Say what you will, but Diane Von Furstenburg has saved me in many an interview.
The wrap dress (specifically black) has been a staple in my closet since I was a young teen. Fat, femme, and particularly low-income, a black wrap dress from Cato’s or Wal-Mart with some Payless pumps would get the job done and get the lady hired. It’s still a staple that hangs in my closet to this day.
Professional dress while fat, Black, and femme is a mix of shield and sword in my war waged against societal pressure. Growing up extremely insecure about my size and my clothing, the thoughts I had about my first job seemed to revolve around clothes: what to wear to work and what to buy with my wages from work. When I enrolled in college, I had three pieces of “professional” clothing: an untailored black George blazer from Wal-Mart and two suits with skirts that were hideous in every way. I didn’t wear heels. I owned no accessories. I had no concept of self in these clothes other than myself as an applicant, particularly an applicant with no social or professional cachet or agency. It wasn’t until I was twenty when I had earned enough to meaningfully shop at Macy’s at 34th that I purchased, the standard, the Golden Ticket. The wrap dress. I put it on and for once, saw my self instead of my job. I recognized me.
Professional fat fashion, or “fatshion,” has gotten a bad wrap (ha!) from fat women and activists - and for good reason. Rather than a way to affirm or express oneselves, the dearth of marketable fatshion, isolated only to wrap dresses, skirts, and blouses, is evidence of systems of restraint on the fat femme body. Told what to do to be considered “attractive,” “marketable,” or otherwise “presentable,” professional dress is sold to fat women based on its ability to “hide” rather than celebrate. While I personally felt comfortable in my dress, it was not lost on me that every other item in that Macy’s section looked the same. Lifeless. Shapeless. Black, navy blue, or grey. Professional wear, particularly for fat women, becomes another arena in which our selves are flattened in order to make ourselves smaller, more consumable, in professional industries that rely on hyper-competitive logics and other forms of self-depreciation.
In a setting where women are judged harshly for our EVERYTHING, and fat women doubly so, professional dress becomes fraught with double meaning that spans across the spectrum of identity. My fatness, when coupled with my low-income, race, and gender made me an outsider to the pristine professional world at the onset. At every interview, whether I was cognizant or not, I was waging war against decades and centuries of stereotypes that reverberated across generations. The assumptions placed on Black bodies of laziness, ignorance and criminality. The assumptions placed on femme bodies of vapidness and frivolity. The assumptions placed on fat bodies as slovenly. All of these things came like tags to every appointment, interview, or job fair. Though unfair when considering the systemic structure of income inequality and the proliferation of classist attitudes that promote a false meritocracy, clothing, particularly well-appointed clothing, I came to understand could be weaponized as an equalizer. Clothing, with the right weaponization, can become a tool in which to manipulate and explore the intersections of identity, work, and way we view femme feminism.
As more women, femmes, “Millennials,” and other folk enter the workforce, sartorial expectations and professional politics have shifted alongside, though not in an all-encompassing pace. More than the “Casual Friday,” our grandfathers may have been thankful for, the workplace of today demands a reimagination of dress as a political area that encompasses gender, sexuality, class, race and yes, even fatness. Whether it is allowing natural hair in the workplace (WITHOUT allowing touching!!), allowing accessories or tattoos, or welcoming the Visible Belly Outline (VBO), coded into our experiences as fat women and femmes in the workplace is the experience of navigating fashion (or fatshion) with the needs of our own career advancement while simultaneously taking into account the cost of hyper- or invisibility. Too often, the burden is placed on women and femmes, fat or otherwise, to ask: “If I am too much of myself, my self that has been at-risk or denied from these spaces previously, will I lose my job? Do I risk harassment? And will people notice my work or only my stomach?” It’s more than enough to make you teeter on your pumps...it’s enough to make you hide, to make you small, to make you quit!
As I look forward to teaching Gender Studies in the Fall, I return to that dress, though for different reasons. I’ve since added one other number to my dress rotation, a sheath style black and white contrast dress that’s nearing the end of its life. Thanks to the activism of fat women and femmes and a jump in pay-grade post graduation, I am eyeing a few pieces from ASOS, Old Navy, and yes, even Forever21 (God Bless Academia) as a way to assert and affirm both my own personal style while still adhering to the politics of my career. Coupled with a few pieces that affirm my political alignment and my African heritage, I am prepared to make a statement that embraces a whole me, professionally, politically, and personally. However, steady and true in my closet remains the now four-year-old wrap dress as a gentle reminder that “having it all” as my career advances will inherently mean balancing it all. In a world where job prospects are already bleak, racism and sexism thrive, and fatphobia rises like the sun, every professional environment I enter is potentially hostile. In many ways, the work that needs to be done to make the job market equitable for all requires a level to activism, radical feminism, and political realignment that is daunting on the best day. It is difficult to be marginal while suggesting that the center might be an option. However, as all folks in battle know, there are small comforts to be had. Be it the wrap dress that you feel suits your figure, a sharp suit that affirms your androgyny, a well-tailored blouse that doesn’t gap between the buttons, or an ankara blazer that reminds you of homes, making sartorial choices that affirm our experiences as fat women will always be a classic choice.
by Shondrea Thornton