Style File: Deborah Smith

By Mara Aussendorf

This year’s Educator of the Year Deborah Smith is a professor in the Sociology department. A Michel Foucault fanatic, exuberant personality and thrift store connoisseur, Smith imparts her style stories and advice with The Mac Weekly. TMW: How would you describe your style? Deb Smith: Somewhat eccentric, certainly eclectic. I love to play with wardrobe and clothes—perhaps much in the way Judith Butler suggests we play with gender. So how do you choose what you wear each morning? It’s a process of chaos. It’s all impressionistic. So it unfortunately doesn’t have a lot to do with the weather or the practical requirements of the day. It has to do with what’s right to me. There are some days when I wear more somber, tailored ensembles. Or there are other days when I’d like to see something flamboyant. Certain colors strike me on certain days. But it’s a chaotic process that really has no logic or order. My closets are a random universe that I enter and I’m released into a hurricane. Who influences your style the most? As long as we’re saying influence does not mean emulation (because I don’t emulate it) I would say—I can’t believe I’m saying this—Stevie Nicks. [laughs] Who influences my style? My mother. She was a snappy dresser, a very snappy dresser, even up until the end of her life. Even the day before she died, she was dressed in a crisp white blouse tucked into a beautifully pressed pair of black pleated pants, with a scarf around her neck and heels on. She was classy. Very classy. And, frankly, I like to pay a lot of attention to Lady Gaga’s wardrobe. I really appreciate the creativity in some of her styling. Do you have any style icons among the Macalester professors? Oh, my gosh! I can say that without reservation: [Sociology Professor] Mahnaz Kousha. And Olga in the Anthropology department. She is a snappy dresser. She has blue suede shoes. Blue suede heels! Do you have any style icons among the students at Mac? You are all icons to me! You all look impossibly beautiful to me. In terms of style creativity, there are two persons who have really made it work. They are Karen Maeda ’12 and Tatiana Craine ’11. Both Tati and Karen have wardrobe courage and style courage that I admire. Let me give you an example. Tati came to campus one day with a pair of shoes that were flat black shoes, on which she had carefully painted toes with red toenails. So one of the things I guess I’ll say is that I really admire—both in personal style and style in general—is acts of bricolage. It’s a word that’s used in many different ways, but the way I use it now is using items for purposes that have no apparent intended purpose. That word is often used to talk about trash art, for instance, where you take art or discarded pieces and you create art from things. But it also just more broadly means using things outside of their intended purpose or using things differently. So I’m not sure that the shoes with painted toes and toenails quite qualifies, but in my world, it does. What is your favorite outfit? A man’s suit, white shirt, a tie and a hat. Why don’t you wear that more often? Nobody is going to believe this, but I think it’s because I am painfully shy. I am shy enough that I know stepping over that boundary would really bring a lot of attention. I think, generally, that’s called drag. One time in class you said, “Don’t for a minute think this [Smith’s outfit] isn’t drag.” Can you explain that? Probably not. [laughs] I consider that there is a narrow bandwidth of normalized or acceptable presentation of self within any context. When you play with that – when I play with dress – and the playfulness announces, perhaps in a slightly louder voice, either femininity or masculinity, it is drag. In fact, if you think about it, even within the narrow bandwidth of acceptable presentation of self for masculine and feminine forms, technically that is drag as well. Where is your favorite place to shop? I am particularly fond of pulling together certain style and fashions through used items. So the majority of my wardrobe comes from places like Goodwill or Foundation Army or Savers. I like the sense that items have a history. A friend of mine went to Goodwill one time and found a pair of pants, and after purchasing the pants, she found an uncashed check in the pocket from 1978! Some people, when they need a break from the worldly world, they get in their car and they drive to a casino and they gamble for an hour or so. The thrift store is my casino. Do you have any tips for fellow thrifters? Yes, I do! Turn off your mind and turn on your senses and allow yourself to just kind of run your hand over a rack or feel fabric or pick out something that somehow strikes you but you don’t know why. My third tip is don’t be afraid of styles from decades past. The fashion industry would like you to reject everything but what they’re showing right now, and if you step outside of that, you can open up a whole world. Do you have a favorite decade for style? I love the styles of the 1940s. And recently, I have really been liking the forgotten fashion of the 1980s. You’ll find a lot of the forgotten fashion of the 1980s at these thrift stores. You have to get the immediate repulsion of gigantic shoulder pads. If you can get past that, there’s a lot of fun to be had. How has your style evolved over the years? Well, the sizes have changed. [laughs] I’m no longer a size four, let’s put it that way. There have been many different periods or eras. I had a very enjoyable hippie era and still have some photographs of that. You would have found me dressed with a headband, long feather earrings, some kind of multi-colored smocky-type of top, hippie pants and hippie shoes. So I spent a good number of years dressed that way. I think a key change over time has been the use of more and more color. And less color. You’ve mentioned before that you used to be married to a wealthy man and that some of your clothes are from that time period. How has that affected your style? People often can’t tell the difference between items I have from that life and items I have currently from Goodwill. Which is kind of sad, because it makes me think that the clothes I love to death are the clothes people throw out. Do you have a favorite piece of clothing from that other period of your life? Well, I do have a jacket that I loved at the time—I still love—but I just cannot muster up the courage to wear. It is a black leather and cowhide jacket. The cowhide has the natural black-and-white cow markings. There is an enormous amount of fringe. Honestly, I think it would be appropriate for an aging rock star [laughs]. So I think I have quite a few items that might make me look a little like Stevie Nicks. And that’s not the look I’m going for. Stevie Nicks now, not Stevie Nicks as she looked when she was young. You were a model for a time, right? How did that factor into the evolution of your style? There was a period of several years in Los Angeles where I worked as a model and it affected my style. The LA scene exerts a certain pressure on your style. So that affected my general disposition toward clothes and dressing, and I think it does today too. What would Michel Foucault have to say about your style? Foucault would probably advise me to push the boundaries a bit more. Being a sociologist, every social moment has its own norms. And, of course, there are certain norms that hold the allure of a professor in an institution like Macalester. And those norms are behavioral, and they include dress, and I suspect that I might dress at times a little more flamboyant than the norms would require. [laughs] Right? So I recognize that at times my playfulness with wardrobe and dress defies the norms. I think Foucault might say, “Let loose, Deb! You’re staying too closely within the limits!” I would imagine that Foucault would say, “Heck, Deb! Go reread Butler and play with gusto! Dress with gusto and without fear.” And of course it makes me also think of what Marx would say
. I think he would say, “Stop worrying about what you’re wearing, and spend that time and energy on making a better world.” I think he’d say [laughs] that thinking about style might be—and I confess to be a victim of this—another opiate of the masses. [laughs] You know Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses? Perhaps fashion can also be the opiate of the masses. And if that is true, I am guilty as charged. refresh –>