As seniors in high school, my friend and I used to pass notes about our English teacher’s clothes. We did this because her fabulous clothes exceeded the outfits our other teachers wore and because we were sixteen. “It’s a suede skirt day!” I wrote to my friend who would not have our classy teacher for two more class periods. I, myself, have not garnered that kind of praise from students with my fashion sense. Early on in my teaching career, my utilitarian fashion approach caused a student to exclaim, “See! Navy blue pants! I told you…I mean, it is Wednesday!”
When I began teaching, I had to transform my early nineties grunge collection of thrift shop granny sweaters and floor length skirts into a professional wardrobe with little to no money. Since I couldn’t shoot for the moon, I instead strove for “neat” and “appropriate.” Additionally, I’ve always lived at least a forty-five minute commute to my school, so “crumpled” has come easily to my overall look, too. Looking around at my fellow teachers, I don't think I'm alone. Most of us look nice, but I don't think a bunch of us together would be mistaken for members of a city law firm.
As a younger teacher, I tried to be sexually innocuous. I wore blouses that didn’t cling or have deep cut necklines; I wore pants or skirts that hid curves. I’ve always focused on students with lower skill sets, an issue often accompanied by immaturity. I didn’t want my femininity to be a distraction. (Okay, so maybe I wore something cute once, but after a day of "Whoo-hoo! Teacher's got a date tonight--can it be with me?" I decided to go for something more bland.) A bad experience with spit balls of gum covering the back of my head one day led to the habit of pulling my hair up instead of leaving it down. (The worst part of that day was not knowing when the gum had gotten into my hair; my classroom management in those days left something to be desired!) In the end, these various factors distilled into a recipe of plain shirt + long denim skirt + bun clip = good to go.
I’m thirty-five now, and the likelihood that I’ll be a sexual distraction has diminished somewhat, which is probably why I’d like to tighten up my look a little. While I am still “neat” and “appropriate,” I fear I’m slipping into “dowdy.” However, now there are different factors to consider. If I teach in stockings and clicking heels, people assume I have a meeting with administration. Where I teach, the academics slouch around in cotton and prints and slip on mules; administrators wear tailored outfits in dark solids with shiny leather shoes. A shift in uniform at my age could be seen as a shift in career focus. (“Look who wants to be an administrator!”) Another alternative is the “school spirit” route, but wearing shirts with the school emblem tucked into my black jeans every day requires a kind of cheer I find difficult to muster day after day.
I might as well face it; other people have to look at me all day long, so I don’t get to hide if I’m in a blouse that pulls or a skirt that rides up. Unlike my classy teacher from years ago who read The Bald Soprano aloud to us students while she sat perched on a stool, I march around the room and gesture frequently, often getting sweaty as I try to rouse enthusiasm for proper use of the semicolon. I teach with overhead markers and grade with sometimes sticky gel pens, so I’ve never wanted to spend lots of money on formally tailored work clothes. I wear shoes that withstand being on my feet and perhaps crossing a field during a fire drill. Maybe I look exactly like what I am: somebody’s teacher, somebody’s mom, and somebody who gets the job done. Maybe I’ll start investing in a better wardrobe for the weekend instead…