DISCLAIMER: This is not a tutorial on how to dress professionally for the upcoming season. I will not be able to provide you with exclusive dress code guidelines that ensure you look decently youthful and cute while still screaming “I know what I am talking about” to all of those parent judges. In fact, even after three years I still have not fully gotten the hang of how to dress myself for debate, but I have started thinking about the implications of girl’s fashion in debate more frequently.
Close your eyes and imagine debate clothes. What do you see? It’s not exactly New York Fashion week. I’m assuming you’re seeing a room of teenagers dressed in drab colors. For guys it’s going to be a suit, or if someone is feeling “crazy”, maybe a pullover and khakis or funky socks. Boys in debate have a clear-cut uniform. For girls, however, it’s more of a spectrum, and unfortunately that spectrum allows for more room for fashion decisions to make impacts on what happens in round. Too many girls have horror stories of rounds where judges call them out on their “skirts being too short” or where they make otherwise pointless comments that have no relevance in the debate space. However, never once have I heard a boy criticized for what he is wearing in a round. Never once have I met a boy who has a ballot suggesting that he invest in looser pants or smaller shoes. And that is where comments on debate fashion become a tool in further marginalizing girls in debate.
Every suggestion, however kind or well-intentioned it is, serves to remind girls in debate that they are just that: GIRLS in debate. When I hear that my skirt is too short, it is a reminder that skirts are an outlier in the activity. The alien pieces of clothing that supposedly need “policing” are the ones that girls wear. Skirts,heels, and jewelry are not the norm in debate and that makes it seem like women aren’t either. And that fixation on physical presentation in the debate space serves to discourage girls from continuing with the activity. Having the only thing the adult judging you say after a round be a comment about the way you look is an extremely disheartening experience. These comments devalue the work girls put into prep and their actual speeches, and reinforces the sexist notion that the way a woman dresses is prioritized above their actual debating ability. This kind of fixation makes debate into a puzzle that girls can’t solve and ensures that girls automatically feel like outsiders the moment they enter the activity.
So to judges:
Please take a moment to realize the wider implications of the non-debate related comments you make. Never, ever, EVER criticize a girls’ skirt length or physical appearance in any way in a round. It is rude, and it throws us off in round. You are in positions of power and by making a sexist comment you are harming the activity and furthering the marginalization of girls in debate. How would you feel knowing the person deciding your fate for the next hour has a serious problem with something you currently do not have the power or desire to change? Your comment will not magically lengthen my skirt, but it will instantly drop my self confidence and throw me off for the whole round.
To my debaters:
My debate attire has evolved a lot through the years. My freshman and sophomore years, I found myself wearing the debate-starter pack outfit: a boring, knee-length black dress with small heels. I felt secure in how these clothes allowed me to blend into the hordes of other debaters, but I didn’t really like what I was wearing. It took me a full two seasons of limping around tournaments with blistered feet and internal angst about how ugly my dress was to realize that no debate overlord would strike me down with a lighting bolt if I didn’t try my hardest to dress the part of ideal debater. So junior year I switched clothing up. I have begun wearing clothes to tournaments that I like rather than what is generally a debate outfit. For me, clothing is closely linked with my confidence-the more I like my outfit, the more confident I will feel, which translates to better performances in round. And it’s because of my decision to depart from traditional debate attire that I feel overall more comfortable and happier at tournaments.
This season my goal is to keep wearing what I like regardless of what I think other debaters (judges or competitors) will think of it. In my opinion, the best way to change the norm is to act upon what we advocate for. That starts with us choosing to wear what makes us happy instead of what is expected.
So here’s the truth: what you wear will not change your debate ability (wild stuff, I know). There is no pantsuit or modest dress or heel height that makes you a better debater. If you are going to drop a turn, you will be doing so regardless of your outfit. So wear what makes you happy and comfortable. Don’t alter your wardrobe because of the fear of a judge who critiques your skirt length, because if they do, then they are a nimrod whose opinion you should not take into consideration. Instead, smile, nod, and keep wearing that outfit.
Written by Anna Kate Lembke
Edited by Riya Bindlish and Adriana Kim