The Funky Fresh Feminist

 Dr. Yi-Chun Tricia Lin 

 Director & Professor of Women and Gender Studies

Tricia Lin was our first confirmed subject for Southern Styles. This multilingual, supremely accomplished, world-renown and fierce feminist is a style inspiration to many and a mimic of none. When we talked she discussed her mother’s influence, the rejection of corporatized culture, supporting local designers, academic culture, and her uniformed childhood in Taiwan as part and parcel of what motivates her when she shops, and again, when she opens up her closet each morning. Concluding that “the personal is always political,” Lin, like most of the others that we interviewed, found strong connections between her worldview and her choice in dress.

Carter-David: I asked you to be part of this project because—and this is a story that I have told a million times before—when I was interviewing here at Southern in spring 2012, I was brought to the Women’s Studies office, where we are now, by Dr. Nikolaos Chrissidis. He said, “You have got to meet Tricia Lin.”

When I walked in and looked at you, you had on colorful stockings, a tutu, and maybe Doc Martins, though I’m not sure what was on your feet. Of course, I do fashion history. I believe in no constraints in how we dress ourselves. I was really excited. I felt it was a really good omen. I thought, “Wow. If she’s here, I can work here.” 

Lo and behold, a week and a half later I got a call offering me the position. The rest is history. 

So, I wanted to say first, how would you describe your style?

Lin: I’ve never thought about my style. I’m not following any particular style. I know one thing: I don’t want to follow anyone’s style. What I wear, what I put on me, it will be no frills, in a sense that I don’t want to wear logos. I don’t want to be anyone’s walking ad. I’m also dressing myself in a way to counter the corporate cultural code. I’d want to be in pants suits. I don’t think a woman’s power has to come from wearing pants and suits. 

If I have to look at my wardrobe, I probably have only one pants suit. It was my mom’s gift to me and it’s been hanging there. I just think of my mom, thanking her. I’m not putting it on. 

Carter-David: Have you ever worn the suit?

Lin: No. Never. 

Carter-David: So, it’s only still there because Mom bought it?

Lin: Yeah, and I always think of her. Soon after she gave me that pants suit she asked if I had worn it. I lied. 

Carter-David: Good thing she didn’t ask for a picture.

Lin: Okay! I already outed myself to the world. 

Carter-David: Watch out if you send her a link to this. She might say, “Oh, I know where you hid it.”

Lin: The only person that’s actually literate in English is my sister in New Zealand. I just want to save [the pants suit].

Carter-David: Maybe she won’t find out. 

Lin: This is not nice. Mom, thank you. 

Carter-David: Now, you’ve mentioned that part of your style is a push back against the corporatization of dress. 

Lin: Uniform culture. Can I talk about uniform culture? 

Carter-David: Please.

Lin: I was schooled in a very different world growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, in fascist Taiwan. All students have to wear uniforms, so I literally was in uniform since kindergarten until 18 years old in high school. Even when we went to college, we still had military lessons. So, I had to wear a uniform once a week. So, you know what? I’ve done enough uniforms. When I look at the so-called fashion world, I think that’s another manufacturing of uniform. 

The corporate world is so very good at manufacturing uniform for the body, for the mind. So, whatever I wear, I just don’t want to wear anything looking like that. It’s kind of my resistance to a corporate culture. I never thought about my dress as actually a statement of my resistance. I also don’t like to be defined because of my culture or my size or my profession. I just think that so often people put that on themselves. They kind of self-define an image that is actually a reflection how the world wants them to see themselves reflected.

Carter-David: I can definitely relate to that. I have a two-part question in response to that. First, did you think in advance, knowing that you’re obviously very stylish, did you have a “feeling” about putting on things that make you look beautiful? You spent so much of your life wearing uniforms. Did you consider academe as a profession where you would be free to adorn yourself the way you wanted to? Because if you’re going into corporate law, that would’ve been option, right?

Lin: I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure. I should say I never thought of myself to be stylish. I have a taste in clothing, and that’s inherited. My mom was an amazing seamstress. She made everything we wore when we were little. She followed the Japanese style very closely. She kind of cultivated in all of us a little bit of that kind of taste. My mom, even at her age, pays a lot of attention to what she likes, what she doesn’t like. I never knew that was being called stylish. She would buy things. I’d say, “Wow, that’s really cool.”

Anyway, so the part of your question. I was trying to address this question of style. Now I forgot your question. This is terrible. You were asking-

Speaker 1: About preparing for…

Lin: Oh, the profession. All professions. No, I did not quite choose this profession, so to speak. I think I was moved into the profession, but I also knew whatever profession I entered, I would reject the culture of the institution someway. So, academia… What does an average academic person look like? We really don’t have that picture, the truth is.

I was thinking about my younger days, when I started teaching. I dressed like an old lady. Back then I thought, “you probably should have a blazer, right?” I just came to realize, I really don’t like blazers too much. So, I think taste is also something that you develop over time. Some folks can sit very comfortably and say, “Okay, I’ll just wear this. I don’t even think twice,” but I cannot. Again, that’s something from the family. My mother has made all of us very conscious of what we wear, the propriety of what we wear. 

“My mother has made all of us very conscious of what we wear, the propriety of what we wear.”

Academia does have some constraints, even in spite of the academic freedom. The good thing is, I’m seeing more and more colleagues breaking away from the boundaries. It’s always very encouraging when I see colleagues with tattoos over their arms. Actually, I’m seeing more and more of that. 

Carter-David: Mm-hmm. In line with that, I’m wondering, what are the implications for women in particular? God, I saw something the other day that said, “Men like what they see and women like what the hear, so men lie and women wear make-up.” I hated that and it annoyed me. Ridiculous.

Lin: All these binary thinking, totally, totally making no sense.

Carter-David: It’s ridiculous. But it did make me think about a few things. You know, they hold this notion in dress and fashion theory. It’s this idea of the hierarchy principle versus the beauty principle and the idea that men dress for hierarchy. Within the context of hierarchy, the idea is about power for men. For us, for women, it’s supposed to be about sexuality. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I think that sometimes the larger society can impose that on us.

Lin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carter-David: So, I don’t know, what do you think it means to be dressed the way you dress or to be dressed the way I dress, in the context of the academy? I guess that’s one place to start. I know I certainly have had, on one occasion, a student say I dress inappropriate for class, even when I come with blazers and slacks and pumps on. But I also know that it’s probably because I’m a black woman with a shaved head and tattoos, and I think that that’s what she thought was inappropriate. People have expectations about how women professors should look, and men don’t have the same kinds of expectations imposed on them. What does that mean in the academy? Or does it mean anything here? I don’t know. What about Southern as an institution? It’s probably a little bit more laid back than some places. I’ve heard some conversations about the halls of John’s Hopkins, for example, where our colleagues would not be dressed this way. So, what does it mean for us to be a regional state institution? Is there a difference?

Tricia Lin in her officeLin: I have to think about this. I don’t know if I have an answer about it, but I want to say that I want to have fun with my work, within thinking, living, growing, teaching, researching, writing. I want to have fun. Of course, living also includes how I eat, how I dress myself. It’s all the whole package, so I cannot really think about, in the morning when I get myself ready, I cannot think about, okay, how will people look at me?

Obviously, I also know one thing, I don’t walk into the classroom in flip flops, right?

Carter-David: Right.

Lin: Occasionally, I go to my class in jeans, but really, I wear jeans very sparingly. I think there’s still just a little bit of self-censoring, right? But I think very often the hardest person to please is myself. I do things to make myself happy. I don’t do it to please other people. I have to think about your larger question, if there’s an institutional culture that make people behave, dress, act certain ways.

“Occasionally, I go to my class in jeans, but really, I wear jeans very sparingly. I think there’s still just a little bit of self-censoring, right?”

Carter-David: Here’s a better way to frame it. I’m aging, and I think there was a time a few years when I started to look it. People do still think occasionally that I am younger, but I think I’m starting to look closer to my age, you know. But there is the idea that you dress a particular way to gain the respect of students. Particularly when you’re a woman. Particularly when you’re a woman of short stature, particularly if you’re a woman of color.

Lin: Yes. Yes. 

Carter-David: If you’re a younger woman.

Lin: Let me just say, I do not think about these things anymore. I do not, and I actually, it’s quite liberating. As I said, in my early years of teaching, I would dress in blazers, in gray and neutral colors, whatever that means. I still have some pieces of the clothing left in my wardrobe. I look at them like, “What is it?”

The one thing I worry about, I have to say, because I don’t drive and going places I very often use a taxi. So there has been a couple of times taxi drivers will say, “What do you do? You’re a professor?” Then right away, they look at me. I really dress against this, whatever professors look like, but they can tell however I speak. It’s not just the way I dress. It’s the way I speak, the diction I use and the mannerism with which I conduct myself.

Anyway, that is the whole thing, that when I become identified with an institution, with my profession, by other people, that’s when I get everyone alarmed. But I guess it’s really hard to avoid, right? So, I guess that’s all I can say about that. And I’m sure, in my mind I’m free, [but] I’m not that free. We’ll just say that I don’t worry about it anymore. 

But I haven’t really thought a whole lot about your questions. Because really, we dress ourselves every day, but we don’t think about why we dress, and how we dress. And if the way we dress is connected to our profession, the way we socialize, the way our profession dictates and what not… And let me also say because of my stature, I so very often cannot find my own clothing, shoes, anywhere. So, I have to adapt children’s wear. And obviously, people don’t know. Some of the stuff I wear that gets the most complements, if I don’t tell them, they don’t know they’re all children’s clothing.

“Some of the stuff I wear that gets the most complements, if I don’t tell them, they don’t know they’re all children’s clothing.”

Carter-David: That’s nice. That is nice. I gained weight over the years, but there was a time when I used to do the same thing, and I definitely wasn’t a kid anymore, I was an adult.

Tricia Lin strikes a pose for Southern StylesLin: As a case in point, this is children’s. [points to pink jacket]

Carter-David: It is?

Lin: Yeah, it is children’s.

Carter-David: Oh my gosh, and it’s nice, you wouldn’t even know that. 

Lin: It’s J. Crew.

Carter-David: Wow!

Lin: It’s Crewcuts. You know, Crewcuts.

Carter-David: Yeah, you find what fits.

Lin: Yeah, I’m happy they make clothes that do not look too girlish.

Carter-David: Right, right. So, who are your style inspirations? Anyone that we might know that’s famous? Or anyone in pop culture? Is there anyone that’s a style inspiration for you?

Lin: No. I don’t follow anybody. But for example, Siobhan, I love your style.

Carter-David: Oh, thank you.

Lin: I pay attention to people. So, when colleagues come in with something very unusual, I say, “Wow.” I say, “That’s so cool!” Like the Math Department Chair, Leon Brin. He’s got long hair and he would wear his hair to the side. The other day in a meeting, I saw him with his hair with, like, a little bob. It’s so fantastic. I love it. And he’s very creative with it. There are certain things… when people wear something unusual, I say “It pops out.” When I go to a shop, I don’t even know if [an item] fits me. I just know that I like this. 

Carter-David: Right. And you picture yourself in it.

Lin: No. I see it, I like it, I have to buy it, and I don’t know why I have to buy it. I will say that happens a lot. I buy it and then say, “I love this.”

Carter-David: What’s your favorite article of clothing, that you own, or accessory? How about one article of clothing and one accessory?

Lin: I don’t use accessories. No accessories. Clothing.

Can I say a pair of socks, that have been with me for the last… since I came to the United States, almost 30 years?

Carter-David: Really?

Lin: A pair of socks. I don’t want to discard them. They’re so adorable.

Carter-David: What do they look like?

Lin: I will take a picture for you. And they’re still in shape. They are like a very “Christmas-y” color. Very colorful, color-block. Yeah, there’s some stuff that I carry with me the whole time. And every time I look at them, I’m happy. Just the colors, the design, and these days, I avoid using them because I don’t want them to break.

Carter-David: Right, right, right. Become threadbare.

Lin: Right. Part of it is becoming threadbare, but also I want to keep them still in shape. Oh, accessories, yes, I love scarves. On an average every day, I carry two, three scarves with me.

Carter-David: I’ve noticed your scarves before. 

Lin: Just in case I may need it. The weather changes; I need something. And because I hate wind and rain, I have to have something to cover my head. So yes, I love scarves. I absolutely love scarves and literally have hundreds of scarves, which is ridiculous. Some of my scarves are more expensive than clothes. So that’s some of my favorite accessories.

And clothing, I really don’t know. I like my pink coat. Yeah, I really like my pink coat. I keep thinking, I really don’t want it to really get it dirty or damaged, because then I don’t know how to replace it.

Carter-David: Right. I know there are people who buy multiple versions of the same thing. You know, several of them because they know one’s going to wear out. I’ve done that.

Lin: I have to say, these days because of my finances, I’m able to buy doubles. So, I do buy doubles. I have this pink coat and I actually have another one that’s a chartreuse color. This is fuchsia, vibrant fuchsia. So, I have in chartreuse an identical coat. And I notice I’m buying things in doubles a lot, lately. Because if I like something, I want to have it in a different color. So yeah, I would say this is one of my favorite coats.

Carter-David: I have one question. I’ll maybe ask you one more and we’ll wind down. You have been a New Yorker for years before moving to New Haven. I think there’s a lot to be said about living in the city, a metropolitan area. But New York, in particular, what could you say about street style in New York? Or the ways that you get inspiration and style?

Lin: Everything goes in New York City, everything goes. And if I have to think about my former department, everything goes, literally, everything goes. Everything’s sloppy. I think in New York, you just become really comfortable being yourself.

Carter-David: That’s so true. I agree.

Lin: You just have to be yourself, because no one’s really looking at you. And one year, what did I do? Yes, so when I go to Taiwan, I buy children’s flats, ballet flats. And they’re just very cheap, and they’re comfortable too, so I buy them a lot of them. They’re like $10, $15 dollars a pair. And I wear them out very quickly. So, this particular pair really got me a lot of complements. I remember just on the Upper West Side, several people said, “I love your shoes.” I look at them, I said, “They’re for children, they’re girl’s shoes.”

Carter-David: What kind of shoes? They are ballet flats? Are they leather?

Lin: No, they look like leather, but they’re synthetic. They’re just pink, with a huge apple on top. I guess they don’t really make things very playful for women. So, when I wear something that’s made for children, on me, they kind of stand out, right? If they’re on a girl you just say, “Okay, this is girls wear.” 

And I don’t really follow any particular designer, I have to say, because it’s insane [to pay] out of anyone’s pocket unless you make a pretty good six-figure salary. But, New Haven has a designer, Neville Wisdom.

Carter-David: I keep hearing about him.

Lin: Yeah, Neville. When Neville first opened his shop in spring 2012—I remember it was around International Women’s Day—I walked into his shop, it had just opened, and I saw this dress. It was so vibrant, in the colors of the tropics. This dress was, just amazing, and he’s able to tailor everything. He’s able to alter. It was just like a dream, so I started buying Neville’s clothes like crazy. 

Carter-David: Is the shop still open?

Lin: He has two shops. One on Orange Street, the other one in Westfield.

Carter-David: What are the shops called?

Lin: It’s called Neville Wisdom Fashion Design Studio. You should introduce yourself, to Neville. Neville’s fascinating. And Neville, actually, was trained to be a surgeon assistant. So, he’s incredibly precise with needles. 

So yeah, he has two stores. One in Orange, right next to that nice square. And he has a fashion show twice a year. I remember wearing one of his pieces to a Girl Scout breakfast. Several people came up to me to say, “Where did you get it?” And I told them where I got it, and the next time, when I went to Community Foundation meeting, I noticed a colleague actually was wearing Neville, because I know Neville’s style.

Carter-David: Wow, what kind of outfit was it?

Lin: It was a sheath dress. But it’s not the shape, it’s the color. It’s in this bright red, and green, red and green, it reminds me of the lush green tropics. So that’s what got to me. It was just beautiful fabric.

Carter-David: All right, so any closing points about dress, fashion, feminism, fashion and feminism?

Lin: I would definitely think more about that, but I want to say your project has gotten me to think that personal is always political. I never really thought much about what I wear. I just know I don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing. And that’s been all throughout my life, ever since I got rid of that uniform. I’ve been sort of avoiding looking like everybody else. So, thank you!

“I just know I don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing. And that’s been all throughout my life, ever since I got rid of that uniform.”

Carter-David: Thank you!

Lin: This is kind of fun!

Carter-David: Yes!