Last summer, I posted some interview advice, which started with the admonition to Suit up.
Recent conversations here and elsewhere about gender, combined with the awesome tweets, blog posts, and ideas coming out of Out of the Attic and Into the Stacks: Feminism in LIS: The Unconference, have made me realize that one-size-fits-all (pun intended) wardrobe advice is useless.
The irony of me offering such cluelessly generic wardrobe advice is that generic dress codes rarely work for me. I identify as butch (see Why I identify as butch, for an explanation I wish I was smart enough to have written). Part of my self-identify includes feeling most comfortable wearing men’s clothes (which I think technically makes me a cross-dresser, but there are all sorts of interesting gendered issues around why society saves that label for men who wear women’s clothes and not vice-versa).
My basic work wardrobe is a pair of men’s dress pants, and a men’s dress shirt with white t-shirt. I have to hunt hard to find the right shoes that fit, but Zappos is a great source for men’s shoes in size 6. When the occasion calls for something dressier, I suit up — which for me means a men’s suit tailored to fit me, with a dress shirt and no tie. I rarely bust out a tie at work — so far only for special occasions like the Giants playing in the World Series. I have gone with the suit and tie look on non-work social occasions — my wife tells me she likes that look, so who am I to argue?
I last interviewed for a job 10 years ago, and at that point had not yet completely embraced my butch wardrobe. I wore a women’s business suit: pants and matching jacket, dressy black sweater thing. I remember exactly what I wore, because trying to figure out what to wear, and shopping for a suit, was excruciatingly stressful. And although my choice worked (I got the job), I was uncomfortable and felt a bit like an impostor throughout the day. I got home and changed quickly into jeans, tshirt, baseball cap. Whenever I next interview for a job, I plan to wear a men’s suit (probably without a tie – but who knows?).
And here’s the thing, as comfortable and confident as I have become (slowly, over years) with my butch wardrobe choices, the idea of wearing a men’s suit on a job interview still makes me nervous. What will people think? Too butch? I’m not worried that wearing a suit will effectively “out me” … I’ve been told that even in a dress and make-up I would still set off everyone’s gaydar from miles away.
But there is something extra transgressive about “going full-butch” in wardrobe and self-presentation. See Mainstream Butches/”Butches”? for an excellent discussion of the “double-edged sword” of the rising popularity of Ellen Degeneres and Rachel Maddow. (Side note, I wore a men’s tuxedo at my wedding; but more than a few friends and family suggested I could wear a nice white suit like Ellen did. Seriously? How ridiculous would I look in a white suit?)
I enjoy significant privilege (the kind of privilege Peggy McIntosh notes “should be the norm in a just society” PDF) at my place of work, in that my sexuality and my gender presentation have not been an issue, as far as I know. In fact, my awesome boss once gave me advice about a great men’s clothing shop in Charleston SC.
But … I still wonder if some of my co-workers wish I would tone down the butchness a bit. Maybe no one does, but part of being different is always wondering. And while I’m usually pretty confident and resolute in my wardrobe choices, there have been times when I wish I had a role model — a fellow butch who could tell me what they wore when they were visiting colleagues in Japan, or in the Middle East. I stuck by my guns, and wore men’s pants and dress shirts; with black sports coat when needed — but I was nervous and self-conscious. I figured I would be self-conscious in women’s clothes too, so better to be self-conscious and comfortable.
My point is — I’m publishing this because if someone else had written this 10 years ago, maybe that would have given me the courage to wear something a bit more comfortable to that interview. And because I wish I knew of other butch-identified women in leadership positions in academia so we could compare notes and wardrobe advise. And because I’m more than a bit embarrassed at how ridiculously simplistic my Suit Up advice was. And because part of being transparent (a big goal/commitment of mine) is being “out” about who I am – A queer, butch, cross-dressing, feral librarian.
Edited (3/18/12, 9:50 am PST) to add a link to A butch dresses up for work from “Can I help you Sir?”, which starts out with an infuriating story of discrimination, and ends with eight great wardrobe tips.