A graduate of Columbia University, Anisha taught English literature until 2006 at the elite Dalton School in New York, where students spared no expense in dressing for class (think Gossip Girl). She took on after-hours tutoring jobs in order to bolster her teacher’s salary and wardrobe: she wanted to dress like her privileged students. Just check out the Bendel-inspired shopping bag cover!
Anisha’s wickedly incisive and funny roman à clef follows ingénue teacher Anna Taggert into the homes of New York’s wealthiest families, where she tutors their children (for over two hundred dollars an hour) in order to be perfectly turned out in the classrooms at Langdon Hall.
I was delighted to have the following email conversation with the lovely and gracious Anisha about Schooled style. There’s even a scoop!
Miss Cavendish: What is the role of fashion/style in the prep school classroom? That is, does it give you authority? Distract your students from the lesson at hand?
Anisha Lakhani: I think the role of fashion in the classroom varies—certainly different age groups and zip codes place varying premiums on labels. For example, as a teacher and a tutor at a Manhattan private school—and I may be attacked for saying this but I'm being brutally honest—yes, wearing fancy labels did garner the attention and respect of many of my students. Not all—it is important to note there are always exceptions! Fashion does create a statement—I am guilty of having been too fashion conscious in the classroom—that is for sure—and I roll my eyeballs now and chalk it up to youth and a healthy dose of superficiality—but I do think it is important for teachers to look professional. Speaking from experience, I don't think my seventh graders particularly cared what I wore two minutes into my lesson plan, but certainly walking into a classroom and looking like I put some thought and effort into my appearance set a tone.
MC: At one point Anna, your protagonist, covets a student's Cartier watch. Anna was originally an idealistic teacher who loved her subject, who knowingly took a modestly paying job. What kind of significance do designer labels have in our culture that they can alter Anna's focus from academics to the acquisition of things?
AL: I think designer labels are becoming a gigantic monster—look at shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen, Gossip Girl, and The Hills. Product placement is rampant—I emulated that in my book not to bow down to it, but rather to create a tongue and cheek lens through which I could show how it is distracting the educational landscape of American youth. That sounds a bit lofty, I know, but I'm serious about it.
MC: In Schooled, some of the texts the students read are iconic in terms of the function clothing plays in them: The Great Gatsby, an Edith Wharton novel, Romeo and Juliet (I think of the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films), and even Lord of the Flies (for its anti-fashion). What, for you, are some other significant works of literature that engage fashion?
AL: This is an odd choice and perhaps not one people will think of immediately, but my most memorable fashion moment in fiction comes from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Henry Rearden makes a bracelet out of the first pouring of Rearden Steel. His wife shuns it, but my all-time heroine Dagny Taggert (note Anna's last name in Schooled!) considers it a thing of beauty. (No other blog has asked me about why I named my protagonist Anna Taggert so you would be the first!) The bracelet represents creation and work ethic and the potential of man—it is, in my mind, the most iconic fashion statement in modern literature.
MC: What fashion extremes would you wear/have you worn in class? What would you avoid?
AL: I did carry a couple Chanel schoolbags, which now in retrospect seem pretty extreme. . . but I have to give props to Chanel, because that same darn handbag I bought in 1999 still looks pretty good today! I avoided bargain shopping and opted for fancy boutiques, which is completely different from how I shop today! And believe me, the joy of finding a little black dress from Zara that looks like a million bucks but costs less than sixty dollars is quite thrilling indeed!
MC: You’re quoted in a Page Six Magazine profile as saying, "I don't even care what next season's Chanel flats look like. It's a peaceful feeling." But certainly in your publicity talks on television and at your readings you are beautifully dressed and groomed. How is fashion now different for you?
AL: This is quite funny, because while it's true I'm no longer as obsessed with next season's Chanel flats, that doesn't mean I'm not quite obsessed with my old ones! Tutoring afforded me quite a wardrobe, and even though I stopped tutoring, I still have some items that may cause people to raise their eyebrows! But they're old! I swear! As for my recent reading, I wore an Ann Taylor dress, and all my jewelry has been from Banana Republic. Has anyone gone to Banana Republic recently and seen their jewelry? Two words: rock star. It's funny—having less "splurge money" makes you dress better, I think—because it's no longer "Wow, this is Prada, so it must be cool" but rather, "I love the cut of this dress and it's a bargain!" It makes you more creative—it causes you to EDIT yourself when shopping—and that, I think, is true style.
MC: Finally, as I’ve just posted about what to wear while working at home, could you tell me what you like to wear while you write?
AL: When I am writing, I wear these old, beat-up pajamas from the Gap that I purchased a year ago. They have blue flowers on them, and for some reason I am like Pavlov's dogs – I mean, I don't salivate—ew, gross—but I do have an instinctual response—I put them on and immediately feel creative. They are my creative Jammy Jams.
MC: Thank you so much, Anisha. It’s been a real pleasure to chat with you.