Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Looking the part

Last week I read this really fantastic blog post about the status signifiers and how much they matter when they shouldn't in theory. Now the author is very focused on how this matters ever so much when you're a non-pasty white-ish person, and she is absolutely right that it matters ever so much more if you don't have the privilege of being a white American. Absolutely. But that power game of demonstrating by what you wear, how you wear it, subtly, that you are of the right class or smarter than average or whatever, that crosses skin color. So here's my experience with it to complement hers.

It's something I think about a lot since I come from a bi-class family. Example: my dad is a 2nd generation American, very working class, first in his family to finish a college degree (his uncle went for a couple of years on a sports scholarship until he blew out a knee and didn't finish). My mom's family is old money, much longer-term American, and a much higher class of behavior is expected in her family. Status is a thing for her (and the rest of my family) in a way it isn't for my dad's family.

This means that I have it in my head that there are situations that you need to look a certain way, that you use your big words and subtly show off, that you hold yourself differently to show your class, that you make sure your nails are clean and perfect and your hands don't show the wear and tear if you work outside (so much moisturizer when my mom worked on the farm to hide it). I have an impulse to purchase pearls, for example. It's just one of those things that since I'm a woman and need to display my status periodically, I probably should acquire. And let me add, it bugs the pants off of me. It aches to know I am socialized in such a way that I not only know about these overt and subtle status symbols but that it's so much in my head that I consider it whenever I get dressed.

Now this knowledge I need to dress the part and the budget to do so don't necessarily coexist, certainly not right now. I've selected a few wardrobe pieces very carefully and I wear them sparingly (one silk shirt, one suit, one nice pair of slacks in addition to the suit, one decent looking skirt, a couple of high end sweaters and blouses). I also have a sweatshirt with my college's name on it and my girls have a couple shirts with the name on it too. Subtle advertising. I often wear my school polo to the kid's school events when I can't spiff myself up enough so someone will ask about it and I can point out that I'm a student. My wardrobe mostly comes from second hand places but I'm very selective. I only shop at used clothes stores in ritzy suburbs or high-end neighborhoods because the selection is better and the wear is lower. I may buy exclusively used but I work hard to make sure it doesn't look like it's all used!

One very memorable occasion I got to watch a guy change statuses just with his posture. I was in line to get fabric cut, sometime shortly before Halloween, I was actually making a wrap to go to the opera of all weird things. Anyway, the gal cutting fabric was asking everyone what they were making for Halloween. A bee costume for a kid, a pirate costume for an adult, and then this guy came up to have his stuff cut. He gave his requests crisply but still slouched, wearing a plaid shirt of some type, looking like nobody important, just some old guy, not memorable at all. His fabrics were pretty outlandish and strikingly a bit odd. I bet the gal cutting fabric's guess was a hobo costume or something with the bright polka dots and strangely colored stripes. But she asked him, "And what are you going to make with all this?" in a pretty condescending way like he was a cute but confused old guy who must have had a shopping list from his wife. He drew himself up to his full height, adjusted his shoulders and his face and said, "I design for the University Theater" and he scooped up his fabric and huffed off (well he stalked off really, the huff was implied because he turned away from her very fast). Whoa was that lady shocked and put in her place! Just like that he changed his bearing and showed that even in his scrubby clothes he deserved a whole lot of respect. I saw the show with the costumes made from that weird array of fabrics and the choices he made were amazing. Everything worked just right with the tone of the show, the sets, the lights made it all look great. Boy did he ever design!

So why does the wardrobe matter? Well, I go to professional meetings. Lots of them, relatively speaking. When there's a gaggle of students at a professional meeting, the pharmacists don't chat with most students because you can spot them at 30 feet (aside from being in a gaggle) with the cheap clothes, no giant diamond rings, no nice earrings or tie clips. For me I have the advantage of not looking 16 (sometimes I am glad I went right from looking 10 to looking about 20 and stayed there for 15 years, other times it's awkward) but I also get the wardrobe thing. I have the right wardrobe and I avoid the gaggle of students (ok so that's natural antisocial behavior there) so I meet far more pharmacists than other students that way.

Why do these meetings matter? Well, it's a tight job market. It isn't super tight everywhere but it is tight enough that it's hard to get a job as a new grad, especially a full time one (unless you move somewhere super rural or otherwise unpleasant like the wilds of Alaska). I am on the hook to have a job lined up upon graduation since I will be the primary income, if not the only income. It's key for me to be seen at these meetings in a positive light so when I do meet someone, say the owner of a local small chain of pharmacies that might be hiring in a year and a half, I've already made the impression at a meeting before. Being at these meetings is hypothetically to network and get a job based on brains and/or connections, when really, it's largely about the suit, the being seen... I hate that I need to know these status symbols, that they matter so much, and yet... it's a part of our culture.

The other place I occasionally use my education and snappy wardrobe is when we're waiting around for some kind of assistance. It's amazing how much faster I get seen at the WIC office if I have business casual attire on than if I have some random scrubby t-shirt or even scrubs (yes I do wear scrubs just lounging or going to class because they are comfy and I can). It pays huge dividends for me to be able to put on my Upper Class You'd Better Pay Attention To Me wardrobe and face and posture and then to get it. In my little bubble, there's nobody I know who needs that push to help them get something they need, but I like to think that given the chance I'll do it. Our faith community has a young woman member, maybe 16 or 17, who I don't think really considers college as something that she could do. I think I'll offer her my college's alumna referral coupon so she could apply for free if she wanted to, to show her that I have confidence that she could succeed at a place with a middle to high level of prestige. She could, she's smart but she doesn't care much about school since she hasn't seen it benefit anyone.

I think it matters a lot that we all recognize this bias, that we mark status and treat people showing a high status so differently. It's all well and good to pretend everyone is treated equally but it isn't true at all. Maybe if more of us realize what we are doing we can fight against the prejudiced idea that poor people are stupid and that the clothes matter so much more than the brain behind the person.


  1. This is a really interesting post. I come from an upper-middle class family but I haven't paid much attention to what people wear. I am a teacher and I work at a school wear the only restrictions are I have to follow the students' dress code (basically no short skirts and no spaghetti straps) but otherwise I can wear whatever I want. I used to wear very "young" clothes to work, mostly jeans and tshirts. Now I wear more "adult" garb but I definitely don't dress "well". I've never owned a silk shirt or a suit and my only "slacks" are probably not really slacks at all. I wonder if the way I dress as affected my life in ways I didn't even realize. Hmmm, this is all so interesting....

  2. This is definitely a good reminder to me that it DOES matter how we dress / present ourselves to society. My boss and I were talking about this in relation to religion this morning (random, I know) and how we miss dressing up for "special" events like church. Sometimes I like that I live in a relaxed part of CO where jeans and t-shirts go for more anything... but it also lends an air of unprofessionalism and unimportance to events that perhaps deserve better. Really interesting post.

  3. When I was younger, I was hyper-aware of this. It's hard not to be when you're poor in the company of affluence. In college and graduate school, I made a point of building a wardrobe, and like you, I went for classic pieces that wear well. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that clothes and even bearing are not the only thing that people pay attention to. This is hard as a white woman; it's much, much worse for women of color. A very difficult family situation in which my suit, master's degree, and New York condescension didn't make a difference is what pushed me into law school. Now, I advocate for people who have a hard time being heard. I can assure you that it doesn't matter what I wear as a lawyer (to a point); the respect I get is far greater than I ever got as a teacher wearing a suit and expensive (but tasteful) jewelry. I've even absorbed some of the entitlement, and that genuine entitlement--people simply do not speak to me like THAT--goes further than anything else. It's fascinating, really.

    On a slightly different note, it sounds like you're a great networker. I am AWFUL at networking for the sake of networking, and I'm always impressed by people who can do it. :)

    1. My networking skills are 100% learned and forced (ie my inclination is to hide, not network). Mostly I show up and introduce myself to whomever I sit next to and that's it, but I also volunteer for committees where I get to sit next to important people, and often they start conversations with me so it's like networking by showing up and no effort. Sweet!

  4. This is such an interesting post! I've always dressed up - my superlative senior year of college was "Most Likely to Dress Up to Go to Class" LOL. I probably dress a little nicer than I need to for work, but I like nice clothes and feel more comfortable in them than I do in casual clothes. I don't know if it makes a difference in how I have been treated and perceived, but I do know that I feel more confident when I wear them, and hopefully that aura pays off.