Maroon, blue, forest green, mustard yellow… Jenny Mak reflects on how the colours that we choose to wear in our everyday outfits can be empowering for our roles as PhD and early career researchers.
From a young age, I’ve been interested in understanding personal style, whether it’s through fashion, interior design, or tastes in music, art, etc. Aesthetic enjoyment is a major part of this, of course. But I also sensed that style can be a powerful tool for self-realisation.
Now, as an early career academic trying to make something of herself, this has really hit home for me. Fashion-wise, when I dress for work every day, I choose silhouettes, textures, cuts, and colours that make me feel powerful and comfortable in my own skin.
Simultaneously, I recognise fellow PhDs and early career researchers around me who share the same inclination towards harnessing their wardrobe to get them where they want to go. They catch my attention particularly through the colours they choose to wear—mustard yellow, green, maroon, blue—that seem to bring an extra bounce in their step and that eventually become part of their signature look.
I’ve to confess that I’m no colour maven myself—black being my go-to because no other colour makes me feel as strong, elegant, and edgy, which is when I feel my best and thus ready for work. But seeing my friends wearing these different colours that enhance their confidence in their academic work—what I call their ‘power colour’—makes me wonder: why have they chosen these colours? What are the stories behind them?
Below are some reflections they’ve generously shared on how their power colour has shaped their academic journey, career aspirations, and even personal growth.
From a friend who studied Law: Red appealed to me as the ‘King’ of all colours … red gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling of comfort. [Do you find yourself wearing this for work or in court?] I do. I tailored a white shirt and it has elements of red in it (i.e. the buttons and buttonholes). I try to incorporate red in my accessories and clothes, though I prefer a darker shade of red. It makes me feel more confident and comfortable. When I was a kid, I used to do drawings and red will always be the shade of the hero or the leader.
From a friend who’s doing her PhD in Mathematics: Whenever I needed to give a performance, I was dressing in green because it was the colour of aggressiveness, that was what I needed in order to not be shy and to give my best. Nowadays, I’d dress in blue or black, nothing too bright or loud, because I’d prefer not to be ‘determined’ by my outfit, so I’d go with something plain with nice accessories or jewellery. I’d mostly say that my power colour is blue. But I wouldn’t mind wearing red shoes with such a plain blue outfit!
From a friend who has completed her PhD in English: I always liked yellow, mustard, warm colours but never felt like wearing them. However as I came to England I felt like I had to find more of my voice, otherwise, people wouldn’t listen. Young, immigrant, speaking with a thick accent and sometimes with crooked grammar, I felt it was easier for me to go under. I think to me it was a whole coming-of-age thing: end of PhD, I was going to get the title finally! And also coming out as unapologetically black. I started taking inspiration on other black women and decided to embrace the colour I always loved—which was thankfully in fashion. It helped me feel stronger. It felt like that confidence I was growing inside could also manifest outside and it made me feel empowered.
Listening to these anecdotes made me understand on a deeper level how the colours that we choose to adorn our bodies can be powerfully affective. Research has also shown this – dopamine dressing, anyone?
To this end, we can think of colour is another tool in our ‘academic toolbox’ that we as PhDs and early career researchers can use to our advantage. Whether it’s to boost your confidence in a situation that could cause anxiety (e.g. speaking at conferences, confronting your supervisor about something you’re dissatisfied with, delivering a lecture to a large group of students), to soothe yourself after receiving negative feedback, to express your critical ideas, or even just to brighten your mood on a dreary day in the library or lab, try taking some time in the morning to choose your power colour to wear that day. You might rediscover that special something in yourself that you need to keep going on strong in your PhD journey and beyond. In former editor-in-chief of Elle Roberta Myer’s words, as we make conscious choices about the way we dress, it helps us expand our ideas of not just how we look, but who we can become.
Is there a certain colour you gravitate towards for your daily outfits? Why does this colour appeal to you? How have you incorporated this colour in your own stylistic choices, particularly in relation to your PhD or academic career? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is an Early Career researcher in English and Comparative Literature, having just completed her PhD at Warwick. Her research looked at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary literature. She also writes creatively (short stories, poetry, theatre, film) and has a background in journalism, publishing, and sports training. You can find her on Twitter.