holds worth and wealth. I bring her work up here because most of my style politics incorporate the question, “Whose Culture Has Style”? I’m always asking, ‘Whose culture is seen as the standard for professionalism’ and making choices to challenge that in ways that still allow me to inhabit that office / professional space.

As a millenial woman of color, there is also some identity management that goes into my style choices: if I wear this, will I look to young? As a woman, there is identity management: if I wear these bright colors, will people take me seriously? As a woman of color, there is identity management: if I wear my hair naturally, will people bash me for it? Will people immediately equate and associate the art on my nails with what they perceive to be ‘ghetto’? (For more on identity / impression management, check out Leary & Kowalski’s work, 1990). Getting dressed is a political act because in seconds you are making decisions about how you will (or will not) challenge societal norms. Finding that line and working with those nuances are things that I’m figuring out each and every day.

I figure it out, mostly, by doing and then by writing. So, if this topic interests you, here are a few other pieces to check out:

In the comments below, please leave a few of your favorite resources OR style staples!