I was feeling judged more than usual. It was already a high pressure situation without being overly self-conscious of my outfit, but I just felt like my clothes didn’t fit in. My cerulean chiffon button-down felt too dressy, while my skinny jeans and Chelsea boots didn’t feel dressy enough. I felt like my outfit, which I had put together with hours of deliberation, just wasn’t right. It was my first real interview—for an internship that I really, really wanted and now have—and even though I somehow managed to come across as a sane and normal human being, I still look back and cringe at how crazy I must have looked with my collar only buttoned at the top and a tee shirt underneath.
We have always been told that stereotyping according to race or gender is bad, but are never told what to think about judging people based on their clothes. Instead we are told how to dress for the right occasion and what casual vs. black-tie means, if not from our parents then from movies, television, and books. We are told suits are always right for job interviews, but where I was interviewing, if I had shown up in a suit it would have counted against me. This is a place where people sit around the in-house bar after work to decompress from a rough day—a ripped plaid flannel fits right in, and there are tattoos galore.
Knowing the different connotations that go with each item of clothing we own affects not only how others think of us, but also how stressful getting dressed is in the morning and how we act around our peers. Anyone who’s gotten dressed for an interview, the first day of school, or a date knows that what we wear is as important as how well we interact and speak with everyone else. And it works both ways.
When I meet someone who is beyond stylish I’m completely intimidated and have issues forming complete sentences, a problem that began to manifest itself in my interview (it was a tough one, and I think I was only saved by the friendliness of my interviewer).
I intuitively assumed that because I was judging my own appearance, my interviewer must have been judging me too. And none of us is completely free of this perception-altering cycle, no matter how nice or understanding we think we are.
In a sense, clothes are a way of trying to figure out who people are before we interact with them, but once we know people these go away. You speak to that goth down the hall and stop seeing them as the black lipstick, but instead for the heart of gold underneath.
As young adults (I hate that phrase too, but let’s face it, we are young and we are adults), we’re trying to find ourselves and figure out who we are. When we have the freedom of a day off or no dress code, clothes are the easiest way to try on different personalities. That day as I was trying to get dressed I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be hip and cool or professional and ready for manual labor. But within my closet, there was a way to reconcile both.
Any college campus, including ours, has so many different people from so many different places that there really isn’t a noticeable “type” when walking around campus. But when I talk with people who haven’t been to Columbia, they seem to think that the student body is full of people walking around in polos and khakis (not that there’s anything wrong with such a classic style). It just doesn’t encompass the variety of people who go here. That crazy and possibly stylish outfit I wore to the interview didn’t, and still doesn’t, encompass who I am. No clothing is judgement-free—all you can do is try your best and hope not to be intimidated by how cool the person next to you looks. Thankfully, I still got the job.
Krista Lewis is a spohomore at Barnard College who loves soy cappuccinos and French Vogue. Uptown/Downtown runs alternate Fridays.