We don’t all think the same. So why would we all dress the same? Something that we can all agree on is that we don’t agree on everything. We each hold a unique set of values, beliefs, ideologies, likes, dislikes, etc. that influence what we wear and how we dress. It is precisely this reason that one-size does not fit all when it comes to workwear and why I strive to shatter the corporate cliché when it comes to office style.
Something that I strongly identify with, believe in, and advocate for is feminism. In analyzing how I came to find my 9 to 5 style, it was readily apparent that feminism has been a driving force behind my workwear wardrobe.
You may think that clothing is trivial in the realm of feminism. And of course there are other very important forms of expression like speech and art. However, as recently as 2016, Nicola Thorp was sent home from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to wear high heels on her first day as a temporary receptionist. Further, a case currently before the Supreme Court of the United States is reviewing whether or not women can be fired for not appearing “as a woman should” at work. What these examples illustrate is that clothing matters for female professionals and that women’s workwear still significantly impacts our career mobility and how we are viewed in the workplace.
All instances of when I have been told what to wear in the corporate setting has mirrored what I saw men in the profession wearing – dark colours (primarily black, navy, and grey) and a blazer. To me, this communicated that to be accepted professionally I have to be the ‘type’ of woman, visually, which mimics professional men through workwear. There are two predominant issues I have with this:
Women don’t need to imitate men in order to be successful; and
Women fought hard to enter the professional workforce – I want my clothing to distinguish me from my male counterparts and celebrate our differences.
Women Don’t Need to Imitate Men to be Successful:
I truly believe that dressing colourfully and boldly does not inhibit my ability to absolutely dominate my job. I do not need to dress like someone else in order to effectively and masterfully complete the task at hand.
Inversely, I have been told that dressing brightly may distract others from the matter at hand (for me specifically, my bright clothing may distract members of the courtroom from analyzing, determining, and responding to the merits of my client’s case). However, (in my opinion) another’s inability to focus is not my fault, nor is it my responsibility to “fix” by instead wearing drab clothing.
There is a perception that if you do not conform to the corporate style cliché, you will not be taken seriously and will not be considered credible or competent. But, dressing in a certain manner in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of archaic and more explicit forms of sexism still hover over us – that a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious, smart, or competent professional. I like to think that I turn that misconception on its head every day.
We are Here and We Will be Seen:
Women are relatively new to the workforce, comparatively speaking. As such, men have set the “norms” for the workforce, including what it means to be dressed professionally. When women were finally permitted to study and eventually enter the professional space, many of the norms created by men were thrust upon women. It was expected that women adhere to the norms set by men in order to “make it” in the professional world. This meant that how women presented themselves for work was highly, if not entirely, influenced by menswear. For years, women have been emulating menswear in their work wardrobe, effectively hiding and softening their femininity.
As a way of paying homage to those who pioneered the way for me to do what I do, I dress explicitly feminine. My closet is full of ruffles, tulle, and the whole spectrum of colour. My workwear style may be best described as boldly feminine. And this is tremendously intentional – I want everything about me to scream “woman”, including my clothing. This is important to me, specifically in a male-dominated field, because I do not want the fact that a woman is in the room or at the table to be overlooked by anyone in that room or around that table. Understanding the effects of your clothing and taking advantage of dress as a medium for communication and conscious identity construction is powerful.
In recent years, women have made great strides in reclaiming our natural bodies and what it means to be “beautiful”. We have begun to define our beauty ourselves and have said “NO!” to men defining what it means for a woman to be beautiful. Similarly, we need to redefine for ourselves what it means to look “professional”. Right now, a higher percentage of professionals are female than ever before. As we continue to constitute a larger portion of the workforce, we must expand the definition of professionalism to include a wider range of appearances to form a definition of professionalism that allows as much room for error for women as it does for men. If we don’t, our success will forever be determined by how well we fit into the marginally-improved, ill-defined, grossly unnatural mold we were handed decades ago when women were first permitted to enter the workforce.
For the above reasons, I refuse to wear the male workwear uniform. Consequently, I have been criticized and/or advised by both men and women when it comes to my appearance. But that’s okay. Changes to societal views and gender norms often begin with physical and visual open-mindedness. I dress in a manner that is intentional, me, and socially in tune with where I hope to see perspectives shift.
 Aimee Stephens had worked as a funeral director for the same company for a period of six years, as a man. When she transitioned and began wearing women’s clothing to work, she was fired. While the primary issue of the case is whether or not transgender people are entitled to protection from sex discrimination in the workplace, the ruling in this case will also have an impact on all women in the workplace with regard to how we dress for work. Aimee Stephens was fired for her supposed inability to conform to her employer’s subjective perspective on what women at work should look like. As a result, if the Supreme Court rules that is legal, every woman in the United States may then also be bound to conform to an employer’s subjective and stereotyped idea of how a woman should look at work if she wants to keep her job.