Why I’m Not Toning Myself Down For Academia

It’s been an interesting few weeks for womxn in academia. After a few articles and Twitter threads began commenting on the hideous “appropriate dress code” advice we often receive, I thought I’d add my two cents to the debate, essentially to say: “Fuck your dress code for womxn in academia,” through a parade of fantastic new outfits by FemmeLuxe that I’ll be sneaking into academic conferences this Autumn.


My extra-ness (and this post) are sponsored by FemmeLuxe, who have provided some of my conference looks for this Autumn.

Turns out academic conferences are quite the turn-up – every conference I’ve been to so far had at least one fancy dinner party, either as a welcome, a send-off or both. In September I’ll be speaking at a big criminology conference in Ghent, Belgium, where an elegant dinner in a former monastery is also on the cards – so I’m getting ready to be as extra as possible to confuse those who think female-presenting academics should do this to be heard:

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Dress Code For Womxn In Academia

I’ve been ranting about how womxn are often made to feel like an oddball in academia for a while – exhibit A below, but also here in this blog post. My main issue is that, on one hand, because I’m young and female I’m hardly identified as one of the speakers – I’m always the student or the intern in people’s eyes until I actually present my papers. But also, more often than not, I get odd comments about what I’m wearing that either veer towards the creepy, or the surprised (e.g. “Such a bold choice! Good on ya!”) …. Uhm, what?

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This week I am one of the few academics invited to speak and present my research at a tech-based conference. This is a huge honour, because to me, sometimes, #academia and #tech seem to live in their own little bubble, but society would really benefit from their cooperation. Yet, in both fields, I often feel like an outsider. 👩🏻‍🏫 My hobbies automatically make me an unlikely #academic to some (I personally think they make me a better academic but OK) and well… tech-wise, I’m female. The unwritten laws of academia and tech prevent women, young and #lgbt people from joining – and it’s always clear how much of an off an oddball I am when I walk into conference dressed in something that isn’t boring. 👩🏻‍🎤 When I walked in, day 1, with my @zara red suit this week, a group of men started giggling, telling each other: “Are we here for the same thing?” Maybe they meant it as a compliment, but to me it was one more example of how women are meant to tone themselves down in certain environments to be taken seriously. Well, I won’t do that. 💁🏻‍♀️ I’ve always enjoyed standing out. Your clothes are a big part of that first impression, and I like to play with that – especially since my age and gender always lead people to think I’m an intern or student instead of a speaker, published #author (in academia and fiction) and #researcher. I could present in a dinosaur onesie or in my fave performing thong, but I still have skills and insights in my field. And people will have to listen, because I am qualified. Luckily, events like this conference are hosting a growing number of women and the concern for inclusion is one of their top ones. The environment is friendly, and people are encouraging connections and even have a group looking after you if are affected by misconduct. All I hope is that the future for women in business/academia/tech allows for yes self-obliteration and more individuality 🤘🏻[Full disclosure: I did put a t-shirt and the rest of the suit on for the conference, although these pants look dope with my @intimissimiofficial bra 😛😛😛]

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In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about how womxn’s mere presence in certain sectors – online and IRL – always becomes the subject of debate. Should we be toning our online profiles down to appear more respectable? Should we wear clothes that don’t distract others during our presentations? Should we, basically, be female, but not too much?

A recent Salty.World article looked at how sexual expression via social media – e.g. explicit Instagram profiles – are still frowned upon in the workplace despite how educational, artful or creative they may be. Then, the brilliant Hannah McCann parodied the whole appropriate dress code for womxn in academia thing with a Twitter thread that became viral:

“I wrote the thread in a fit of annoyance after seeing one too many tweets about what women in academia should and shouldn’t wear,” she told The Huffington Post. “It’s something academic women think about a lot, because the profession is very gendered – the ‘intellectual’ is coded as male.”

This post hopes to add to this debate half-jokingly. It’s not to say that uniforms, or a dress code, are wrong. I remember ‘editing’ my style according to the clients I met while working in PR, mainly because when selling something, there’s a school of thought that says you may need to tailor your appearance or language to your target audience. Similarly, when you’re representing institutions or companies, you might want to go with that institution or company’s vibe both in your tone of voice and clothing.

The whole ‘dress code’ shebang becomes a problem when it becomes gendered, race or class-based – something that, according to recent discussions, has been happening a lot.

It’s Useful To Stand Out

I remember back in the early days of my PR career, an article about what women should wear in PR offices made waves for the wrong reasons: telling a creative bunch what they should and shouldn’t wear seemed to go completely against the ethos of PR as a profession. I may have felt particularly attacked by that article, since I considered my boss’ decision to put: “Deems a leotard suitable work attire” on my business card a badge of honour.

Similarly, academia, is meant to be a space for innovative ideas and progressive thoughts. Even if academics may be perceived as old and stuffy, universities actually produce new knowledge, which sounds like innovation to me. If we exclude the limit of decency – which, anyway, has been changing with the times – it seems a bit redundant to tell womxn in particular what to wear.

In offices and in academia, I have often seen men look disheveled, or showing skin in a way that would be frowned upon if a woman were to do so (e.g. shorts or tank tops, or stained, loose clothing). The fact that this type of dress code didn’t change leads me to think that no one was invited for a chat by HR, or that if they did, they didn’t comply and nothing happened. Yet womxn, in meetings or articles often chaired or written by women themselves, have to deal with countless talk about what is and isn’t appropriate for work.

I believe that it’s actually a good thing to stand out at conferences or in lecturers. My students remember me and often feel more inclined to talk to me because I don’t look too different from them. It’s easy to spot me in a crowd of t-shirts or tweed jackets at conferences if you want to network or talk about my research. Your clothes are almost like a business card… and I’d rather my business card was a bright red power suit than a boring shirt or a t-shirt that has seen better days.

It’s Your Job Not To Get Distracted

The fact that we are still going on about a female-specific dress code in academia and at work in general shows that, still, womxn’s bodies are not fully their own and that they are still intended as an object for male consumption, enjoyment or temptation. We don’t just exist and work – we exist and work under a constant male gaze, that is distracted, repelled or turned on by us and therefore feels entitled to tell us what to wear… Or that is always kept in mind when thinking what we should prepare for.

I like to dress feminine most days, and it’s unfair that womxn should tone their femininity down to avoid ‘distracting’ men. It’s also unfair that, often, when we talk about dress codes for womxn in certain sectors we completely disregard womxn that don’t like to wear heels or skirts – often considered staples of female workwear, as much as your one-way ticket into a posh club. In short, we have to be feminine enough, but not too sexy. We have to look pleasing, but not distracting.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never personally been distracted by a lecturer or a speaker – and I mean male or female – because of something they wore. They could have been beautiful, ugly, serving Sharon Needles zombie realness, but I’m there for what they’ve got to say, not for what they’re wearing. I may want or not want to copy their style, I might think: “Really? Crocs?” but what they are wearing is not my business. So I don’t think I’m being crazy when I say that what womxn wear for work is nobody’s business, so long as it doesn’t incite hate or is completely inappropriate to the occasion.

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As listeners, it’s our job not to get distracted. And I don’t think that wearing earrings, a tight suit or choosing not to conform to ideas of ‘feminine’ professional attire distracts others. If they get distracted, they should drink a glass of water, wipe their forehead and go on listening.

Not Toning It Down For Academia

For me, my clothes are an extension to my personality and they represent individuality. Nobody comes to their job (or to academia) as a blank canvas, and clothes may be a way to reflect that. In fact, for me, clothes have been a point of difference since I began wearing giant dude metal band shirts in high school – hardly provocative, or distracting. I now realise it was the ultimate ‘blending in with the boys’.

I’ve now gone to the opposite end of that, but I believe that my past and creativity made me who I am, and they’re reflected both on my research and dress code. If I hadn’t worked in PR companies that championed creativity, I may have never chosen to study an interdisciplinary field like cyber-criminology. If I hadn’t become a pole dancer, I probably wouldn’t have bothered too much about social media activism and the algorithms ruling abusive posts’ reporting or the Instagram shadowban.

This doesn’t mean I wear my life history on my fashion choices. Yet, apart from being a chance to express my individuality, clothes are without doubt a cultural thing.

I was reading an article about what the Italian (male) style is on Esquire Italia the other day, and I would like to apply it to dress codes for womxn in academia or in any job, really. In the article, journalist Antonio Mancinelli discusses the importance of “fare bella figura”, an Italian expression signaling the idea of virtue blending good morals and presentation, similar to the Ancient Greek kalos kai agathos.

Mancinelli mentions how, while certain professions have had to introduce ‘casual Fridays’ and in some countries the contrast between formal wear and extravagance is more pronounced, Italy nonchalantly blends both. He quotes the late FIAT boss Gianni Agnelli, a style icon of his time, as an example, showing how he wore jeans or other casual wear to meetings, always with style and nonchalance. Without distracting anyone.

I think that’s the type of dress code I identify with. I don’t like excessive formality, and I don’t like excessive sloppiness, and I like being able to dip in and out of both to create something unique.

My Plan To Confuse Old White Academics With FemmeLuxe This Autumn

So without further ado, here are four FemmeLuxe outfits I’ll be bringing to academic conferences or to university this Autumn.

Remember when I said that academic conferences can be quite the party? Yeah, I didn’t know either. But I’ve been to at least two academic conferences with super extra networking drinks and separate parties, so I’m not going to be caught unprepared. One of my absolute favourites from this round of FemmeLuxe items is this Angelica Black Belted Bodycon Midi Dress, which I’ll wear to gala nights (I’ve already got one on the cards), because it’s very black widow and I’m living for it.

Black Belted Bodycon Midi Dress – Angelica
Black Belted Bodycon Midi Dress – Angelica

Another potential gala night number, the Savannah Brown One Shoulder Ruched Slinky Midi Dress is great to dance in and showcases my giant pole dancer arms, just in case some old white male academic wanted to stop by and comment about appropriate female dress codes.

Brown One Shoulder Ruched Slinky Midi Dress – Savannah
Brown One Shoulder Ruched Slinky Midi Dress – Savannah

Slightly more informal and more appropriate for a conference night-out, the Halle Black Slinky One Shoulder Jumpsuit looks great with both heels and flats. The picture uses the Vespa as a further example of Italian style… JK, I was running out of backgrounds.

Black Slinky One Shoulder Jumpsuit – Halle
Black Slinky One Shoulder Jumpsuit – Halle

Last but not least, the Gianna Red Long Split Fitted Trousers. OK, I probably won’t wear these with a bralette or a crop top, but they look awesome with a shirt or a bodysuit, and can be worn with heels or flats for lectures or presentation… and they’re red, which is mycolourâ„¢.

Red Long Split Fitted Trousers – Gianna
Red Long Split Fitted Trousers – Gianna

My ultimate dream is to do a lecture in pole heels and trust me, one day it will happen. Sooner than you think.

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This GIF may or may not be a clue

Over and out.

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