The Alaska Journal of Commerce has named her as one of the most powerful Alaskans. More surprising is her approachable demeanor and no-fuss fashion sense. UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer has served as the mayor of Juneau and as the first female lieutenant governor of Alaska. Wearing a dark orange shoulder-button sweater offset by black slacks, Ulmer has her day heavily scheduled with meetings and appointments. A small gold pin she received from UAA’s Native Student Services is attached to her sweater. As someone who often dresses in suits and pants, Ulmer doesn’t give the impression of someone who once participated in USO Tours where gold lamé and flashy skirts made up the ensemble of choice.
With a long history in public policy and service for UAA, Ulmer spent some time to share her fashion sense in college and how “dressing the part” is effective. The Northern Light interviewed Ulmer on April 2.
Q: Can you describe your clothing style during college at Wisconsin University?
A: The 1970s and ’60s are just radically different. I have pictures of – I’m standing outside of the Phi Beta Phi house, my sorority house, with a short, slightly above-the-knees hot-pink skirt with matching hot-pink sweater – things that I would never think of wearing today, but that’s what you wore then. It was definitely a lot more color, a lot more skirts and sweaters.
When I think about the things we did in those days to try and look beautiful, wearing heels and things, now it seems, “Wow, why did I go through all of that?”
We tend to do that now. A lot of kids in high school wear flip-flops even though it’s freezing cold. Why do they do that? Because that’s what the style is and people don’t want to look too much different than whatever it is that their peer group looks like.
Q: Did you step out of the box during college in regards to fashion?
A: When I went to law school, there was a big change. When you’re an undergraduate you’re trying to get along and meet friends. You’re involved in a sorority; you’re definitely looking more the part of that group. When I went to law school that was not important to me anymore. And besides, there were so few women in law school at that point in time; it wasn’t like “This is what women in law school dress like.” In some ways, it was looking more like the guys. So it was a pretty easy transition then to jeans and pants in general and things that would draw less attention to you.
Q: As the chancellor and former Institute of Social and Economic Research director for UAA, you’ve been familiar with the university for quite some time. What do you think of the fashions seen on the UAA campus?
A: It seems to me that because we have a diverse student body . when you walk through the campus you see a wide variety of styles. I don’t think there’s a predominant style except maybe blue jeans. I think that’s a pretty safe bet – that any age group, that’s the one most predictable piece of clothing on our campus.
You actually do see a lot of green and gold, which I think is quite nice. I know I have a lot of green and gold in my wardrobe that I didn’t have five years ago. When you go to things representing the university, it’s kind of fun to wear green and gold. I often wear a UAA pin or Alaska pin, because it is true in my position that I do kind of represent the institution to the community.
Q: You’ve served as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Can you tell us a little bit about how students at Harvard dress compared to students at UAA?
A: It seemed to me that the predominant fashion look for women was tight jeans and heels, usually black high-heeled boots. Which is quite bizarre in a way because a lot of the streets in Cambridge are cobblestone and really hard to walk on. They’re hard to walk on with just a plain flat shoe, but I was always amazed: It had to be high heels and high-heeled boots. Which, it looks fine, given that at Cambridge you have to walk everywhere.
Q: What do you wear on the weekends or when you’re out of the office?
A: In a casual situation, I’m probably going to be wearing very comfortable shoes. They are probably going to be running shoes or hiking shoes. I’m an informal person basically, and so when I don’t have to go a meeting or go give a speech or make an appearance, odds are excellent that I’m going to be in the same clothes that you’re going to be in: comfortable and suitable for Alaska.
Q: Is there someone in particular that you’ve worked with (whether at UAA or elsewhere) with a sense of style, and why?
A: When I worked at ISER, there was a woman named Clamenica (Merrill). Clamencia was born in South America and she definitely has a certain style in terms of clothing – her hair, her shoes. It was always fun to see what Clamencia would be wearing. She has great high heels and lots of color in her clothing.
Q: Do you take style advice from your daughter Amy or vice versa?
A: She and her husband live in Boston, so it’s not like I see her a lot. But when we do get together for Christmas or something like that, she’ll look at my wardrobe and say, “Mom, that has simply got to go.” She’s pretty brutal with her fashion advice. And it’s fine, I get a kick out of it. I don’t have time to go shopping and I don’t have time to look at fashion magazines, so I appreciate her advice.
Q: What do you think about presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton purposely dressing in conservative business attire (suits and jackets) throughout her campaign?
A: I wear a lot of suits and jackets. I wear a lot of jackets for a couple reasons. It does send a signal of professionalism pretty easily. And running for any executive office position, you do have to send the signal that you are professional at another level of intensity. If she were wearing just jeans and sweaters, people would look at her and say, “Really? Does that look presidential?”
We have these preconceived notions that presidents are white males in business suits with ties. So how do you break through that as a female candidate? You’re not a while male and you’re probably not going to be wearing a tie. But if you can approximate that level of professionalism in dress, it probably makes the voters feel comfortable.
She wears nontraditional colors. She’s doing browns with turquoise with a slightly softer look, so she’s blending this professional but softer looking. I think it’s very intentional and a strategic way of saying, “I’m professional but I’m also a female.”
Q: What type of dress do you suggest students wear to a job interview?
A: It does depend on the job to a certain extent. Getting to know that ahead of time is a good idea if you can. If you can’t, err on the side of dressing more along the lines of the age group of the person who is going to be judging you, as opposed to your peer group. Just to make that interviewer feel more comfortable that you get it.