When I was a little girl I apparently wore dresses; there are pictures in the photo album to prove it. As I got older I ditched the dresses and it was mostly about comfort. I hate nylon pantyhose and tights passionately and in the late 70’s/early 80’s the fashion rules of the day dictated that bare legs with dresses or skirts were a fashion faux pas. Maybe it’s because I’ve only worn cheap versions of these monstrosities, but the itching and pulling is enough to drive me insane. Once in the lab I cut up a pair of pantyhose to serve as a makeshift filtration device; it was immensely satisfying! From that point on I was firmly in the pants camp. Pants are also considerably warmer and you don’t need to worry about accidently flashing people when you wear them (take note Britney Spears ). You can easily run wild throughout the neighbourhood catching crayfish, tadpoles, and avoiding snapping turtles while wearing pants. The only time that I wear a dress or a skirt these days are at weddings or fancy dinners. From this perspective wearing pants was a personal choice. Since starting my scientific career it’s also been a practical and necessary one.
When I first started working in a lab, it didn’t make sense to wear skirts or dresses (or shorts for that matter) from a health and safety perspective. All of the labs that I’ve worked in have required the use of personal protective gear including a lab coat. That lab coat is there to protect you, but it can only do so much. If you have bare legs exposed underneath your lab coat due to wearing a dress, skirt, or shorts you are placing yourself at risk. Don’t think that it can happen to you? I have a co-worker who used to think that way until she accidentally spilled phenol on herself in the lab. Many of the experiments that I do are messy and it doesn’t make financial sense to destroy “nice” clothes if it can be avoided. The same goes for shoes. We aren’t allowed to wear open toed shoes or sandals in the lab for the same reason. When running around doing experiments I’ll go with a pair of sneakers or loafers every time. This is also a keen survival strategy for when the zombie apocalypse occurs and making a speedy get-away will be important. That being said, I’m sure that Dr. Isis will hold her own regardless of what fabulous shoes she happens to be wearing that day!
In addition to the practical reasons that inform my clothing choices, there are larger societal and cultural factors that influence my professional wardrobe. I was reminded about this topic by today’s post on Tenure, She Wrote. And here we get to the sticky point; the double standard when it comes to how female and male scientists dress for work and how they are perceived based on what they are wearing. It’s a tricky tight rope to walk and for me personally takes up way too much of my mental energy most mornings as I decide what to wear to work. Judging by previous blog posts on the topic, I’m not alone. A quick Google search on the topic turned up a pretty amusing article from 1998 on the ScienceCareers website about a graduate student looking for a professional outfit. More recently the topic has been covered by a super post by My Laser Boyfriend which outlines some great fashion options that are realistic and tasteful. Neurotic Physiology also had a good post about the double standards of dress for men and women and how to deal with long hair in the lab. The Singular Scientist discusses how female scientists are portrayed on TV and in film and on difficult conversations that she’s had to have with trainees about inappropriate clothing choices. A more academic analysis of this double standard can be found in this Tenure, She Wrote post.
It would be great to live in a world where your fashion choices didn’t influence what people think about your competence or abilities as a scientist, but as some of the posts above can attest, we do not live in that world. At each stage of my career I have made a conscious effort to dress more professionally based on the adage to “dress for the job you want” and I feel that so far it has served me well. I’m at the point in my career where I’m feeling comfortable and secure enough in my position that I can start to make some bolder fashion choices. Up until now my professional clothing choices have been very conservative. This past year I made the revolutionary decision to add scarves into my outfit rotations! With that in mind, here are some links to websites that I’ve found useful for getting some ideas about what components are useful to have in a professional wardrobe:
Some people may think that having an interest in fashion, dressing stylishly, and being a successful female scientist are mutually exclusive. They are not. I count as role models several strong women who are excellent scientists as well as very snazzy dressers. There may be hope for me yet…