What Not to Wear?
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Politics and Activism

What Not to Wear?

Why are females more restricted and negatively perceived when it comes to professional wear?

What Not to Wear?

As a beginning sophomore, I’ve learned a lot from my first year of college, especially from my first year competing in forensics. This activity was the absolute highlight of college so far. I’ve learned how to write speeches, put together interpretation manuscripts, participate in policy debate, and I even dealt with the very intimidating (and it’s rare that I feel that way) event called Impromptu Speaking. Not only have I learned competition skills, I’ve met so many people and made many new friends from different schools. I am going into broadcast journalism after I graduate, so I view forensics as early job experience.

I remember my first tournament like it was yesterday. It took place in the fall 2015 semester at Rice University in Houston. We left our campus on a Friday afternoon, and arrived at Rice to watch some debate rounds. Then, we had to get up at what I call an ungodly hour the next morning. I put on my brand new black Calvin Klein dress that I purchased myself, along with brand new Louise et Cie peep toe leather pumps that had bows and gold accents. I topped off my outfit with a golden butterfly pin that was a birthday present from my high school French teacher, who is like a second mother to me. My look was completed with fixed hair and makeup.

When we arrived at the campus to get checked in, I noticed that I was floating amidst a sea of suited competitors. This didn’t really bother me, because I liked the way that I looked. I even received a few compliments from other competitors. My first rounds of Impromptu were failures. But, the thing that kept me feeling positive throughout competition, was knowing that I at least looked sharp. Although this was my first ever tournament, I had unknowingly set myself apart from the other competitors on the Texas circuit….and it wasn’t just through me being new. It was because, from that tournament on, I chose to wear professional wear of my choice (such as dresses, a blouse and slacks, or a unique pencil skirt) rather than the typical suits.

When most think of Speech and Debate, they automatically think of nerds or geeks in ugly suits. Although this, in my opinion, is partially true, it is understood that suits are considered the most professional of business attire in this activity. Men wear the typical suits, including a dress shirt, blazer, tie, slacks, and dress shoes. Women wear a suit consisting of a blazer and either a matching skirt or pants, along with pantyhose, and pumps. Women’s suits range from many different colors, fabrics, and prints, which seems like we have many options for competition wear, when in reality they all look the same. Think of it as a “uniform." Some of the women’s suits I’ve seen in competition, I jokingly put to one of my coaches, looked like couch cushions from my grandmother’s house. Honestly, who wears a skirt suit that is peridot green with emerald green swirls? The seventies called, they want their wallpaper back. All joking aside, my question is that in an activity of self expression, why not make dressing differently a part of that? One can still look highly sharp and professional while standing out from the crowd.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire, respect, and look up to my coaches and their wives, but I never understood why there was a lot of pressure for me to conform clothing wise. It baffled me, because any time I had to dress up for an event in the past, no one had a problem with what I wore. At our spring state level tournament, my head coach’s wife and I got into a somewhat heated discussion about pantyhose. That day, I had on a skirt. When a female competitor wears a skirt or dress, she is highly encouraged to wear pantyhose. I choose not to because I don’t like them and plus they slide down, which I explained. She told me that they’re necessary, and that I need to look professional. I then asked, “and what I have on isn’t?” Her response was that it was just…different. I explained that it was the point. I was told that, instead, I should choose to stand out with my work.

I eventually bought two skirt suits from my assistant coach’s wife, but not because of pressure, but because I wanted to and I thought that they were actually cute. Not only that, I’d wear them every once in a while.

Then came the middle of March, which meant competing in nationals. Pi Kappa Delta Nationals is very important to our team, and from what I experienced, an honor to be a part of the organization. My assistant coach’s wife brought some more of her suits to our practice because she wanted me to borrow some. I politely declined saying that I have the two I bought from her packed, along with two outfits of my choice. I was told that it was really important that I wear suits on all days, and ended up borrowing two from her. I decided to cease my stubbornness just this one time… but not without asking why it’s such a big deal to wear only suits.

In the answer to my question, I learned that it’s yet another “gender image thing.” We already have many double standards and stereotypes between the genders as it is, yet I didn’t seem to notice this one. I was told that women are perceived more positively in competition when they look “soft and feminine,” which is especially important in debate or limited preparation events. Many of the winning female competitors are dressed in skirt suits (although some wore suits with pants, or the occasional mix and match, a point I tried making in the debate of dress), so it seems almost as if blending in gets the win. I also learned that female competitors in debate or one of the two limited preparation events are perceived as more assertive when wearing pants. Assertiveness isn’t a bad thing, but it often has a negative connotation when applied to women. This is definitely true, according to an article from xojane on May 5, 2015, stating that the “masculine choice” of pants in the professional setting will give off this perception.

The feminine professional image including skirts, makeup, and heels is definitely pushed by some on the competitive circuit…although if the feminine image is taken too far, it gets perceived negatively. God forbid if a woman wears flats, or too high of a heel. These perceptions are either “sloppy” with flats, or “sleazy” with too high of a heel. I recently stumbled upon an article from the Huffington Post, titled “Sheryl Sandberg’s Shoes Perfectly Illustrate the Hypocrisy of Tech’s Casual Dress Code.” It discusses how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears his typical grey tee shirt and jeans to work everyday, while Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is often seen in stilettos and professional dress wear. One line from the article states that “women can’t just roll out of bed, toss on yesterday’s jeans, brush their teeth, and do well at work. If they do, they’ll struggle in the professional world.” Another line states that “women who spend more time grooming—including efforts like putting on makeup—are promoted more often and make more money than their bare faced colleagues, according to one recent study.” Whether the professional setting is a forensics tournament or a business office, these double standards of women’s dress still apply. I’m not against looking professional for the activity in any way, I just want to do so in my own way.

In the debate of dress, this is what I’ve learned. Even though forensics is an activity of self expression, the double standard of women’s dress (along with conformity) is definitely pushed. One female competitor even told me that she was critiqued on one of her ballots for her professional dress choice, rather than critiqued for her work. As long as competitors look professional in what they’re wearing, no one should be forced to wear something they do not want to wear. What I am wearing shouldn’t be an issue, unless it is something unprofessional, which is never the case. As a sophomore, and new vice president of my team, I will set an example for current and incoming team members….one that includes standing out. I want to show them that being different is okay. I also want to show everyone, from coaches to team members to other competitors, that you can stand out by dress and by work. There’s the meme online that says “get you a girl who can do both.” Well, this girl will show that you CAN in fact do both and still win. I’m looking forward to the upcoming speech season. It will be a good one.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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