My “professional dress” experiment

Guest post by beccaboo
Photo by thirdfloorcloset – CC BY 2.0
Photo by thirdfloorclosetCC BY 2.0

Can we talk about “professional dress”?

When I first started to work in schools, it seemed like a no brainer that I had to build myself a professional wardrobe. My first few times in the classroom as a pre-student teacher, I wore an older button up shirt and some khaki pants.

Then I started student teaching, and we talked about dressing the part…

No tees, you’ll look like a kid. No jeans, you’ll look too young. Gym shoes are unprofessional. Sweatshirts are sloppy. You get the picture.

So I made a few more trips to Target and discovered H&M, and felt pretty good about myself. I was ROCKING this professional dress thing! I felt a smug sense of satisfaction walking into my first few interviews wearing a grey dress, black tights, heels, black blazer, and pearls.

Never mind that it was July and I was dying of heat, and my feet were killing me after walking from my car to the front office. I was PROFESSIONAL, damnit!

My first year of teaching, I somehow managed to wear dress clothes every single day. Even during spirit week, I didn’t stoop to the level of jeans. That was for the teachers who didn’t care, and had phoned it in. I was a fresh, young professional ready to bring some gravitas to this profession and inject it with some respectability.

Except… I’m white, middle class, and a cisgender female.

It was easy for me to ask my parents for a little extra cash to go get some nice pieces. My mom encouraged me to spend a little more so the clothing would last. When I went shopping, it was right to the women’s section without a second thought.

And then this past year, I tried a little experiment. What if I just started wearing jeans? I’d still look nice. Clean, groomed, all that jazz. But no makeup, certainly no heels, and no dress pants.

A couple of things happened. I stayed warmer this winter because I could tuck my jeans into warm boots, instead of slopping through the snow in my dress shoes. I felt a new freedom to wear shirts that promoted my college, and showed school pride with a hoodie emblazoned with my school logo. My students still respect me. My colleagues still respect me. Heck, I even started teaching our AP course.

So why did how I dress matter in the first place?

Probably because “professionalism” is still coded in terms that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and classist. Probably because the people in power are still the men in dark suits, so of course we must dress like them if we want to be taken seriously.

Of course professional clothes are cut with straight lines and no soft edges. Of course good professional clothes are expensive. Of course the most professional would never dream of adding more than a pop of color. Of course flashy jewelry is discouraged, and don’t you dare wear more than “natural looking” makeup, and make sure your hair is natural (and by that we mean straight and neatly trimmed).

Why would they want us out of their chosen uniform? Then we might realize how few of us there really are among their ranks.

Comments on My “professional dress” experiment

  1. My best friend teaches in a public 6th grade classroom…in a tiny mostly apostolic lutheran farm town in Washington. She is known as “the teacher with the nose ring and the shaved side of her head.” I love that she doesn’t dress professional!

  2. Thanks for this! I often find myself struggling with this, as I work in a position that requires “business casual” dress, but that also sometimes requires me to do work that normally I would opt to be in jeans or other much more casual wear. As a young professional working on a college campus, I want to be recognized as a staff member, and not as a college student, but I also don’t want to wreck my “professional” clothes.

    • I work in IT and have to dress in business casual every day. I crawl under peoples desks where they put their bare feet, I crawl through interstitials, I pull cables from under flooring and run cable through ceilings. My job is not a clean job.

      Dickies makes men’s pants (type 874) that look like slacks and are much more durable (but for a fraction of the price). They have a decent women’s section too, but beware because they use a different sizing system. you can try on various sizes and styles at Sears before ordering on line.

  3. I totally agree with this, however I think this may be changing. I recently interviewed for a new job. Before I went in to the interview I posted a photo online in my ‘professional clothes’ with a caption mentioning that I had to straighten my (very long, very curly) hair for the interview because I have been told multiple times, and you’ll find the sentiment in many ‘How to dress for success’ type books, that people find women with curly hair unprofessional and intimidating.
    The younger demographic (18-30) were outraged. Lots of comments about how my hair shouldn’t matter or that I should have worn it curly because that who I really am and it doesn’t change if I’m professional or not. The older demographic (35-60+) All thought that my straightening my hair was the ‘right’ thing to do, and that if I wanted the job it only made sense.
    I guess this is all to say, that I believe the newer generations may change this, in the same way that it was considered ‘wrong’ for women to wear pants in the workplace and now its common. It’s important to speak up and to point these things out. It is important to push the boundaries but if you can do the job well, and you can ACT professional, that’s the best way to show people that your clothes and appearance don’t determine how well you can do your job.

    • What? Who on earth would suggest that? I’m almost 40 and do a lot of hiring, and that would never even cross my mind. I just hired someone with wildly curly red hair!

      Please don’t be randomly agist.

      • This was meant to be purely anecdotal. I was just trying to explain a personal situation. I’m sorry if it upset anyone and I am aware that not everyone in any age group would automatically share the same opinions. I’m sorry for the confusion

      • sorry, its not random to suggest that older people in general are more conservative, racist etc. look at voting patterns. naming those patters is not ageism. this doesn’t mean every older person is such. but i don’t see a lot of young people shaking their fist and telling me to get off their lawn. #justsaying

        Also. Older white people, specifically richer white men, have the most privilege in the world. This cry of “ageism” is often a cover for protecting privilege.

  4. When I first started my job 4 years ago, I ALWAYS wore heels, dress pants, dress skirts, etc. My hair was not awesome and I never wore lipstick, but HEELS and nylons = Professional. No. Just no. Unless you’re in the finance market (and even then), there is no right way to do professional.

    I now wear nice corduroy pants or jeans almost every day (unless we have something/someone important planned), but I wear lipstick, pearls, keep my hair classy, maybe wear a button-up or blouse and silky scarf, but even a t-shirt and jeans looks pro under a nice suit jacket. I wear dressy flats now too, to save my back.

    I think a huge part of getting comfortable with professional dress isn’t so much age, or gender, but getting comfortable with the job you’re at; the people you work with; the environment and expectations, aside from the strict rules we often hear when we are new hires. Rules are meant to be broken, and that’s what fashion is all about. Being professional is about being confident and pulled together. Thanks for bringing this up!

  5. It also depends on if people like you or not. When I started my job as an admin assistant on a college campus, my older coworkers tried to get me in trouble on a weekly basis. Cardigan has a sugar-skull on it? Turn that inside out or go home (Happened my first week of work, was my nicest cardigan at the time). I wore natural makeup to not offend people, dressed extra fancy.

    Then after a few months I started wearing louder makeup. Nobody said anything. I dyed my hair a brighter red. Again, nothing. After a year, I started wearing sweater dresses with leggings. Nothing. I then wore SPACE LEGGINGS WITH THE UNIVERSE ON THEM (under a dress). I got compliments. Had I worn those my first week of work? Probably not.

    I think it just took my coworkers some time to understand my personality, so that now when they see me in dragon earrings or super sparkly neon eyeshadow, they don’t tell me to change anymore, because they’ve come to expect it of me. They know that’s how I am. I wore some filligree bat earrings last week and my 50-something very professional boss gushed about how she loved them.

    I’m going to start wearing that sugar skull cardigan again and see what happens.

    • Samesies. Every job I’ve ever had, I’ve slowly had to “phase in” my wild curly hair, nose ring, and hippie accessories. I’ve done it, but I hate it. It pisses me off that I have to wear a professional costume to gain the respect of my coworkers before I can show them who I really am. In this country with so much diversity, why is it that we are still judged on the way we look first, instead of on our abilities?
      At the same time, I have an interview coming up, and I’m going to straighten my hair, put on a suit, and take out my nose ring. So I guess I’m still playing the game, too.

      • I actually went to interview for my dream job wearing light colored slacks, a black t-shirt under a navy blazer, flats, and my super bright red hair. I figured that since i would refuse to wear heels and skirts or dye my hair “normal,” it was only fair that my interviewers knew what they were getting into. Got the job! I know it depends completely on the job but maybe take the risk of being yourself in the interview

      • I guess I’ve always thought as professional dress as professional “costume”. Every piece of clothing is not appropriate for any event. A farmer wears cover-alls, a doctor wears a white coat, and an opera singer wears a beautiful dress. It follows for me that teachers wear slacks and a nice shirt, lawyers wear smart suits, etc.
        But this says nothing for personal style, I suppose. Although in many fields, what your coworkers think is appropriate in the workplace is kindof a big deal to your own job longevity.

      • I think I phase in more of my regular style with outfits too, like you folks have mentioned here. I do not however take any of piercings out for interviews (two nostril screws, visible septum, lip ring – and that’s just the front of my face).

        I figure if potential employers have a problem with it they will mention it and ask if the metal bits can be removed or hidden. But lo and behold, I’ve never actually had any employer ever ask me to remove my jewelry. And just for reference, here are some of the jobs I’ve had with facial piercings: retail, barista, catering staff, engineering tech, and customer service. Of course this is entirely anecdotal, just wanted to share my experience.

        It might be worth mentioning that I have super plain jewelry (because that’s what I like on my face) and that I am not seeking employment in a super fancy industry. YMMV if you dig super crazy metal bits and/or are in a super profresh industry 🙂

  6. I like this. A lot. I’ve never really had the occasion to think about “professional” dress as racist, classist, et al., and as you point out, it totally is. Now, on the other side of that coin, I LOVE dressing up. Not necessarily in “business casual,” but I enjoy wearing fancy clothes (most of which I purchased at the thrift store, because I’m poor as hell, but I’m a scourer). Also, I spend much of my time/energy trying to achieve curly hair, and I have never, never, never heard of straightening one’s hair for a job interview. That really put the rest of the job interview requirement bullshit right into perspective.

    Thanks for your piece.

  7. It depends on who you are and where you are. Seriously. At one place, I was told “that tattoo has to go.” Another place told me no visible tattoos or piercings. Another told me to get whatever I wanted. They all had an image they wanted to maintain, and I was a part of that. It was annoying at times, but that’s life. If I didn’t like it, I was free to find other employment.

    • I agree. Rules of dress vary depending on the job and where you live. Things are much more relaxed in a small western town than in a big eastern city or in the south. The rules for a banker are different than for a waitress. When choosing a career, it is important to know the rules you are going to be working under. Sure, you want to make changes, but as anyone in the feminist movement could tell you, it is even harder than you think. You have to prove yourself first, especially in periods of high unemployment.
      That said, I’ve worked in professional offices and retail. I’ve never worn heals and it has never been a problem. In the 90’s curly hair was in. Sometimes when I read “advice” like that, I suspect the writer is just making shit up because they’ve run out of anything real to say. But, of course, I don’t blame those out there who don’t want to risk it and straighten their hair.
      As far as dress rules being classist and sexist, it is not as bad as it used to be. I’ve never been required to wear skirts or expensive clothing, unlike those in the generation before me. It is possible to dress “professionally” on a budget, you just have to work at it. I managed it working for minimum wage, buying a few blouses, pants, and sweaters to mix & match at KMart and thrift stores. As I was able to get better jobs, I began saving to invest in quality pieces one at a time. I have 3 blazers purchased at Penneys for about $80 each that have lasted more than 20 years. The cut is no longer in fashion, but they work for me at a cost of about $4 per year and I “dry clean” them in the dryer.
      Call me sexist, but for me, being professional means that I don’t dress like I’m on a on a hot date. I worked with one woman who quit rather than follow the “fingertip rule.” Her skirts were so short I hoped like hell she was wearing panties. If not, there was nothing between her and the fabric of the office chairs – eewwww!

      • “Call me sexist, but for me, being professional means that I don’t dress like I’m on a on a hot date”

        Eh, this goes both ways! Guys have ‘hot date’ attire too that doesn’t translate as professional in some offices.

      • ” Her skirts were so short I hoped like hell she was wearing panties. If not, there was nothing between her and the fabric of the office chairs – eewwww!”

        This is unrelated to work dress, but I went to Comic Con a couple years ago and had the misfortune of sitting at a panel behind someone who was dressed exactly like this. Except my friend and I knew exactly what was happening under her skirt because we could see EVERYTHING. There was, in fact, nothing between her and the fabric of the chair she was sitting on, and we were absolutely horrified to see that, when the panel was over, someone ran over and immediately sat in her front-row seat. Ew ew ew ewwww.

  8. One of my best friends is the English department chair at her school and she previously won as a “Teacher of the Year” while teaching at her old school. She’s got two full sleeves, “READ MORE” tattooed on her knuckles and most of the time rocks a partially, or sometimes totally, shaven head. She’s also a bad ass roller derby player. I wish to God more people would be accepting of people like us.

    • I ❤ Roller Derby!
      I got involved with my local team, gained confidence, and interviewed for the same position I had been passed up for a year before.
      The difference? Likely the self confidence, interpersonal communication skills officiating gave me, and new friends to give me the push towards what I had convinced myself was an inevitable non-offer.
      I wore my (now aubergine-violet hair) in the same half-ponytail, carried the same small cross-body purse (canvas, from a local business), folio (just in case), black suit separates (but rolled the sleeves), and purple t-shirt. I wore my knee-high combat boots and studded belt under the suit though.
      I got the job, and I wear purple Chucks daily.

      I think there is definitely a difference between interview clothes and daily work clothes though.

  9. I can definitely relate to this. When I first started as manager of my library I was very careful about what I wore because I wanted to be perceived as “professional” and “in charge”. It didn’t make a difference. People still thought my older employees were the boss. I’ve relaxed my standards of dress a lot over the past two years, and people tend to respect me more now because I am more confident in my abilities at this job. I can’t wear jeans (except on Fridays… which I know is a normal workplace rule but just seems so strange to me), but most days I wear one of my many “I don’t give a fuck” uniforms (gray or black pants and a solid colored tshirt). I never really thought of “professional” dress as being a sexist/racist/classist thing, but it makes perfect sense when I think about it. Society told me I needed to look respectable in order to be respected, and I believed it. Actually what I needed to do to be respected was be confident.

  10. I read a similar piece recently at

    And while I agree that, yes, the concept of “professionalism” is coded with power & the ruling elite, I personally cannot stand the recent American trend towards the opposite where everyone (white male elites & not) dresses in super-casual ‘athleisure’ clothes 24/7 to every possible event, work or play. Jeans & hoodies are the Silicon Valley work uniform (see: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook; or jeans & turtleneck the version deceased Apple CEO wore). Plus, ppl wear this to formal events, like the symphony or weddings-that-are-meant-to-be-formal (not just chill backyard weddings).

    Ppl are losing any sense of wardrobe boundaries. One thing “professional” clothes do is help define “work” as opposed to “home” life. You wear a suit to the office, you wear jeans at home. Now ppl wear whatever & also work whenever. I like a flexible work schedule, but I also like to unplug & have real personal time that work does not intrude into.

    There’s more, so much more….

    • With people like Mark Zuckerberg, wearing jeans and leisure clothes at work is also a sign of power. He’s literally so important at Facebook that he can wear whatever he wants and people will still know he’s in charge. But I agree with you that it’s a shame that we’ve lost the idea of separating work from home, both in our clothes and our attitudes. Most places have lost the idea of a 40-hour work week or finishing your day’s work and leaving to go home to rest. Bosses frequently expect workers to be on-call 24/7, ready to cover a shift or a client’s emergency. I would imagine that the clothing trend you mentioned is a part of that. Everything is sliding together.

      • It would be more a sign of power for Zuckerberg if it weren’t the default uniform for all Silicon Valley tech employees, from the admin to the IT worker on an H1B visa to the VP in charge of everything. Casual has become the standard-issue culture here, & it’s becoming common across the U.S.

        • My husband has worked remotely as a software engineer for Silicon Valley start-up companies for the last 5+ years. Jeans and a T-shirt or hoodie is my husband’s work uniform whether he’s working at home or in the office. I think the casual clothing in his industry stems from a few things: there’s very little work/life balance, so changing clothes is rarely going to predict when you have to handle the next work fire. Software engineering is a results driven job, and your boss and coworkers care about the quality and timeliness of your work more than anything else. Your fit with the team culture is the other big thing. They will immediately not consider any interviewee who shows up in a suit, unless they’re an intern and can’t be expected to know better. They don’t want people who conform to the “old” rules because they’re rarely a good fit. Of course, not everyone in Silicon Valley dresses casually. The sales side of the office is still wearing suits. They talk to the client so the engineers don’t have to. 😉

    • I agree with you that the blurring between work and home is troubling (especially when “flex time” means “work all the time”). But I don’t agree that the overall trend toward dressing more casually is necessarily a bad thing. I feel more confident, more like myself when I wear casual clothes. When I have to wear a suit, it feels like putting on a costume to fit in. I’m not saying we should all be in sweatsuits all the time or that dress codes are always bad in every situation. But getting to be yourself in more parts of your life? That’s a good thing in my book.

      • My Dad recently retired. Over the past couple years of working though, I noticed a change from the daily suit and tie, to nice jeans and a nice button up shirt. I asked him about it, because now that he’s retired, that’s still what he wears every day. He told me that the suits and ties were incredibly uncomfortable, and he found he was happier and far more productive in his job when he could dress in a comfortable way.

        • Ugh, the “comfort” argument. As someone who regularly wears huge historical costumes with corsets & wigs, I think I know something about restrictive clothing. And I can tell you that garments made to fit you are usually not uncomfortable. A well-fitted suit should allow for ease of movement — no, it’s not yoga pants or sweats, but it’s not a torture chamber either. Size up & get alterations! It’s a cheap fix, seriously.

          Ppl say jeans are comfortable, but I think they’re horrible because the heavy denim is so unforgiving. And it’s harder to alter jeans w/out them looking stupid. But a wool crepe suit? Easy peasy. Lightweight, soft fabric & a few little changes to make it fit beautifully, & it’s comfortable plus looks gorgeous. That makes me feel super confident & ready for the workday. (Click my icon for my CorpGoth blog for proof!)

          • Well, I’m sure comfort is different for everyone. Even if a suit is comfortable, sometimes people just can’t stand wearing long sleeves. And I myself have never liked button up shirts with collars, even if it does fit me nicely. I’ll take jeans over my slacks any day, even if the slacks are more forgiving. A suit seemed like overkill for the sort of work he was doing.

          • That’s all personal preference though. I wear historical costumes as well and yeah they’re comfy if fitted properly but trying to drive my compact car in a 6 bone hoop skirt is a pain in the *ss. I can do it (I’ve done it a lot) , but its not practical or comfortable. If your job requires you to do something more than sit at a desk and attend meetings, even the best fitting suits will feel restrictive sometimes. It’s a judgement call.

          • I think comfort = stretchy for most people. I am in the process of trying to acquire some cotton knit blazers, because I have back problems and non-stretchy jackets make my back hurt more. I wear them…many different kinds (expensive ones, cheap ones, tweed ones, “suit jackets”…) But really, I need sweaters that looks like blazers. Comfort is being able to move freely, for most people I know. That said, I think a corset is more comfortable than a bra, because it frees up the shoulders and upper back. So yes, body type/personal need is totally relevant.

      • As for “getting to be yourself in more parts of your life” – that’s just a matter of figuring out your *professional* self. Just like you might talk to your cat one way & your boss another way but both are still your voice, you can have one sense of style that crosses over all your activities, but is modified to suit the situation. (for example, my CorpGoth blog, click the icon)

      • This is definitely a significant aspect of it, as well more and more people are working from home or are entrepreneurs and self employed, thus dress codes in general are changing. There is no longer the suit and tie expectation in a lot of workplaces, and personal freedom and expression is becoming a part of the industry.

        My industry, architecture, is an odd one. You’ve got everything from your suit and tie architects to your sweater and jeans architect. I mostly fall somewhere in the middle, but am definitely an oddity for a few reasons. 1) I’m a female under 35, in an industry dominated by men 50+
        2) I regularly have unnatural hair colour, piercings and visible tattoos.
        3) I own one suit. It’s plaid. Though the majority of my wardrobe is more in the artsy/professional realm (think clothes by Bodybag by Jude, Alembika, etc) lots of black, white and unique cuts. But, I also own one pair of jeans specifically for site visits where I have to get dirty or crawl around taking measurements.

        I’ve got an athletic build with a long torso and short legs… suits don’t fit properly, my arms are legs are too big while my torso is generally too small. I feel uncomfortable and awkward, and I look it. And looking awkward and uncomfortable at a meeting is just as bad as throwing on a pair of ripped jeans and a painting shirt for the same meeting. I find a happy medium, and it works. It’s not the standard business casual outfit, but it works for me and no one I’ve worked with has ever complained.

    • I agree! There are certain events in life that I feel deserve proper dress. A backyard BBQ wedding asks for shorts & flip flops, but I hate to see athletic wear at a wedding in a chapel. To me, this seems disrespectful to the wedding couple who have gone to some expense to include you in their celebration.
      However, the worst offensive dress I’ve seen has been at funerals. I get that people are tailoring funeral services to the personality of the deceased. Business casual dress for memorials in parks or informal settings for people who would want informality seems ok to me, but I’ve seen shorts, ripped jeans, flip flops, novelty tees, and tank tops at formal church funerals. I’ve seen this at several funerals in the past few years. Somehow, it feels beyond disrespectful. It feels that they are insulting the deceased.

    • Totally get this response, although I think it is SUPER interesting that you brought up going to the symphony, as I am also a classically trained musician who loves orchestral music.

      Next time you go see an orchestra play, take a look at the audience. If it’s a typical concert in their season lineup, you’re going to see a lot of middle aged/older white people. I can tell you that it is NOT just middle aged/older white people who are into orchestral music, nor should it be limited to being enjoyed by those people. However, there are huge barriers to people actually being able to enjoy a symphony performance. The ticket price itself bars people from going, and then there’s the added cost of an outfit if you feel you need to look a certain way to go there.

      I give huge props to major orchestras that put on concerts in state parks or alternative venues for free when people can come as you are. Music is meant to be heard by all!

  11. I used to work at a retail facility, where there was a uniform dress code. They provided the shirts, which was nice, but we were required to wear nice black slacks, black belt, and black closed-toed shoes. Hair color was required to be a natural shade (no purple for me, sadly). As far as I can tell, except for some variance on whether odd hair color is okay and whether the company will purchase the shirts for me, this has been pretty standard for my years working in retail and dealing with public all day.

    But, I have since transferred within the company from somewhere I had to deal face to face with customers, to a secured warehouse production center where there is no access to the public, except for very rare scheduled tours by clients. And yet we still have to obey the dress code. It’s the tiniest bit more lax (jeans and a work-branded t-shirt on Fridays, yay! No more wearing a nametag!), but really, who am I dressed to impress here? The machinery? Each other? Can my professional dress be heard over the phone during the dozens of calls I make all day? I would love to know what benefit my professional dress is giving me in this environment.

    • I would imagine that the dress code is a part of the image they’re trying to maintain (yes, even when no one’s looking), developing a team spirit (“We all dress alike! We’re a team! Yay!”), avoiding “dressing wars” (no one gets upset that Stacy can flaunt her higher paycheck by wearing Prada), and keeping the clothing neutral to avoid distractions. If you’re not focused on checking out each other’s clothes or getting pissed because Stacy just got another strand of pearls, then you can focus on your job. I’m guessing you and most of your coworkers are too professional to get sucked into those games, but corporate rules are usually written for a reason, and oftentimes that reason is one person ruining things for everyone else.

      • Well, that does make sense. Although Stacy is in for a shock if she wears Prada to the job where she has to lift heavy dirty boxes all day. But we’ve got the relaxed dress on Fridays- jeans and a work-branded t-shirt. I don’t see why that can’t be an every day thing. Surely that won’t be too distracting, and we’d all still be dressed as a team.

      • Do people REALLY pay that much attention to what others are wearing, though? I work in a job where some of us are barely scraping by with 18 grand a year and others are paid easily 4 times that and are partnered with significant others who make similar or more. there is a HUGE difference in how we dress and it is not. at. all. a. problem. The problems we face are about work stuff- protocol, chain of command, when to take a lunch break, not whether my coworker has a $2000 tennis bracelet and I don’t.

    • I used to work at an online university. When we got a new president a few years ago, he asked everyone to start wearing suits to work. Luckily the head of HR talked him out of that!! This is a very casual city and it wasn’t like our students ever saw us anyways!!

    • Obviously this is just my opinion and personal experience and not everyone will agree which is totally cool but here’s my two cents on why you still have to do the dress code thing:

      I’ve worked two places that require business casual dress… a movie rental store (no uniform, just business casual and dressier on weekends, it was weird) and an office, my current job. At the video gig we occasionally got to wear jeans on special days (holidays, superbowl Sunday with a football shirt, if we did a promo, whatever) and at my current job we have casual Friday where I can wear jeans. It could just be because it’s a break from the norm, but jeans day always feels more relaxed than regular days. It’s good and bad… yeah, I usually am a little less stressed but honestly I find it a little more difficult to focus and get stuff done. I feel like the whole atmosphere of my workplace and my brain are more attuned to work when I’m a little more dressed up. And really the only difference is the pants, I wear the same plain vnecks every day. Just a thought on why they want you to still be in their regular uniforms. They might think it keeps people in “work mode”

  12. This is a topic I’ve been wondering about a lot recently because of my new and first ever “corporate” job. I work for a really, really big academic publishing company and 98% of the time I am over dressed compared to just about everybody else. Most people here are quite casual: jeans, t-shirts etc etc… including the “big bosses.” It’s been conflicting for me because even though I’m just in “business/business casual” attire I’m not a “professional” type dresser normally and would love to roll up day to day in whatever t-shirt was on top of my clean pile. I question what “professional” even means when my partner (a graphic designer) does wear whatever he wants to work but yet is still considered professional.

    The decision I made was that I would continue to wear business clothes, not because “THEY” want me to or because it’s what is expected or because I want to be taken seriously but because I want to. I want to wear “dressier” clothes because this is where I work, not where I play, so to speak. Having separate clothes for my work keeps me in a work mind, and keeps my work separate from my personal life. I do find ways to not fit into professional dress expectations–I wear mens clothing, plaid jackets, skull necklaces: basically I bring a little me to the professional dress. Like most things, this boils down to figuring out what is right for you.

    • You do you! A friend of mine worked in a chemistry lab where the dress code was super casual. She and a couple of her coworkers missed dressing up, so they started doing “Fancy Fridays” instead of the typical casual Friday.

    • “I bring a little me to the professional dress” — exactly! It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition at many jobs. I read, which is mostly geared towards women who work in law & finance, & they often are expected to wear VERY conservative dark suits, nylons, & heels to work. But even then, the full getup is only required at certain times, like if a lawyer is in court for a trial or if s’one has a big meeting. They have flexibility too.

      Unless you’re in one of those very old-school fields or you are literally issued a uniform for work, ppl have some leeway in how they can interpret “professional dress.” It’s not always a suit, but it’s usually not jeans & a T-shirt.

      • I work as an attorney in a law school teaching clinic. For the most part slacks, a nice shirt, and a casual shoe are what I wear day-to-day. Meeting with a client I add a suit jacket. And yes, when we go to court, I wear a black suit and a blouse.
        Our students have a much more relaxed dress code (basically no yoga pants, hoodies or flip flops). But part of my job is to model what a typical professional wears to work.
        There has been hot debate over whether the office staff should wear jeans on Fridays. I think for the most part we all operate under: if a client is coming, dress up a bit. Otherwise, jeans are probably fine for the office.

    • Yes! After a few years of wearing business casual, I’m starting to feel jealous of my little sister’s scrubs that she wears for her job as a dental hygienist. They look so comfortable, and you don’t have to waste a bunch of time in the morning picking out an outfit.

  13. I have trouble shopping in general because I am picky, cheap, as well as 5’11” and borderline plus size/XL. So, that cuts down a whole host of options… Thanks for a refreshing article about thinking outside the box regarding work wardrobe. I started my first job and was called frumpy by the bitches in my workplace. What did I know back then? I was 24, poor, and have trouble shopping for anything other than food/toiletries. It was hurtful, purposely judgmental, and contributed to my insecurities about my work performance.

    • I love that you brought up the frumpy thing! I felt really discouraged when I went out to my first few teaching placements because I didn’t really know how to dress outside of jeans and a tshirt back then. Compared to the girls in cute outfits from J Crew, I just felt uncomfortable and ugly. Not exactly inviting confidence in front of the classroom!

      • Absolutely–I was jeans/tshirts 100% of the time in college (save for an awards ceremony or something). I also lost 50 pounds pretty rapidly after starting grad school, but I really wasn’t aware of the weight loss. Instead, I kept wearing my old clothes and just thought bigger was better.

    • While I respect your opinion and totally agree that you can tailor things to how you feel comfortable while still fitting within the broader “norms of professional dress”, I’m beginning to find comments judgemental of what others feel is professional and appropriate for their own workplaces or needs, and particularly preachy of your own blog.

      I get that your blog totally targets this issue, and I’ve checked it out myself in the past when you’ve linked it on other discussions… which to me also shows that given the rules around the Code of Conduct when posting on this page, you may be treading on thin ground. Mods, please feel free to correct me on this, or delete if you feel appropriate, but linking your own blog so obviously 3x within one article just smacks of “I’ve got it right, you can all follow me”, rather than the open discussion this forum is meant to encourage.

  14. Actually … I respectfully disagree with some of this. I’m also shocked that you were allowed to wear jeans to teach on a regular basis. Every school I’ve ever worked in, while fairly relaxed, had a no jeans except on special dress-down days policy. (And that has included days of sloppy weather such as you describe.) And … I’m okay with that. I do think employers have a right to decide what kind of atmosphere they want to project in a place of work/school, and dress is part — not all, and not the most important, but A part — of that. (I’ve taught mostly in private schools, though, so I suppose there could be a different argument about public schools). I also started teaching very young and it was a way to create a bit of a line between myself and the high school seniors I taught. (Which of course, again, is done in many other ways — speech, comportment, etc., and not merely dress, but dressing more formally did help me.) I’ve also always seen lots of teachers dress fairly “unprofessionally” compared to, say, bankers — for example, sandals without stockings, flowy skirts, “boho” tops. And a lot of dangly jewelry. Elementary school teachers around here seem to have jewelry to go with every imaginable book theme! I’ve also taught with plenty of teachers, even in conservative schools, who do have some ink or piercings (yes, other than earlobe) who have no problem with it.

    I’ve also found that the type of professional clothes you describe can be bought quite cheaply around here, as well as thifted. But then … I do live in the Northeast, where some of the most conservative business rules do still apply to dress … So perhaps that explains my whole take on this as well! 😉

    • Part of why I started so professional was inspired exactly by what you said: keeping the line between myself and my students. I realized after that first year that there was no fooling anyone who was the teacher in the classroom; part of it is that I have really wide vocabulary that I absolutely do not dumb down for them.

      I can see how the culture is different on the East Coast as well. Don’t people still “dress for dinner” over there? And private schools are almost always going to be more conservative, so I would expect that in dress. My school doesn’t have a dress code in our contract, although individual buildings can decide (we don’t have a dress code).

    • ” I’ve also always seen lots of teachers dress fairly “unprofessionally” compared to, say, bankers — for example, sandals without stockings, flowy skirts, “boho” tops. And a lot of dangly jewelry. Elementary school teachers around here seem to have jewelry to go with every imaginable book theme! ”

      Even so, I think it’s probably easier to tell who is a teacher and who is a student then if everyone is wearing jeans and band tees.

      • Yes, and it isn’t *just* about literally being able to tell at a glance who’s a teacher and who’s a student, if that makes sense (Like, Teachers wear red! Students wear blue!) To be clear, I also have and used an advanced vocabulary and a wide and deep background knowledge that often wowed students 🙂

        And while I actually think students should be encouraged to be a bit professional, take their studies seriously, etc., (some charter schools are big on this) they are kids … and we are adults. And sometimes being an adult means putting on less comfy clothes 🙁 (Although even I have to draw the line at nylons, I just … can’t. Although I did find that nylons, heels, and very typically professional clothes did tend to help me as a sub in tough schools, when the ONLY thing the kids have to go on IS your appearance — very different than having a day to day relationship of mutual respect.)

        I’ve also sat across the table at parent-teacher conferences, and actually had a parent ask me, in front of my student — “How old are you anyway? You don’t look very old to be a teacher.” (Hint: NOT a great way to encourage respect in your student, parents!)

    • I think it’s all about your context – your field, your company, your age, your geography, and many many other things.

      I teach at university, and when I started doing so I was of a similar age to the undergraduates I was teaching. Even now at 27, I look fairly young. So I do enjoy finding ways of dressing a little more professional (not like suits, but maybe smart jackets with jeans, dresses, etc) as a way to set myself apart. It’s really frustrating and undermining if everyone assumes you’re a student all the time.

      I also had a job interview in America recently, and I was told that (at least for job interviews) American academia expects you to be WAY more corporate than in England. Like, a suit is the neutral thing for an interview, and anything else will be taken as a bit of a statement. Now, I complied with this idea – but I have the resources and ability to do so – perhaps I should have dressed more like my regular self and rejected what I thought was expected of me?

      Job interviews are tricky though, because probably no one will ask you about it or get you to explain your clothing. If they don’t like it, they might just not give you the job (sadly). I understand why other people have talked about “phasing in” their preferred clothing after getting a job definitely.

  15. I’m confused by the assumption that there is “professional dress” (which seems to be structured and suit like), jeans, and nothing in-between. Today I’m in a faux wrap dress, tights and boots. Totally comfortable, totally appropriate for my academic job (I’m a Dean) and not suit-like at all. In fact the books make me feel sexy and sassy, and I caught my reflection in a window earlier and thought the dress makes my booty look amazing. Still totally professional. I also wear a ton of unstructured jackets, over camis with slacks. I feel that “professional” really means “pulled together” not necessarily masculine or suited.

    • I, personally, agree with you! The way I wear jeans is far from how I would dress casually, since it’s always dressed up with nice shoes, a dress shirt, and jewelry. It’s interesting to me that jeans (and flowy skirts) are often coded as less professional, even though they can be put together in a totally professional way.

      I’ve noticed that when schools or organizations become stricter with the dress code, it starts to look more like this. My writing this post was inspired by a conversation I had with some fellow teachers who had some VERY strong opinions about people not wearing button downs or dress pants to work!

      • I feel like jeans can be okay too! As long as they are clean & tidy (not your old torn jeans, or even your new but artfully ripped/worn jeans), and the rest of your outfit is a little more “professional”. I wear my nicest jeans with a button up shirt and a sweater vest over that, and it looks pretty decent. Even our CEO wears a pair of nice jeans and a sharp button up pretty often to the office, and we’re in financial services. Sure, he puts on a full suit and tie (he HATES ties) for a major meeting, but to the office every day? Nah.

    • Thank you! I was just about to post almost the same thing. It bothers me when “comfortable” gets equated with “sloppy.” I hate jeans and never wear them because I think they’re the least comfortable clothing item of all. I, like the OP and a few other commenters am a public school teacher, and I’ve found that the perfect work outfit is a “casual” dress with leggings and cute shoes. It looks nice, but feels like I’m wearing pajamas. I also like to wear jeggings with longer tops which looks cute and is super comfy. Today, for example, I’m wearing gray jeggings with a nice black top, and a long black and white leopard print cardigan. Flattering, stylish, and comfy and warm as heck! Some slacks are also far more comfortable than jeans because the fabric is lighter and there is more room in the crotch.

      Point being, casual does not have to equal sloppy, and professional does not have to mean uncomfortable.

      • YES!!! Casual does not have to mean sloppy, and I think this is what some people fear when there hear “I wear jeans to work”.

        But again, I personally think reaction happens because jeans started off as the clothing of day laborers, and there’s some definite classism here for sure. Then you get people who think natural black hair is sloppy, and we have a whole different issue. (Not at ALL saying you said this, just expanding a bit!)

  16. Loving all of this banter and rolling my eyes as I take another grain of salt. I work from home. PJ bottoms and being without a bra on for as long as humanly possible. Zero Fs given.

  17. A lot of “professional attire” advice for women is often ableist. I know I’m “supposed” to wear heels and skirts. I have braces, mobility aids, and need clothing that doesn’t constrict me and cause joints to dislocate. It flies in the face of all the “what you must wear to be professional” advice that’s out there. And not every dress code in the world needs to be cognisant of my issues, but at the same time, dammit, I would love advice from sources that take disability into account instead of the usual pencil skirt, structured jacket, heels routine.

    • You might consider something like a dress pant style yoga pant that would give more stretch than traditional dress pants to accommodate your braces without being constricting. Plain colored flat shoes in a leather type material, either a lace up or more of the low cut ballet flat style depending on your needs. Paired with a soft stretch button down shirt or a sleeveless top with a cardigan to allow for mobility and comfort.

      fancy ass dress yoga pants:

    • I actually wear orthotics, and sometimes have to use mobility aids! I typically wear “bootcut” dress pants with a camisole and flowy wrap-around cardigans. Maurice’s has had some nice stretchy dress pants in the past. To dress it up, I wear subtle jewelry, and I bought a very nice pair of “black flats” that fit my orthotic. They were expensive, but worth it for the days where I need to feel dressier. I got them at a local shoe store, and they were worth it.

      Since it has adjustable straps across the foot and the back, it was easier to adjust to my brace.

      • Express also has bootcut versions of their pants. Their “Editor” style is flattering on just about everybody, and comes in a variety of fabrics and colors. So you could potentially have a closet full of one pant, but have a lot of choice in your day to day look.
        Choice of fabric is important if you’re living with a disability too. Silk looks damn fancy any day, although wash & care is a bit more involved. A nice pressed linen is breathable and has easier wash & care than silk.Denim looks more “casual” but in a dark shade looks more professional.

        • Can I just say that I’m so fascinated by the fact that some colors are considered more professional than others? Like, denim is denim, but we all *know* that a darker wash or a black color is going to look more professional. Or I had a moment in college where a friend said that I looked dressed up, and I was confused because I was wearing yoga pants. They were black and I had a cute top on, so she coded it as dressy.

          It’s SO WEIRD and I don’t have an answer for it!

  18. I teach at a university, and at first I was really careful to dress pretty professionally. I was told the same things as many teachers here – you have to create a clear line between yourself and the students, you have to create a good teaching environment with the help of your clothing choices. This made particular sense to me because I’m going to dress professional, my taste veers towards sharp and tailored clothing rather than soft cardigans or flowered skirts.
    So I dressed professionally, and for the first couple of years my students were really difficult. Wouldn’t join discussions, wouldn’t ask questions. They just sat there like a bunch of little deer in headlights. So I did an experiment, and started dressing like I do at home – clean nice vintage/thrift stuff with nice jeans and shoes. Lo and behold, my students started engaging with me! After a few more years of evaluations and experiments in how my clothing affects my classroom environment, I’ve found that apparently my classroom demeanor is already relatively formal and intimidating – I certainly don’t dumb down my vocabulary or move through arguments particularly slowly. If I combine this with sharp, professional clothing, my students are kind of terrified. I’m still putting in the effort to design outfits that contribute to the best classroom environment, but it turns out that this requires me to dress down, not up.

    • I had a similar experience, and one thing I think it really boils down to is that students respect teachers who are themselves. When I was trying to dress “like a teacher,” by wearing things that I would never, ever wear in my “real life,” I’m sure I gave off vibes that said I was uncomfortable in my own skin, which students can somehow smell like blood in the water! As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve realized that the more I can just act like myself in front of my students in both dress and demeanor, the more they respect me and the more relaxed the mood of the class becomes.

      • This makes a lot of sense, and I’ve definitely been in situations like this – where I don’t feel comfortable in my clothes and people sense it. And I think you’re right – especially when this happens in the classroom, the students sense it and react badly.

        My favorite sharp professional clothes aren’t quite like this, though – I love them and I’ve worn them enough that I still feel like “me” in them. In fact, sometimes I feel MORE like me, and I would dress like that a lot more often if I could afford it and if I had places to do so.

        It is, however, a rather different version of me than the one in the clothes I wear at home. A bit more aggressive, a bit faster-moving, a bit less likely to make a joke. Perhaps some people are always the same version of themselves, but I know that my clothing or makeup – the wide variety of stuff that I’m extremely comfortable and happy and “myself” in – can change the way I behave a little bit too. I think that what happened in the classroom with my sharp clothes was probably a balance of slight changes in my demeanor and my students’ expectations.

  19. I’ve re-read this a few times trying to put my finger on just what is catching me the wrong way. I’m not certain if its because I’m part of a field where suits are expected (funeral service), if its the too recent memory of snow and dress shoes (please end soon winter), or if its the message at the end that feels very much ‘wear a suit, be or support ‘The Man’. Whatever it is, while I can’t fully agree with everything in this article I’m enjoying reading the comments and discussion.

    • I totally support people dressing how they want to at work. It’s not so much that people are supporting The Man by what they wear as it is The Man is the one dictating what is considered appropriate. Does that make sense? I didn’t get into as much nuance in my post because I wanted to get the thought out there. I was going a little more for a mic drop at the end than anything else 🙂

      • It absolutely makes sense, I think the reason I got the “ugh, don’t be the man” vibe has to do with the piece moving from a personal experience to a very generalized end.

        I really appreciate the personal response, and I’m loving the conversation you’ve inspired!

        • Awww, thanks! *blushes*

          I think that’s part of the limits of a blog post. When I initially started writing this, it was CRAZY long. Not so great for a blog, but that nuance fo sho got lost. Quite frankly, I love all the back and forth on this topic; I had noooo idea there’d be so many people chiming in with so many different opinions!

    • I think the problem with this article is the huge gap between the experiment and the conclusions. You started wearing jeans and it was cool, therefore the people who expect others to wear suits are sexist, transphobic, etc?

      “Why would they want us out of their chosen uniform? Then we might realize how few of us there really are among their ranks.”
      The people that institute clothing policy are usually HR or the leadership team, and they do it so that everyone fits in with each other. Maybe this is an odd concept for Americans as most don’t grow up wearing uniforms.. but uniforms are often about inclusiveness, not oppression.

      The woman that runs this is a mortician and definitely doesn’t do the suit thing, and I think she is one of the most thoughtful writers I’ve read on the subject of death (for comparison’s sake).

      I don’t think this article is meant as “if you wear suits, you are supporting THE MAN, man.” Rather, to think about and critique the cultural systems that perpetuate ideas of what is “professional” or not, whether those systems are helpful or not, and that anytime we’re talking about cultural expectations and norms, we are talking about the norms of the culturally powerful.

      • True, I should have clarified that I can only speak for my particular area of the country suits are expected and that other parts of the country may have a little more flexibility. Unless I relocate, suits will likely continue to be a part of my daily wardrobe. I think because of that, I reacted overly to what I was perceiving as a sort of black and white ‘be in their ranks or not’ sort of statement.

        I completely agree though, whatever the topic, considering the cultural whys of something is incredibly important.

        Hopefully not too much of an aside, I’ve read Caitlin Doughty’s writings before and really appreciate her for being so vocal about her beliefs about death and our culture. I think my personal views probably fall a bit more in line with this funeral director, who is another wonderfully eloquent writer.

  20. This is such a fraught subject in a lot of ways. For me, rather than the clothes being an issue (I pretty much always wear a loud version of business casual to interviews, with a brightly colored shirt, an interestingly patterned scarf if it’s chilly, or a cool belt and some artsy earrings, with whatever dress pants happen to be clean), the issue is my hair. It’s straight and brown, which is pretty standard, but it’s also really long, quite literally down to my butt. I’ve actually tucked it all up into a bun for interviews because I was worried that having hair that long would be perceived as too “hippie-ish” for the corporate world. These days, I wear it in a single braid for practicality’s sake, pretty much no matter what I’m doing, whether it’s an interview, a meeting with a client, or just day-to-day work. But I still always wonder if it may bite me someday, and someone important will ignore my competence. Fortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.

  21. I was a high school teacher (private school) for several years starting at a young age, and then returned to graduate school for my PhD in the life sciences. As a teacher, I dressed professionally (think business casual), this was a requirement. However, I’ve never been one for heels and makeup, so kept it classy without those or other uncomfortable (for me) items. When I returned to grad school, I embraced the freedom of no dress requirements and went jeans & t-shirt. As a scientist, especially a graduate student, this is not a big deal. A year and half in, I conducted the reverse experiment (definitely anecdotal- but who cares?)- I started dressing up again. People treated me differently- I think took me more seriously. I bounced around and ended up somewhere in the middle – jeans, collared/nice shirts and good shoes (altered depending on the days activities).

    I never dress uncomfortably, rarely where makeup, but do make an effort to look professional. I’m a grad student, so obviously, money is not flowing, and I am not in the type of science that will make bank. I enjoy what I do. I want to be a successful, female, science professional, and if dressing a certain way helps me get there, I’ll do it — regardless of any norms/prejudices/etc associated with it.

  22. This whole thing strikes me as a really young person’s interpretation of what “professional dress” is. It’s whatever is appropriate for you, your job, and your industry, and that can vary immensely. Some of the interpretations are so funny, like the bit about not wearing colour, or wearing inappropriate footwear for the weather.

    I also have to giggle at the mythical “they” referenced, as to whole is driving or forcing this perceived dress requirement. Who exactly is “they”…..? I suspect” they” is actually your own interpretation! As you get older you’ll realize that people don’t care about what you wear, they care about what you do.

    • True! I am young! I think the reason why a lot of these issues seem like actual issues is that, for us, because we aren’t established in our jobs/fields a lot of people will assume things based on our appearance alone. This is especially true in interview situations.

      I for sure think that what is professional should vary based on job/industry. The part I was getting to at the end has to do with our values and perceptions. I have a hunch (and also backed up by some studies of perception) that people will be less likely to think that a person in old jeans and a stained shirt is as professional as a person in a suit and tie, despite the fact that they might both be consummate professionals in their field (say, gardening and banking). The “they”, in this case, are the societal norms that dictate how people are perceived. And since the dominant culture caters to cis white males, well, there you go!

  23. I work at a fairly new and youthful health information company, and I thank my lucky stars every day that our dress code is “casual, in good taste.” I find most dress clothes abhorrent, probably because I can’t stand spending money on clothes, and cheap dress clothes are typically uncomfortable, terrible in all weathers, sweat-inducing, and ugly as what. I tried to dress professionally for my first semester of teaching in graduate school, and I felt stressed out by my outfits every dang day. Besides, I only owned one pair of dress slacks, three skirts, and six blouses, and I felt like everyone judged me for my tiny, pathetic wardrobe. I can’t describe how freeing it was to be able to wear my regular, happy-making clothes to work!

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