selection criteria: pencil skirts and heels
This summer, I was lucky enough to spend two months clerking full-time at a law firm in my city, and apart from the excellent training and support my colleagues provided me, it was the sartorial side of the office that provided me with most food for thought.
For me, corporate wear is the most chic and flattering clothing in existence. Sure, jeans and flowy dresses are great on weekends, but a crisp white collared shirt and a tailored suit? You can’t beat that for classic style in my books. After observing the clothes that my colleagues wore, I began to wonder about the kinds of aesthetic expectations that exist for women in today’s workplace, and where these expectations may come from.
Whilst chatting at a morning tea during my clerkship, I noticed a distinction between men and women that I had never thought about before. Looking around, I saw my female colleagues wearing floral blouses, colourful dresses and ruffled skirts, while men were clothed exclusively in suits. This got me thinking – why did these women (myself included) wear well-planned, fashionable ensembles whilst their male counterparts seemed to have simply chosen a suit from their racks that morning and chucked it on with little more deliberation than they would give to their choice of breakfast cereal?
Ironically, it seems that it is not our workplaces but women’s magazines and department stores that impose these sartorial expectations on us, despite claiming to empower professional women. Sure, there’s an expectation at work that you will dress professionally, especially if you’re going to be representing your company (certainly when that company is a law firm), but at the end of the day, if you’re not doing the job, not even the most fabulous Chloé dress will save your arse from the firing line.
And yet, department stores and magazines aren’t letting their foot off the accelerator. With every new season comes a new must-have piece of corporate wear – pencil skirts a few years ago, peplums last season – and if you fall too far behind in the fashion stakes, you’re led to believe that it’s a reflection of your competency as an employee. It’s not enough to be great at your job – you need to look like you’re great at it, too.
The office thus turns into a catwalk for women, with men’s suits emerging as utilitarian work uniforms in comparison. The suit has been the sole piece of male professional wear for the past several decades and as long as a man’s suit fits well, there’s no problem. Women, on the other hand, face constantly changing trends with which, apparently, they need to keep up.
On the surface, I have no issue with the range of clothes we women can wear at work. I love having a wide and varied work wardrobe and adore shopping for work clothes with my girlfriends. Yet I can’t help but wonder why I even feel such a need to keep up with corporate trends: after all, isn’t the quality of my work what’s really important to my employer and colleagues? Do I fear that, if I don’t dress well, my perceived capability and value in the workplace will go down? Is it because I want to give the impression of professionalism until I figure out what that really means? Am I just faking it ‘til I make it, or do I think I need to feel attractive to believe I am successful? Personally, I believe it’s a mix of all of these, plus more.
Whether these concerns are real or just in my head, the fashion industry’s promulgation of the idea that image and success go hand in hand – that you can’t have one without the other – is certain. Sure, back in the patriarchal times of Mad Men, working women had to look great in order to land a secretarial job, but in this day and age when we’re surfing the third wave of feminism and are protected by anti-discrimination legislation both in the interview room and beyond, it’s curious that aesthetics are still so much a part of our working lives.
For my part, I’m trying to resist the pressures from magazines and department stores and remind myself that what’s really important in the office is the work that I do and the kind of person I am. Yes, it’s important to look professional, but it’s more important to be professional, and at the end of the day, working with integrity is what people will remember you for. Jimmy Choos are definitely fabulous, but hobbling around the office? That definitely isn’t.
By Dunja Cvjeticanin
Do you feel the pressure of women’s officewear trends?