Alanah Davis: Polyester Should Be Outlawed.

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I just wrapped up my final weeks of grad school pursuing my master’s degree in social design at Maryland Institute College of Art.

You can clap for that.

And well because everyone asks, social design is a creative practice dedicated to understanding social problems and supporting positive social change. Social design doesn’t solve social problems. Social design creates opportunities that shift relationships between people and people — and people and institutions — to support positive social change. I usually just say that I’m a creative problem solver for brevity.

This year-long program was jam packed with about two years’ worth of intensive, practice-based graduate studies surrounding the value of design in advancing equity and social justice. Folks on Facebook, Instagram and in passing have all made a point to comment on how quickly I finished grad school alongside their congratulatory remarks. I always just say, “Thank You” but I usually add a few n’s or u’s to the end of each word to put emphasis on how grateful I am for the recognition.

But I also hope that people don’t think that because it was one year that it was easy, or that it didn’t come without a little sweat over my brow.

Many weeks before graduation I proudly ordered my gown and tam. A graduation tam is a part of academic regalia in some institutions like MICA of which I’m an alumna…alumni…alumnus? — I still don’t know which one means singular or plural. Anyway, a tam takes the place of a mortarboard and is made of black velvet with a soft top, much different than the square academic mortarboard cap we all know well. I waited by my window every day for my local mail woman and said my prayers that the porch pirates (as my mom calls people who steal packages) wouldn’t get their swashbucklin’ hands on my regalia.

After weeks of waiting by the window to no avail, the school sent out an email saying, “Oak Hall has been working hard on fixing the problem and we have been told that all outstanding gowns are shipping today via next day air — so everyone should receive their gowns tomorrow.” Oak Hall is a well-known regalia provider. They did in fact send my gown the very next day, which I was really happy about. I unfolded the gown slowly and something fell out of it, ignored it briefly for the satisfaction of being able to place the gown over my shoulders, it felt and fit right … perfectly. I only kept it on for a few seconds so as not to let the novelty wear off before my big day.

I bent down to see what had fallen out and found a mortarboard … the wrong hat! After waiting for weeks, I had the wrong hat and also realized I didn’t have my master’s hood, a shawl embellishment which is commonly used for graduate students and academic staff. I remembered a line in an email about regalia saying to email a particular person in the events department if there were any problems with what I received. I typed quickly with graduation being only two days away hoping that they’d have a tam and hood on campus … or wondering if they would use next day air again for just my tam and hood.

They responded fairly quickly asking me to pack up the mortarboard, bring it to campus and leave it with the on-site print and postal office. I did just that, and was able to retrieve a spare tam hood — and my honor cords too!

I feel like I didn’t sleep for two days out of excitement but when graduation day finally arrived and I knew the ceremony started at 9 a.m., I found myself nervously shopping at Walmart at 7 a.m.

I thumbed through dresses I didn’t need and talked myself out of buying king-sized sheets of candy I didn’t need until I absolutely had to drive home to close this grad chapter of my life. It felt surreal. And the commencement, much like the school year, was virtual.

There was a schedule of events that I had memorized well: There was a conferring of the degrees for master’s level students at 11 a.m., but the first part of the ceremony had keynote addresses from Valerie Maynard, an African-American sculptor, teacher, printmaker, and designer, and Amy Sherald, a MICA alumna. Sherald works mostly as a portraitist depicting African Americans in everyday settings like her well-known portrait of my forever first lady Michelle Obama, which — fun fact — she painted right on North Avenue in Baltimore in the same building where my office is located.

With minutes to spare until the thoughtfully planned commencement began, I donned my tam, gown, cords and sash. I felt regal and ready to figuratively cross the stage.

My family, a few friends and I spent just about an hour watching the commencement at home and then opted to ride to campus in my full regalia for pictures. Once outside, a small bead of sweat formed just over my brow and then another. I wiped both and ignored them for a few snapshots.

Because I had always wanted to, I decided we would go out to eat at a local black-owned eatery whilst I kept my robe and special hat on. My underarms were more clammy than usual, but I attributed it to nerves at first.

The clock wound at what seemed a fast and sweaty pace as I doused my food with hot sauce. I like my food hot, but my body went from clammy to combustible in a matter of moments.

I just worked my tookus off for this degree, all while keeping a full workload, raising children, staying alive in a pandemic. And under no circumstances was I going to take any ounce of that regalia off for one second, I worked too insert expletive hard.

I retreated to the bathroom to splash water on my face and return to me spicy eggs, equally spicy 9-year-old daughter and the rest of the family. While I was in the bathroom I peered into the mirror at my tag to see that the darn gown was 90% poly-freakin-ester. I was degreed, but it was nearly 90 degrees in Baltimore that day. I was about medium-well and still sizzling from the inside out, they may as well have added me to the menu and served me next.

I stubbornly kept everything on until I got home hours later, after flaunting my cap and sauna around the city some more. Once I de-robed, I nearly had to ring out the tassels.

My plan is to take professional photos outside of the one my daughter snapped for me on campus that day in my impromptu suit. Maybe I’ll try a mini fan?

Polyester should be outlawed y’all.

Alanah Davis
Alanah Davis is a Baltimore-based artist, community advocate, social change and arts consultant. She recently earned a master's degree in social design at Maryland Institute College of Art.