Powerful Dressing: Artfully Challenging Sexism in the Academy

Year: 2018

Author: Knight, Linda, Blaise, Mindy, Gray, Emily

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

‘Power Dressing’ is an arts project by #FEAS (Feminist Educators Against Sexism) feminist research collective that looks at the ways dress codes create and uphold identity expectations in the academy. Conventional conceptions of power masculinise, streamline, tailor and unify: women in universities perform additional invisible labour as they find ways to adapt their appearances to fit their roles. A reversible jacket is the focus of Power Dressing. The jacket resembles the dress codes that emerged in 1980s: the sumptuous fabrics, the large shoulder pads are reminiscent of popular culture and television shows that began to script women characters in powerful ways.
The Power Dressing jacket is reversible because women must constantly switch roles in the various contexts they find themselves in as professionals. There is a metallic side. It is marked and tarnished like the armour we develop to fend off blows to our confidence and legitimacy, and the common feelings women have as imposters in the academy. The fur side is fake and refers to the ways older women are portrayed as predatory: as ‘cougars’, acting too outrageously. But – the fur side is also about being prey. Wild cats are rare, prized for their fur and distinct markings. Women can be powerful in the academy, but they are always, also, prey. Their presence in the academy is always at risk, always contingent.
Feminist educators and students from across the world were invited to wear the jacket and strike a pose of strength, of power. Photographs taken of the poses speak of the diverse agencies of each feminist educator and student. The collection are taken with permission and form an online exhibition of powerful portraits of feminists working and studying in universities.
A selection of the collection will be exhibited at AARE. Many of the images are of AARE members and friends from Australia and farther afield. Accompanying the exhibition will be a small research project that invites the audience to write reactions to the images. These may be in direct response to the photographs, or of thoughts and experiences prompted by the images.
The exhibition will form part of a #FEAS arts intervention: twice daily throughout the conference delegates are invited to don the jacket and have their photo taken striking their own pose of power. Those giving permission will have their images added to the #FEAS Power Dressing online exhibition at www.feministeducatorsagainstsexism.com