Faculty Fashion: Teachers and Staff express themselves through their clothing

Emily Sun, Staff Writer

Halfway through class, English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin’s student took a pair of scissors and cut several holes in the blue v-neck sweater he was wearing that day. The student had said it would look better distressed, he said. “I was like, ‘could you actually show me?’” He liked the look, partly. “I have not worn it again — yet!”

Fashion is a way to define oneself, Administrative Assistant to the Grade Deans Ennis Smith said. Working in an institution that is by nature conformist, he finds room for individuality through his color selection, accessories like his ball chain necklace or a wrist cuff, and — always — patterned socks, he said. On Wednesday, his socks were a stacked layer of blue, cream, and speckled brown. “I have to dress myself to wake myself up,” he said. “I’m always looking for just one element that shocks [the outfit] into existence.”

Even when the school went remote at the start of the pandemic, Upper Division (UD)  history teacher Dr. Ellen Bales still dressed up to teach over Zoom, she said. “It sends a certain message about being serious and respecting my students,” she said. “It’s important to present yourself, especially when you’re in the middle of a global catastrophe.”

English teacher Jennifer Huang started to teach at the school after completing graduate school, where her go-to outfit was sweaters and leggings, she said. “When I got this job, I had a little bit of a panic because I was like, ‘they’re not going to take me seriously.’” She bought a haul of “serious” clothing — button-downs, black slacks, close-toed shoes — then realized once she got to the school that she could dress how she wanted and settled into her personal style.

At Huang’s previous university teaching job, when she was fresh out of college and only a few years older than her students, she stuck with a formal uniform. “I really felt like I had to establish through my dress sense that I was older, wiser, and I should be looked up to as a figure of authority,” she said. “At HM, that’s less of an issue just because I’m a lot older.”

Like Huang, Casdin also underwent a style switch when he started teaching. For a decade before he became a teacher, Casdin only wore a button-down shirt, blue jeans, and Doc Martens. When he got a teaching job out of graduate school, he swapped the casual look for a jacket and tie and stuck to it, he said. “I was afraid of not being taken seriously.” He avoids the cliche “Brooks Brothers” playbook; anyone can match a jacket, shirt, and pants, so he throws a tie in the mix to up the challenge. “When I find a combination that I consider to be perfect, I never do it again,” he said. “It’s more of an exercise for me.”

When World Languages Department Chair Maria del Pilar Valencia started teaching, she dressed a bit more formally so students could tell she was the teacher, she said. “Then I grew up, so they know I am the teacher and there is no need to do that.” She loves a good dress — one that has pockets, is put together without being stuffy, does not break the bank, and “knows how to teach,” so she can move comfortably in it without getting tangled up, she said. “Dresses make me happy.”

Coats are a style staple for Smith because of the drama in how they move when worn, which he is attuned to from his background as an actor, Smith said. “I love dusters, I love Chesterfields, I love coats that have a Raglan Sleeve.” He especially loves to thrift for vintage, timeless pieces made with genuine fabric, an appreciation he learned from his seamstress mother and tailor brother. “My mother’s bedroom was piled high with fabric, buttons, and thread, and she made all of my sister’s clothes,” he said. “I was constantly aware of the talk about clothing.”

Bales knows a good outfit when she sees one, she said. She still remembers the coat she begged her mother to buy when she was five years old — fluffy, red faux fur with animal-engraved gold buttons. “It looked fantastic,” she said. When she was a child, fashion was a way for Bales to connect with her grandmother, who had a strong sense of style, she said. As she grew up, her interest continued as she learned to sew and knit, thrifted throughout high school, and absorbed knowledge from fashion magazines. “I’ve always found it fun,” she said. “And I still find it fun.”

Coming out of high school, Casdin dressed, as he called it, like a “preppy Jew” — an outsider who learned how to dress from “native prepsters,” he said. His family has a history with fashion. His great-grandfather sold clothing to mill workers in Worcester, MA; his grandfather was a child of Russian immigrants who used clothes to assimilate; his father was a hippie, complete with flannel shirts, an “Abe Lincoln beard,” and a pair of Italian Gabardine, low waisted, rust-colored pants from 1965. “I remember wearing them at age 15 and being like, ‘these are crazy.’”

Comfort is key for Huang, who describes her wardrobe as “pajamas I can wear in public,” she said. She switches between a muted palette of black, white, cream, and tan because it is easier to get ready if everything matches. “I don’t have to stress about it in the morning because I really just want to get out the door as soon as possible, so that I can sleep as late as I can.” It takes her less than 10 minutes to get her outfits ready, and, though she has tried to prepare clothes the night before, it has not happened yet, she said. “I can never get my life together enough to plan out my outfits in advance,” she said. “I’ve thought so many times to myself [that I would], but I have never once in my life done that. Never once.”

Outfits come together around a “hero piece” for Bales, like the dark green dress with pink parrots she wore on Wednesday. “I haven’t actually worn it for two years, so I got it out and I was like, ‘it’s time to reinstate the parrot.’” She matches her clothes, accessories, and shoes based on their color and mood, then lays them out the night before, and even when she does not have the energy to plan out a full outfit, she still has one item to carry her through the day — like a good pair of cowboy boots, she said.

Outfit ideas come to Valencia as she showers in the morning, she said. “I’ll say, ‘I’m feeling like blue today.’” She gravitates towards bright colors and patterns, especially florals. “I’m from Bogota, which is high up in the mountains and rather cool — but I have a tropical soul,” she said. That stylistic sensibility reflects her personality, as her colleagues call her “annoyingly optimistic,” she said.

Bales also thinks her fashion reflects who she is — and what she teaches. Ever since she started teaching Global Environmental History, she noticed that many of her clothes feature animals, like the parrot dress and a red sweater with a pit bull on the front. “It wouldn’t work for me if it was a cutesy dog, it has to be tougher,” she said. “Because whatever other qualities I might have, I’m definitely not cutesy.”

Fashion is often dismissed as trivial, inconsequential, and superficial, Huang said. Part of the reason is ingrained misogyny. “It’s like a thing only women care about and serious people, especially men, have weightier things on their mind.” That view obscures how clothing is one of the first things that people notice about others, she said. “As soon as people look at you, they start to form an idea of who you might be right even before they say a word to you.”

When people look at Huang, she hopes her clothing conveys that she is comfortable with herself, though she does not want it to be the first thing people notice about her, she said. “If I want to draw attention to myself, and I want to do it myself, I don’t want my clothes to do it for me.” Her understated wardrobe reflects her life philosophy, she said. “In most areas of my life, I try not to do the most, but just have one little thing that I can feel good about.” Likewise, she picks simple clothes that have one dimension of interest, like their color, volume, fabric, or story — the black linen dress she wore on Wednesday brings back fond memories of when she bought it in Japan.

Once, Casdin was at a conference and participated in a group activity where people said the first thing that came to mind about the person next to them. Someone said to Casdin, “you must be a frustrated artist because you spend so much time on your clothes,” Casdin said. “I was like, ‘bingo.’” He is interested in the art side of fashion, like pattern-mixing and the way that colors “vibrate” against each other, and he wears what feels right, even when it clashes with conventional wisdom. “A student said to me, ‘after a year of class with you, I no longer know what looks good. I’ve lost all sense of what the normative is.’”

Fashion allows Valencia to celebrate every moment and share the joy she feels with others, she said. Students inspire her when she can tell they put “a thought in every thread” of their outfit, and her husband sometimes helps her pick out accessories. “What you wear is like a sign to tell other people that you care,” she said.

If her outfit does not look deliberate, it bothers Bales because it seems sloppy, she said. “You’re only going to be on the planet for so many days, so why would you want to have a bad accessory? It’s a missed opportunity.”