Updated: May 20, 2021
W.Collective x Kaleidoscope
Written by Emily Lu '23 & Illustrated by Anna Gefke '21
(All names of real people have been changed.)
In September of 2020, my new wardrobe and I held hands and walked together into my first adult job. I had been hired as a classroom assistant, a position that I felt supremely unqualified for. The principal of the school knew my family, so despite my lack of experience or a college degree, I was placed in the preschool for the year. While I was sure I’d quickly pick up whatever actual skills I lacked, I worried that I’d be judged on how I looked: too young, too casual, too eccentric. During the weeks leading up to my first day, I panic-scrolled through Depop and threw short skirts and t-shirts into storage. I tried to wrap myself in a style that signaled, “I am an adult. I am a professional. I will take good care of your children. I will be a supportive and responsible coworker. Hiring me was not a mistake.”
And yet, as much as I tried to commit myself to this mold, there were things about my unprofessional self that I couldn’t bear to leave behind. I bought long skirts in the funkiest patterns and materials I could find: swans, neon pink flowers, witchy black velvet. I heaved the deepest sigh as I ordered three pairs of plain black slacks, and mentally promised to wear them with my brightly-colored, puffy-sleeved blouses. I walked the balance between respectable adulthood and childlike fun, and eased myself into a version of adulthood that I could enjoy. Which made sense, I thought, because I was going to be working with children, not in some stuffy office. I picked clothes that thrilled my inner child. “Oh shit, this crayon mask is going to make me look like Miss Frizzle,” I said to myself as I pressed “Add to Cart.” And it did.
My students got a kick out of the way I dressed. Every day, some little kid would call me over at rest time to whisper, “Miss Emily, I like your dress,” or ask if they could touch the little pink turtle keychain on my coat. I loved being drawn into the way they experienced fashion. They had no sense of professionalism or status. Their notions of gender roles could be easily redirected towards curiosity and exploration, as little boys crowded around and asked how I put that red paint on my fingers and how long it would take to chip off. There was no embarrassment or social posturing, just “This is my favorite animal, so I’m going to wear it on my sweater, my mask, and my shoes.”
My coworker, Natalia, also admired our students’ fashion. She would stand with me as the students came in and gush over every fluffy pink jacket, every owl backpack, every pair of sparkly rainbow leggings. “I wish I could get away with dressing like that,” she would say wistfully. I would stand there in my pastel dinosaur sweater and think, “Do it!!!” A few times, I almost said it out loud, but held myself back for fear that she would look up and realize that I was, in fact, dressed like a queer clown. Natalia wore all black every day, “like a New Yorker,” as she would say, and I knew she was too committed to that standard of professionalism to let herself get away with anything more frivolous. One morning, she told us about a former boss of hers who would examine his employees’ fingernails every day. If he found any chipped polish, he would get a bottle of nail polish remover and make them scrub it off right in front of him. “It was harsh, but he was right, it looks so unprofessional,” she said. I nodded thoughtfully as I buried my chipped fingernails deep into my pockets. I would have to be more careful.
Most of the time, I wrapped myself in businesslike whimsy, but sometimes I wrapped myself in quiet revolution. After school, I would sit with my coworker, Mandy, and prep the next morning’s activities. These empty classrooms were Mandy’s symposiums, where she would pontificate about the latest celebrity drama (“Jaden and Willow Smith are confused about their sexualities because their parents are swingers!”) or try to engage me in nasty shit talk about other teachers. One morning, one of our two-year-old students, Luke, came in with a unicorn backpack and dark blue polish on his tiny fingernails. I pretended not to see Mandy give me a look over Luke’s head. That afternoon, I sat quietly, seething, as she complained about how Luke borrowing things from his big sister was okay now, but it was going to cause trouble for him once he got to kindergarten. I went home and furiously painted my nails the exact same shade of blue. Later on in the year, Mandy came in with a rainbow tote bag on her shoulder. “My boyfriend says I shouldn’t wear this, because people might think something crazy, but I just like rainbows!” I immediately started planning my queer wrath outfit for the next day: a short red dress, a jean jacket with hand-embroidered flowers, a spaceship-patterned mask, and a pair of big rainbow earrings. When she saw me, Mandy complimented my earrings, and repeated, “See, people can just wear rainbows, right?” “Yeah, I wear rainbows because I want people to know I’m gay, but it doesn’t have to mean that for you,” I replied cheerfully. “Oh, good for you, girl! I really didn’t mean anything by that, I hope you didn’t take it the wrong way,” she said, and smiled extra wide.
The way I dress at work is a kind of a game: How much offbeat happiness can I show, how much myself can I be, until people start to treat me differently because of it? How many of the buttons on my blouse can I get away with leaving undone? If it’s snowing or raining, can I get away with wearing my stompy pink Timberland boots? How many rainbows can I wear before Mandy starts to think of me as a threat? How much can I let my nail polish chip before Natalia stops taking me seriously? I know in my heart this is all bullshit. I know I would be a good teacher in a pair of sweatpants or a fancy ball gown or a potato sack. But a young, underqualified, queer Asian woman like me has more to prove than she can prove with her talents. If I don’t make people see my worth, if I don’t wrap my value up in a professional outfit and tie it with a bow, they won’t see it. My fashion is a performance, and it works. My coworkers like me. They know how good I am at my job. I’m lucky that the professional version of me is close enough to the real me that it feels like an honest disguise. I’m lucky that my femme queerness flies under straight people’s gaydar for the most part. I’m lucky that coming out was a choice for me. And I’m lucky too, to work in an environment where I don’t feel unsafe telling Mandy she was wrong to assume I was straight. But I also know that, when I am expressing myself in the fullness of who I am, I am most often misunderstood. I have to be so, so careful with how I am perceived. And this makes me furious.
I wish everyone saw me the way my students saw me. I wish more adults would let themselves delight in sparkles and strawberry prints. I wish that style could lose all of its homophobic, sexist, racist, transphobic, classist connotations and just be about joy. I wish I could wrap myself in whatever made me smile at myself in the mirror, and then go to work and be trusted as a professional no matter what. I wish I could be seen. It is so exhausting to have to think about myself from the inside so much and have no one on the outside return the favor. My fashion is so much about careful communication. I wish it could just be, with no pressure and no judgement. I wish I could just be.
I am reading a picture book to a student. She points to a character and asks, “Is that a boy or a girl?” I say I don’t know. We turn to the next page. “Oh, it’s a girl, because she’s wearing a dress.” “Not necessarily,” I say, about to launch into a speech about how fashion is genderless and gender presentation doesn’t equal gender identity and gender is a social construct and- “Oh right, boys can wear dresses too. Everybody can wear whatever they want,” she says. I feel the bitter fury in my chest begin to ease. I turn the page.