As a student in the School of Education, part of my class requirement involves practicum at middle and high schools. Consequently, I’ve been thrown back to the days of using numbers to spell out words on Texas Instruments calculators, lunch lines and, of course, dress codes.

Dress codes are a bit different for me as a teacher than they were as a student. I’m expected to look “professional” to stress the fact that I’m a mature, responsible, soon-to-be teacher and to differentiate myself from the students, some of whom are only a few years younger than I.

A couple days before practicum began, I panicked — realizing I had zero articles of professional clothing — and took a trip to Briarwood. I spent over $200 on pencil skirts, button-up shirts and a pair of heels, only to drive back to the store later and return some of it in a self-loathing, shopping-spree hangover.

I did keep most of my new wardrobe, and as I walk into the school each day donning my uniform next to a fellow male student teacher, I notice several things. I really, really like being tall(ish). My steps are a lot shorter than his due to constrictions of my heel-skirt combo. I walk up stairs substantially slower than he can. I get more compliments from housemates on the days I’m dressed “like a teacher” than the days I’m not. And pencil skirts really “accentuate the female shape,” i.e. my ass.

This flattery is particularly confusing since now I’m back in the same environment of dress codes that tries to cover up the female body as much as possible to reduce “distraction” in the school environment. I’m dressing like a “young female professional,” which so far has translated into “sexy but covered up and not too sensible.”

This isn’t the first time I realized that how women dress, or are expected to dress, often doesn’t make any sense. Like many other people, I’ve grown up in the gray area of dress codes, abiding somewhat by the rules that either aren’t a big deal if they’re broken or serious crimes, depending on who catches you. Shorts and skirts had to be below your fingertips, but more importantly, if guys tried to look up your skirt when you walked up the stairs, your skirt was too short. It was your fault, not theirs.

Shirts couldn’t be too tight, and necklines couldn’t be too low. It was a rule that really varied based on cup size. There was also the spaghetti-strap rule. That is, spaghetti straps weren’t allowed, but lasagna-straps were fine. Of course, the point was not to let your bra straps show because bra straps are a massive, obscene secret that no one knows about.

The school dress codes were never about looking nice or neat or representative of the school culture. They were about covering up our bodies and making us feel like shit if we disobeyed them. Come May and June, you’d begin to notice the reappearance of girls who had to change into their gym shorts in the middle of the day after being hunted down, chased throughout the school by hall monitors wielding flaming sticks, while screaming, “witch.” Or worse, “slut.”

Guys, however, simply had to cover up their crack and not wear shirts advertising alcohol. Easy enough.

Anyway, as I continue with life in the real world and continue to clothe myself in the contradictory bizarreness of feminine professional apparel, I’ve become more aware of how sensible, if not streamlined, men’s clothes are and how strangely sexy women are expected to be. It’s as though everything you were taught about how to dress growing up has been slowly, confusingly reversed. Why is it that women are expected to wear the outfit that slows us, makes us walk a little more carefully, requires crossed legs and often costs substantially more than men’s attire?

I’m not saying that women who wear heels and cute skirts are anti-feminist dummies. That would only be promoting the same kind of mindset that says “bra straps are sinful,” “women cannot make their own decisions as to how they should dress” and “ she asked for it.” It’s pretty confusing and strange, and it’s something that could potentially affect hiring decisions, respect from students and, in many instances, salary. It’s something to be aware of.

It’s a tricky line to walk between professional and risqué, sensible and cute — especially when you’re wearing heels.

Katie Steen can be reached at katheliz@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.