Katie Manthey (@katiemanthey) is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric & Writing program at Michigan State University, where she works at the intersections of fat studies, dress studies, and cultural rhetorics. Earlier this year, Katie created Dress Profesh, a gallery designed to challenge notions of what it means to look “professional.” Specifically, her site highlights that professional dress codes are inherently racist, sexist, ableist, classist, sizeist, heterosexist, cissexist, and ageist.
In the guest blog post below, Katie reflects on the absurdity of having to dress up for a phone interview, calling, instead, for job candidates to be comfortable. Enjoy!
Dress For Success: (Phone) Interview Attire
I am a humanities graduate student, currently on the academic job market for the first time. I am fortunate to be in a department that has a lot of hands-on mentoring during the final year. Specifically, we have a job market group led by tenured faculty, in which we meet regularly to workshop cover letters, CVs, teaching philosophies, and writing samples. We also receive detailed advice on what to expect and how to prepare for phone and Skype interviews, MLA interviews, and campus visits.
Given my research interests, the most interesting part of this mentoring is the explicit conversations we have had about what to wear as a job candidate. We are advised to wear something “professional, but comfortable” for campus visits, and to pay attention to footwear as there will be a lot of walking. We are also advised to practice sitting in our interview clothes to see ourselves from all angles to make sure we aren’t accidentally “showing anything that you don’t want to.”
I understand the reasons for giving this advice. Each interview or campus visit exists in its own little rhetorical bubble: a savvy candidate will be aware of her audiences, purpose for being there, and social context. As rhetoricians, we should really have an advantage for thinking about dressing for an occasion.
But what about phone interviews? The overall interview advice that I was given was to “play a role;” think about myself as an assistant professor and completely commit to the part—dress up, even though no one might see my outfit. Talk confidently. Use a pad folio for notes.
I took their advice. For my first Skype interview, I dressed up completely. I wore a dress, blazer, tights, and pointy-toed shoes that the hiring committee never got a chance to see. Did it make me feel ready? Confident? More like a potential professor? Sure. But it also made me acutely aware of the ways that I perform “professional.” It felt like I was wearing “academic drag.”
I recently had an interview with a different university — this time on the phone. I decided to go completely in the other direction with my dress practices. I didn’t wear makeup or a blazer or nice shoes. I wore a flannel button down shirt, some winter boots, and threw my hair up into a messy bun (see photo below):
And…the interview went okay, at least on my end. I felt comfortable and was pleased with how I felt afterwards. At the time of writing this, it is too early to know what the search committee thought of me, but I keep reminding myself that these decisions are complicated.
I wonder, though – what did they think I was wearing while they were talking to me? During the interview, I imagined the search committee as being dressed to the nines. Did they even think about it at all? How did they visualize me, someone they had never met, but who sounded enthusiastic and relaxed over the phone?
It strikes me as absurd that what we wear (or what we think people are wearing) matters, especially in academia where many of us claim to “know better” than to judge a book by its cover. Dress codes (explicit and implicit) are rooted in ideas that are racist, sexist, ageist, sizeist, heterosexist, cissexist, ableist, and classist. Shouldn’t academics be at the forefront of rallying for social change in the context of looking “professional”?
I decided to start doing just that myself. I created Dress Profesh (@dress_profesh), an online gallery of photos of people dressing for work—what I call “performing profesh.” Together, I’m hoping that we can collectively challenge traditional notions of what “professional” looks like, and make clear the ways that dress codes reinforce problematic systems of power. So far, over 100 people have contributed, all from various disciplines and backgrounds; and, the site has over 7,000 followers on Tumblr. Clearly, I am not alone in recognizing that “professional” standards of dress are restrictive and exclusive – or at least problematic.
So, what are you wearing today? Are you working from home? Are you in your office? Are you wearing shoes? Snap a quick photo and submit it to Dress Profesh.