Fashion in the K-12 Classroom

“Ms. A. looks like a hobo.”

These were the words one of my former fifth grade students uttered during my first year of teaching. My fall uniform in NYC consisted of brown, black, or gray pants and a dark-colored sweater. The pants that hung off of my 5′ 2.5″ frame once fit me, but stress and the daily miles of walking that comes with living in NYC left them desperately trying to cling to fat, a hip bone, anything. 

I needed a new wardrobe, but with a monthly student loan repayment minimum of $800+ a month, $1,000+ rent for my apartment, and the constant exhaustion that’s the beast called first year teaching, I couldn’t afford one. More importantly, I didn’t have the energy to shop for one.

My private conversation with the offending child had, admittedly, emotionally loaded questions sprinkled in such as “Do you think teachers don’t have feelings too?” It left her with a chin tucked into her chest, eyes wide and me just too tired to really think or even care much more about it.

I’ve never been one for fashion. I started freshmen year of college still wearing an oversized purple Eeyore sweatshirt.

That was one of my best looking sweatshirts.

I mean, I even had an Eeyore t-shirt to match with it. Senior year I lived in a pink sweatshirt with my college’s logo emblazoned across the front. Though I was in search of a small sweatshirt that fateful shopping day, maybe even a youth large, XXL was all they had…so I purchased it.

Thus, when a 10 year old critiqued my lack of fashion, it was added to the piles of “I’m going to nominate you to What Not to Wear” and “Are you wearing overalls?” (Yes, yes I am.) fashion commentary I ignored in the name of studying, not being vain, and not knowing what to do with a body that was petite but curvy enough to attract a male gaze that I was highly uncomfortable with.

So, I attempted to bury my body while exposing my developing intellect. I worked hard, achieved academically, and landed a good job that left me feeling miserable.

And I did not shop for clothes.

Ironically enough, the comments from 10 year olds (there was another one who wanted to give me a makeover) and a boyfriend who often acted like a 10 year old were the only rude fashion critiques I received throughout my five year stay in New York. While living in the (alleged) fashion capital of the world, one didn’t know what a person was trying to go for when he stepped on the train in an outfit that would make my grandmother shake her head in confusion but delight another.

And since a person couldn’t say what was art, fashion, a cross-pollination of the two or just pure fun, cutting critiques were tossed to the side like garbage on a subway platform.

And with that lack of judgment, I finally felt free. Free from conservative, Southern, boring Americana sartorial choices and the pressure to smash myself into a mold that I didn’t fit into and wasn’t interested in, quite frankly.

Skinny jeans were purchased (which I still don’t think look flattering on any body type, but they’re easier to tuck into winter boots), knee high boots were pulled on, and a crop top was even attempted, stubborn belly fat be damned.

Fall became my favorite season where I would don skirts, boots, and black on black patterened tights. Polka dots, checks, zebra prints, and whimsical lines adorned my legs.  I would happily grab packs of them at my local Target and wear them until the weather warmed and the days began to stretch out again.

My last year in New York, I sat at a bar with current and former co-workers, legs crossed at the ankles, tights on for one last go, and a typical teacher skirt (checkered, black and white) riding up my thighs. This skirt will have to be retired, I thought to myself while pulling it back down.

In the name of self-love, and maybe a Friday Happy Hour, people were discussing their best body parts. Arms, teeth–I paused when it got to me.

“Your legs,” a former co-worker supplied.

“How do you know that?” I asked, pulling at my skirt again. “I wear pants 90% of the time and tights with my skirts the other 10%.”

He shrugged. “I’m a man.”

And there it was. I’d spent my life from puberty onwards trying to hide my legs beneath too much material, pants, tights, and even jackets. Despite the attempts to do so, people commented that I had nice legs…and I just needed to accept it. Compliments weren’t always sexual in nature, and they didn’t always have a hidden agenda. Sometimes they were just that: a compliment, nice words, a spirit lifter.

I sipped my drink and watched, amused, as a woman flirted shamelessly with my co-worker. Clearly, she was not threatened by my presence.

I left New York City for Venezuela, where I began to wear apple red-framed glasses that my younger self would’ve turned away from in horror. In Indonesia, I’m now beginning to play around with multi-colored head scarves as a nod to both my African heritage and the fashionably covered Muslim women I see every day. I miss my fall tights and still think about my too large winter pants as I now step into custom made cotton ones, but I’ve changed climates so my fashion has to change too.

I can’t say that my fashion, or lack thereof, has ever fully reflected my personality though.

But, on second thought, maybe it has. My emotions have more layers than a newborn wrapped for its first winter. I find comfort in layers…a jacket, some tights, a scarf. Maybe it’s because with layers a person has to wait to see what’s underneath, and I don’t like showing my full self to the world. I prefer to have people wait and see.

Or maybe I don’t want to get too into fashion without Stacy and Clinton explaining to me the nuances of dress. Thought the show is off the air, maybe I’m still hoping Stacy and Clinton will show up on my doorstep.

You know, in Jakarta.

This post is my first attempt at The Discover Challenge. I hope to participate every week in order to develop a habit. Thoughts? Please leave your comments below.

 

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2 thoughts on “Fashion in the K-12 Classroom

  1. I’ve always thought you had a wonderful sense of style. I remember one winter in New York, when everyone else was shuffling around in shapeless Uggs, you wore a jazzy pair of boots that looked warm, comfortable and very cute – and yes, they showed off your shapely legs. You also really know how to rock a crisp sundress when the rest of us are wilting in the NY humidity!
    I too was mocked for my ill-fitting, bargain basement wardrobe in my first year of teaching – and by fifth graders now that you mention it! I was earning so little that I had to rely on out of date styles I had purchased in fatter times. My redemption came from a friend with connections in the fashion industry who introduced me to sample sales. For the first time, I didn’t try to hide behind my tallest student in the class photo!
    Clothing is a form of self expression, and while I believe everyone should be free wear what they like, it makes sense to think about the impression we are making with our clothes. I often think about a comment made by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when she toured the bombed-out streets of London during World War II. She was criticized for dressing too elegantly for the occasion, to which the Queen Mum responded that the people of London would wear their best clothing if they came to visit her, so it was only right that she should do the same.

    • Thanks, Ms. Meltzer! Yes, I did love those black boots! I have to admit, I would often change out of my Uggs and into those when I got to work. 🙂 And I am a diehard fan of the sundress!

      What’s with the blunt 5th graders?! That’s great your fashionably connected friend was able to introduce you to some sample sales though. I always appreciated your snappy casual suits myself, so I guess we’ve both come a long way from our 1st-year-of-teaching styles.

      I LOVE that anecdote from Queen Elizabeth. She’s right! One thing moving to NYC and then abroad has taught me is that there is a time and a place to be overly casual. The impression we give with our clothes can say, whether we want it to or not, how seriously we take ourselves and the job at hand. It can be considered a form of respect. Do you remember the brouhaha that happened when some college-aged women met President Bush at the White House in flip flop wedges? I remember thinking then they were “too comfortable.” Closed toed shoes for the president, even if it’s one I don’t like!

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