Professional Dress and Authenticity

Feminists in Student Affairs

by Tamara Yakaboski and Leah Reinert

During graduate school and the early days of a new job, individuals are socialized in what is considered professional attire for that position, office/department, institution, and, even, regional culture. Sometimes those expectations clash with individuals’ identities and cultures. What are the consequences when we, as student affairs professionals and faculty, tell staff and students to “be authentic” but then expect a narrower and gendered version of professional appearance?

In examining professional dress for women in student affairs, there seems to be a double bind in expectations. Women are expected to look feminine but not sexy (i.e., fitted shirts but no cleavage; heels but no stilettos) while at the same time ascribe to a white, upper middle class image of professionalism, meaning suits, blazers, slacks, knee length skirts or dresses (i.e., J. Crew or Banana Republic). These messages even echo through annual student affairs conferences such…

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