A Feminist in High Heels

By Mara Aussendorf & Amy Lebowitz

Sonita Sarker is a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), a connoisseur of color coordination, and a fashionable feminist. From her nail polish to her dry-erase markers to her shoes, Sarker presents an impeccable and deliberate persona. The Mac Weekly sat down with Sarker to discuss everyday gender performance through style. As a WGSS teacher, how do you let gender expression affect your style? Gayatri Spivak is a postcolonial poststructural feminist theorist who uses the phrase “strategic essentialism” … so under that phrase, there are essentialized terms like feminine, and they’re used strategically to make a point about your identity. So in that context, I think I’m feminine. So I’m not using it in the essentialized sense of a stereotypical feminine, but that feminine persona is a strategy, and I claim that spot, that little space. It’s not masculine, it’s not transgender, it is feminine, and in the more socially-received ways that people understand the word feminine, it’s feminine. I get to think about these critically because I am in WGSS, so sometimes we think, “Can we claim this term? Can we redefine it?” But it’s the same old word [feminine] which has the same old meanings for everybody else. And I have no problem with that. It’s feminine—oh, well. Do you ever get reactions about what a feminist should look like? Very much. Especially when it has to do with feminism as people understand it means a critique and a rejection of patriarchal norms. People don’t like the word fashion mixed in with the word feminist … Feminism, as a politics, seems to sort of exclude the word fashion, because accepting fashion means accepting patriarchy, and I don’t think that those are equivalent … For me, those are not oppositional terms. I can be a feminist in high heels. … It’s more what I do and what I think than what I look like. How would you describe your style? Contextual, because I change every day according to the mood that I’m in. It’s always colorful; it has to be colorful … I wouldn’t call it trendy. I don’t think I’m setting any trends anywhere. It’s very personal and contextual. How has it evolved throughout your life? I did not have any style to speak of, once upon a time. I wasn’t conscious of selecting an ensemble as such. Sometimes you just throw stuff together and wear it, so long as it was basically, aesthetically appealing … But ever since I can remember I’ve always wanted to look as if I was presenting a public persona, in a sense. When I say throw things together, they were thrown together somewhat carefully [laughs] … There’s more deliberate structure, there’s more deliberate selection, there’s more deliberate intention. Have you ever looked back on an old outfit and thought, “Oh my god. What was I thinking?” Not really, given what I just said about being very careful about how I look in public. I don’t think I’ve made ghastly mistakes — maybe my friends or somebody might have a different opinion … I can only think of a time which was not voluntary, it was imposed on me, where I had to wear matching dresses with my sister. Different colors, but the same cut, the same thing. And that, I would say, Oh no, I’m not doing that again. As soon as I had the power, I escaped that situation. Where do you get inspiration? Actually, I look at nature. So the kinds of shades and moods, like the shadow of a tree on the green, so it’ll give me an idea for green and something else. Maybe it could be a shade of blue because there’s a bird flying by or something. So all I have to do is look up and look out the window. It’s mostly based on color, sort of impressions of color, almost in the peripheral vision. Like some red flashed by, or there was some green or yellow or something. But not so much modeled on a look in a magazine. When you shop, do you look for individual pieces or complete outfits? Mostly individual pieces because then I can control the amount of money I spend, because I think of what I already have and then complement that one piece or incorporate it, integrate it into all the colors and cuts and suits that I already have. To buy a full thing means, if you just have to wear that full thing by itself all the time, it becomes just that one integral piece that you can’t mix and match. … Except for business suits. Because the skirt and jacket or pants and jacket have to match. Do you have any favorite outfits that are so perfect you wear them again and again? Yes, I do. Most of the time it’ll be a top and a skirt that go together so well that I’ll repeat that exact thing again … Like coral and dark brown — now this will be a preview, because I will be wearing coral and dark brown somewhere in the week! Or next week! Because I think they go together very well. You are very impeccable with your accessories, including nail polish. When you’re putting together an outfit, which do you plan out first, the outfit or the accessories/nail color? Small confession: Sometimes when I’m lazy and I don’t want to change my nail polish, I’ll suit the next [outfit] according to the nail polish that I’m already wearing because it’ll mean I’ll have to scrape it off, put on a new coat. But it’s mostly the reverse. It mostly first starts with what I’m wearing because of the birds and the flowers and the trees and stuff, so the colors are more important for me as to the main thing, and then I accessorize. Is it important to you that your nail polish matches your outift? It’s important because I have to look at myself, and if it’s wrong, it’s just wrong. We’ve noticed that you sometimes match your dry-erase markers to your outfits. Is there a reason behind this? It’s become a mini-trend in my Whiteness and Postcolonialism class. I teach about postmodernism and I teach about incoherence and juxtapositions of things that don’t really match; there’s a sense of symmetry and aesthetic coherence when things speak to each other. What makes a good outfit? I think a good outfit is something anybody should be confident about. They wear it, and they look like they enjoy wearing it, and it’s good for them. So they can actually match, I don’t know, fuschia pink with canary yellow, and that’s fine if that person really thinks, This is cool! So I agree! I think you’re cool because you’re happy and proud that you’re wearing this thing. So that’s a good outfit — something that makes a person feel happy and confident. Last words? I am aware that I am a professor giving this interview on fashion. I don’t know how my intellectual peers will receive this, but that’s okay. Finally, which came first: the calves or the heels? Calves. refresh –>