The politics of office dress

Melanie Davis usually wears grey trousers suits to work. Switching to a smart, clingy dress prompted a disconcerting change in her colleagues

Melanie Davis, 11 October 2011

First Lady - Korea.jpgThe spate of SlutWalks around the world have highlighted a powerful message: no matter what we wear, no matter how we present ourselves, we have the right not to be touched without our consent. For me that statement has a peculiar resonance because it is a much-needed, long overdue reaction to one small subset of a much bigger problem: that we are all, as women, judged every single day by what we wear.

Never mind pubs and clubs, I have trouble with what's expected of women in the modern workplace.

It started with a dress. I was out shopping for another of the plain grey trouser suits I like to shroud myself in, and there was this dress, and I had a moment of whimsy. Why not show off my body in the office for once, just for a laugh? I've seen senior partners reduced to drooling idiots by a nice rack and legs, how much more effective if they suddenly realise the office Plain Jane also has these fine assets?

The dress fitted like a glove. It was grey and smart, and so technically office wear. It was also sleeveless and short and basically not that far off a schoolgirl's outfit. Teamed with a pair of high heels, it looked sexy. Curves, bum, legs all nicely on show. The Whimsy Imp said "Buy it!" and I did. As a joke, you see?

On the first day, my joke went swimmingly. My male team leader, on whose radar I am usually the tiniest of blips, stopped in his tracks to watch open-mouthed as I tottered towards my desk on my high heels, winsomely spilling tea as I went. Male testosterone levels in my general area perked up a notch and I got compliment after compliment, and covert glances. The ugly duckling was playing swan and having fun with it.

My (female) boss singled out The Dress in a conversation about possible promotion. I was doing all the right things, she said. I had the image down

Then I started getting compliments from other women and I felt as if the joke was back-firing a tiny bit. My ironic feminist statement was being misinterpreted. The pretty women in the office (that's most of them), with their carefully dyed blonde hair and short skirts and killer heels, embraced me as their own. I was fitting in. I looked like them now.

1950s suits.jpgI wore the dress a few more times, and always got the same reaction. Looking sexy increases your office currency. In some offices, it's the only way to gain respect. After all, it's terribly difficult for a woman to have gravitas, that thing that young male executives develop the minute they hit 30. But baby, can we work those assets.

The worst part came when I was having my annual appraisal and my (female) boss singled out The Dress in a conversation about possible promotion. I was doing all the right things, she said. I had the image down. That dress, she said, was exactly the sort of thing I needed to be wearing if I wanted to get promoted in my company.

It made me want to chew off my own arm in feminist despair. Is it just naïve of me to want to be as valued for the work I do while wearing a trouser suit as much as while wearing a schoolgirl outfit? Does anyone else out there get that a woman can be bold and sassy and confident without showing off her curves?

There's not a single high street shop that specialises in office wear for women

Overall I'm happy that office fashions have moved on from the horrors of the 1980s power suit with sky-high shoulder pads. It's great that women don't have to feel afraid to display their femininity. But what happens when wearing appropriate professional clothing just isn't enough, when you have to be Office Barbie to get taken seriously? Or when you have to walk a tightrope in the midst of ill-defined 'rules' of office culture?

Last year, 33-year-old Debrahlee Lorenzana took her employer Citigroup to court, claiming she was fired for being "too hot". Debrahlee faced an onslaught of sexism in her office where she was criticised for dressing too provocatively, then too dowdily, for not blow-drying her hair straight, for wearing turtlenecks. The main problem seemed to be that she was so beautiful, the Citigroup men found her "distracting".

Conversely, in Kyrgyzstan a popular TV presenter, Mars Dooronova, lost her job after refusing to stop wearing her hijab on air. Increasingly modern women are finding clothing to be a point of conflict between faith and their secular cultural identity.

In the UK, our culture wants women to be sexy... but not too sexy. Dress smart... but not too dowdy or conservative or you're not hot enough for promotion. Image is everything, but there are no clear rules and women are judged on their looks far more obsessively than men, so are far more vulnerable to getting that delicate judgement wrong. Witness the hilarious memo the Bank of England gave to its female staff a while back: always wear heels (but not too high) and make-up (but not too much) and jewellery (but not too scandalous, so ankle chains are out). Funny? Yes, but not very.

Mannequins.jpgIt doesn't help that many high street chains barely give the nod to women's office wear. Unlike with men's fashion, there's not a single high street shop that specialises in office wear for women. A man can have a choice of 50 suit designs in a shop, a woman is lucky to see four or five different suit designs in the office section of her high street shop. It's a strangely neglected area considering how many women in the UK go to work in an office environment.

I understand the value of a certain conformism such as a professional uniform. I just want a working day to go by when I am allowed to be myself without being obsessively measured against an index of office sexiness. So while I applaud the efforts of the SlutWalk organisers, I would like to see their message extended even further. Women are not objects for male desire whether they are down the pub, or walking down the street, or in the office. Our clothes are not who we are. Our clothes do not define us. We have the right to be judged on our actions, on our merits, not on our clothing.

Picture of the First Lady of the Republic of Korea uploaded by Flickr user KOREA.NET - Official page of the Republic of Korea. Picture of women wearing 1950s skirt-suits uploaded by Flickr user 50'sfan. Picture of unclothed mannequins in a women's clothing shop uploaded by Flickr user Let Ideas Compete.

Comments From You

Rachel // Posted 12 October 2011 at 07:51

I can't say that I've ever been aware that the way I dress for work has impacted on me like you've experienced, but that might be because my jobs have tended to be quite strict on the appropriate clothing front so there's not much room for creative interpretation! Having said that, I never wear makeup or jewellery, but it's never been commented on at all...

I certainly sympathise with the lack of shops for women that deal with work/office clothes. I've recently been on the look out for appropriate interview wear, and it's just a minefield because there isn't one standard fall-back work uniform like there is for men. Luckily I'm going for jobs where a bit of creativity in choice of clothing is no bad thing, but even then, the lack of good, smart work wear in the high street is surprising (and frustrating).

LUVM // Posted 12 October 2011 at 13:17

I don't get wearing a sexy dress 'as a joke'. Why can't you just wear a sexy dress if you want, or not, if you don't want?

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 October 2011 at 13:44

@LUVM Well, clearly Melanie saw it in an amusing fashion to begin with, but her experience suggests that it's not as simple as 'wear what you like', and that conforming to or failing to conform to workplace 'sexiness'/femininity expectations can mean the difference between being promoted or not; being ignored or paid attention to by your line manager; etc.

Feliza // Posted 12 October 2011 at 14:24

When I started reading this article, I thought, "Where on EARTH would people make remarks like this?" I work as an intern in an office environment, and people would never say things like this!

Then I read "here in the UK" and it seemed a bit more clear.

I live in the Midwest region of the United States in the "Rust Belt," a highly manufacturing industry-based area. My office is about 50% male and 50% female, with more of the interns and Graduate Assistants being female (maybe 70%.) One thing I've noticed is that, in a region like mine where white-collar is much less common and qualified workers are harder to find, female workers are much more respected.

(Incidentally, most of the women in our office wear pantsuits and are never remarked upon. When I occasionally wear a dress to work, it's my favorite knee-length A-line and I get a few odd remarks about "oh, it's a dress day today?" when I do.)

For the twentysomething female office worker, though, the issue isn't that there are no suits available, it's that they are simply not affordable. As my mother pointed out, men can wear the same thing until it falls apart and no one notices, but women need to constantly shift their outfits. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Summer // Posted 13 October 2011 at 11:24

It makes me glad i can wear jeans to work tbh, and that no one gives a damn about the way you dress here! I don't think i'd fit in well in a scenario where my dress impacted the way people saw my career going, I've chairer meetings and given prenetations in legings and jeans with plimsols.

For 'a dress' to be considered 'the right look to get ahead is ludicrious. The only way clothes should impact on your career negatively is if you are meant to dress smartly and you turn up in gym wear to meet new clients or vice versa if you work at a gym, suits would be a put-off there. Or positively, your clothes shouldn't make you 'sexier' or more approachable for clients/other memebers of staff in a professional manner. Your work and work reputaion/ethics should speak for themselves and if they don't then it should be challenged.

Of course on a personal scale, I understand your social experiment and I get why some were surprised and staring (if you suddenly change your look for whatever and however reason people will notice and stare) and women may have drew you in more wearing a dress. You may well come across aloof or standoffish to them in a personal -not professional- capacity and then they thought you were trying to fit in with them or grasped the one thing they and you had in common to make chat to you and draw you in.

If you want cheapish clothes for officewear, I know Primark, Peacocks and New look do some-mainly shirts and trousers/skirts rather then jackets but it may help. Ebay too is a good source for a diversity of clothes.

Medusa // Posted 13 October 2011 at 17:23

Your experience was about proving to the world that you are a 'proper' woman. At least that is how it was interpreted and that is why you ended up feeling a bit uncomfortable (your bosses reaction can't have helped). We all know that men will 'approve' of us more if we wear more 'feminine' attire. When wearing more feminine attire, if we have a more voluptuous body shape this is like a screaming beacon (apparently) saying 'LOOK I WANT YOUR ATTENTION', and apparently the only attention we want is men's approval!
That women also collude in this is no surprise to me. I have had women remark to me that if I did so and so (insert stereotypical female grooming practice) I would get more attention from men. I see no point in labouring the point that want I want is just to be me, and not to have to create an artifice so that I will get more male attention. I do not want to insult other women, but female colluders in the continual 'little sexisms' that are an everyday part of a womans life REALLY test my tolerance of other viewpoints.

londoner // Posted 14 October 2011 at 11:48

To be honest, I think the author of this post is subconsciously judging women on their clothes in exactly the same way.
To say that you're wearing the dress as a "joke" is - I find - pretty patronising to women who enjoy wearing that type of clothing to work.
This passage I feel also gives that impression: "The pretty women in the office (that's most of them), with their carefully dyed blonde hair and short skirts and killer heels, embraced me as their own."
I'm firmly of the belief that women should be able to wear what the hell they want to work.
But I also think that if someone enjoys wearing short skirts etc that's their business too. Isn't that the whole point of Slutwalk?

SexierThanThou // Posted 17 October 2011 at 21:12

Can only reiterate what londoner and LUVM have already stressed. The article does seem marginally malicious, a little vindictive. Anyway:

"...there's not a single high street shop that specialises in office wear for women."

Either this is an untapped market (in which case I'm off to make my millions) or there really isn't that much demand.

samanthajankis // Posted 22 October 2011 at 02:11

Well said.

JP // Posted 22 October 2011 at 22:11

Well, I had the opposite problem once. I used to work in an office with no dress code whatsoever - thus I used to wear a skirt suit (Next Petite - very reasonably priced and well-fitting - can totally recommend as a shopping destination for short-arses needing office wear) when going out for meetings or press conferences, and jeans the rest of the time. My boss once took me out for lunch to tell me that whilst she approved of my fashion sense on smart occasions, my everyday wear of skinny jeans and a vest top in summer was inappropriate, that I needed to be "mindful of the fact that you are the only young woman in a male-dominated office", that, "you look as if you don't take yourself seriously, and others are not going to take you seriously either", and "perhaps you should invest in some floaty blouses" - blah blah blah. Incidentally I was pretty good friends with most of the men in the office, and upon hearing of this, they universally bristled at the fact that she seemed to think they were all such raving misogynists as to judge me on an errant bra strap, and offered to come to work in hot pants the next day by way of a protest. I politely declined, but only because I didn't want her to know I'd been bitching about her.

Anyway, I am totally with you - surely it's our work that we should be judged on in the workplace. As long as you're dressed smartly when required, nobody should have a problem with whether you're wearing something fitted or not.

What's slightly more worrying to me is this: it's easy enough to change your wardrobe if you want to fit in, but changing your entire appearance is a different matter. When was the last time you saw a female city worker above a size 12?

Clare // Posted 03 November 2011 at 10:59

Reading this makes me glad that I wear a uniform for work and have a strict uniform policy, which is fairly similar for all workers regardless of gender. One job which hasn't been mentioned in this thread is Flight attendant. A friend of mine used to work for a leading airline and after hearing her uniform policy I cannot believe they can get away with it - Two pairs of shoes, high heels for walking to plane, lower heels whilst on the plane (but no flat shoes), certain shade of lipstick, make up to be worn at all times, hair dye must look natural, no roots, hair to be long and tied up the list goes on. Yet as a passenger I have never thought "It's a good job she's got good eye make-up on, or I could never take her safety briefing seriously."

Aurora // Posted 12 December 2011 at 15:48

I've been hit with this quandary currently and was watching Mad Men, Peggy asks Joan how to be taken seriously and Joan replies 'stop dressing like a little girl', she wears a sexy dress to the social meeting and it works.

I have recently gone from what I would call normal attire to nice dresses, heels and skinny jeans. It's working wonders, it seems as though I'm beginning to be considered as 'ready' for promotion.

My quandary is, is this right? Of course its not, but is allowing yourself to stay a dowdy but righteous underling and not fulfilling your potential right either. By being self-aware of what your doing and why, a way to keep to true to yourself, a way even to capitalise on it. Is is further perpetuating the problem or is being successful and reaching the top of your profession the only way that things will get better for the next generation

Have Your say

About the author

Melanie Davis

Melanie Davis is a feminist, sci-fi geek and mother of two

Author's Articles

  • The F-Word Feeds
  • #
  • #