After class recently a student came up to me to ask, “You were wearing this crazy shirt last week, where was it from?” The shirt – a burnt orange button up that mimics the style of a Mao jacket – was one that I thrifted on a trip to Ireland years ago. A few weeks ago I ran into a professor outside our departmental office – he was wearing a lovely turquoise cardigan with big plastic buttons and, when I complimented him, he replied, “I’m wearing your colors.” Clothing fascinates me because it can become so much of a placeholder for us – I’m the guy in brightly colored clothes with large black plastic glasses – and yet it’s also so often part of who we are. People know me for my color and I like that they know me for it.
As a rule, I detest dress clothes – button up shirts tucked into slacks make me feel like a clown. I am not sure how I will navigate the sartorial demands of the academic job market where men are expected to wear suits – looking professional doesn’t always mean feeling professional or comfortable. For me, dressing up to teach in my PhD program usually means a cardigan over a short sleeve T-shirt and nice jeans or a sweater and nice cords. I want to look presentable – no words on my shirt as a distraction, no shorts in the summer, no ripped jeans, no sweats. The key however to all of these outfits is the color – the acid-washed teal pants are perhaps the most flamboyant of my togs but I need COLOR in my outfits. I tend to dress in cooler jewel tones – teal, turquoise, lime green, mint, so very many purples, burnt orange. I delight in putting these together in ways that remind me of the Fiestaware dishes my parents use at home; growing our dishes were never a matched set of any one color but rather a rainbow of colors on the table. I’m not a fan of clashing or colors that are too same-same being worn together, but I do love a look that is bold and vibrant.
When I was in my first year of my Master’s program, my mother and I went shopping at American Apparel and she bought me a pair of skinny acid-washed teal pants; they are roughly the color and visual texture of the bottom of a hotel pool in a movie set in Los Angeles. “You need to become a professor someday so you can wear these and dress however you want,” my mom said. Her comment makes sense – seasoned academics need not hew to the same rules of decorum in dress that would be enforced in the average office; at the same time of course, as has been shown multiple times already on this blog (for example: here, here, and here), this idea of academic couture is not always the same for everyone teaching at a university as instructors attempt to navigate student assumptions based on gender presentation, perceived race, body type and size, and so on. I am a tall, clearly white, fairly cis-gendered, gay man with a beard and glasses and so I can rock quirky colorful clothes and still (for the most part) be confident in my ability to manage a classroom; I let sarcasm and jokes do the rest (I kid . . . maybe).
I think everyone consciously or subconsciously dresses to be noticed or not noticed in a certain way; for me, colors are key to what I want people to think when I enter the space we’re going to share. When I don’t wear bright colors, I feel less like myself and I know that choosing to dress brilliantly can elevate my mood and help me push against especially drab days. I search out colors and shades that I don’t have: I may own six purple t-shirts but really they are all very different shades from a light mauve to a dark plum; my lime pants are far different from my mint ice-cream pants or my dark forest green pants. I know that laundry day is coming when I go to my dresser and the only tees left are black. I own thirty pairs of pants – along with the requisite comfy jeans and skinny jeans and dressy jeans I also have many colors of pants. I have definitely texted a friend saying, “Should I buy these pants? They are a shade of green I don’t have!” I spent much of undergraduate on the hunt for my holy grail – a pair of purple pants (which I ultimately found on a site that sold twenty dollar jeans and has subsequently revamped itself as a fancier clothing site (and thus moved of my price range for impulse buys)
(As a side note: I wear pants FOREVER which is part of how I have so many pairs, lest you think I’m constantly buying new pairs. Real talk: I still have the first pair of designer jeans I bought in high school – sure they are worn on the ass but I definitely still wear them every once in a while).
There’s a lot of privilege bound up in my ability to say “Hey look at me” with my clothes and yet there’s also something resistant – resistant to the fact that my queer body and desires don’t always do what they’re supposed ( in college, a guy once imitated my walk for us all by demonstrating my swish; a woman in a bar was clearly upset by my laugh) and I don’t always want to show up as the perfect academic colleague (being a graduate student is precarious – I have power to speak up and yet professors have clout and job security I lack ). I am sure that my bright clothes mark me as young or eccentric or queer or a hipster or all of these things – they also mark me as me. Obviously in this age of frat boys in salmon colored shorts and purple polos wearing bright colors is not subversion but it is asking to be looked at and arguing that maybe life would be a little bit better if everything was a bit more playful and a bit more brilliant and a bit louder – and even if we can’t do that with our actual lives, we can do it with our clothes.
J. Brendan Shaw is a PhD candidate who alternates between trying to finish his dissertation and having dance parties in coffee shops. His research looks at Black women’s cultural productions since the Civil Rights Movement and the uses of technology to express queer desire. He would like you to listen to “Desperado” from Rihanna’s Anti and see if you can keep from grinding just a little bit. His style inspirations include Google image searches and his treasured box of 64 Crayola crayons. You can see his departmental page here and read his occasional thoughts about music, pop culture, and identity on his blog the song not traveled. Tweet Brendan @jbrendanshaw