By: Emrose Kathawala
Photos by: Julia Hyacinth
When my high school principal announced that leggings and sweatshirts were no longer allowed in the dress code, the kids at my school freaked. They were yelling “Bloody Mary” and complaining 24/7 over something that, for me, made no difference. I had always dressed nicely for school, and people knew it. My friend Jean and I were playfully bullied for “trying so hard for school.” Most people wanted to wear sweatshirts (and broke dress code for this convenience) and constantly asked us why we wanted to look so nice – it was just school.
I’ve had similar conversations here at Georgetown. While walking into the ICC auditorium for my giant freshman Econ lecture, my friend Lizzy asked me, “Why is everyone so dressed up? In the morning, all I want to do is put on a sweatshirt and leggings.” That conversation brought me back to something my friend Jean once told me that completely changed the way I look at how people dress every day.
She asserted, “Everyone always tells me I try so hard to look nice every day. But that’s because I was raised to know where I stand in society. If my brother and I wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt, as a black woman walking with my black brother, we would have a whole set of assumptions made about us. I don’t have the privilege of wearing whatever I want – no matter how comfy – without knowing exactly how I could be perceived. Black people wearing sweatpants have died simply because that combination is perceived as threatening. I have to be conscious of that. I was raised to be conscious of that.”
I’ve had a few conversations about this topic since coming to Georgetown. I remember talking to my friend Samantha about it. She said, “I wonder if the people who wear sweatpants every day ever even think about it. I wish I didn’t have to think about it.”
Of course, we all know that there is privilege to dressing up. Affording all the brand-name clothing, spending money to create individualized outfits… There’s privilege in being able to afford to dress up. But what about the people who can’t afford not to? Is self-presentation just about our individuality, or are there many more underlying factors that affect how and why we feel the need to dress a certain way?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her novel Americannah, writes “If you swear, or dress shabbily, do you think that people might say this is because of the bad morals or the poverty or the illiteracy of your race?” I think within this quote is the heart of the issue – is what we wear only a reflection of our personality, or is it also an acknowledgment and reaction to the way we perceive ourselves in society, and how society perceives us?
And it’s much more than a race issue. It spans a spectrum of identities, classes, and statuses. For example in the film Ladybird, Ladybird’s mom yells at her for not keeping her clothes well-kept and ironed, because the father just lost his job and no one will hire someone whose kid wears wrinkled, ill-kept clothing. Though this may seem like an exaggeration to some, it carries weight for many.
I think it’s always interesting to flip the script, and see what a discussion from the other angle can open up for us and for our perceptions of the world around us. It’s easy to see the privilege of dressing up. It’s a lot harder to acknowledge the privilege of dressing down.