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. I have spent about six hours of my life this past week trying to find clothes for upcoming interviews that are at the same time professional, attractive (for my tastes), and comfortable, so I would like to put forth a big A-FREAKING-MEN! I’m glad someone else was thoughtful enough to put this into words for me!

    Also: Who the heck decided that you need to straighten your hair for a job? Is this an isolated “thing,” or a societal “thing”? I’m never going to straighten this mop of dyed-red curls for anyone, but wow.

    Can any Canadians weigh in on whether this is an American phenomenon or if it holds water in the great white north?

    • Ooo! I should give some context for the straight hair thing, because I realized that what I was thinking didn’t quite come across. I’m referencing natural/textured hair. For black Americans, leaving your hair natural can be seen as being unprofessional, and it is especially fraught for women. I’ve had plenty of conversations with my students about this, and it’s kind of sad to hear 14 year old girls stating that natural hair is “nasty and sloppy”. This is an attitude that carries over into the professional world as well.

      • OH! That makes a lot more sense now, thank you for clarifying for me! What a horrible, racist and classict ideology…

        • I’m mixed race, Jewish/latina/Slavic with the Jew pouf of hair. I’ve been told in the past, in no uncertain terms, that it is unprofessional to leave my hair in its natural curly state, and that no-one would take me seriously if I didn’t straighten it or pin it back severely so its texture couldn’t be seen. Like, from people in career centres at universities, not just random jerks. The exception, I was also told, was for companies run by “ethnic” people or catering to an “ethnic” clientele. This racist assumption about hair is not just directed at black women, though they get the brunt of it. I don’t know how a curly blonde white girl would be interpreted, but I’ve seen the difference in perceptions of me based on whether my hair is straightened or not. Ethnic curls = sloppy is a thing.

    • I’m in Canada (AB) and have wavy/frizzy white girl hair. I have definitely been (gently) advised by older women in my field (supervisors and my faculty) that straightening my hair or having it back/up for interviews would make me seem more professional. It’s never been in a cruel way, more in a “we want you to succeed, so here’s an insider tip” way. When I was interviewing I definitely followed this, especially when it was for formal jobs. Granted, now that the government has hired me, it’s a floppy mass of curls most days, but it was certainly something I considered for interviews.

  2. I’m an engineer and over the years created my own uniform. Comfortable but professional (also since we have a business casual dress code so no jeans). As the only women in my group and very often the only woman in the room at meetings/conferences it’s hard to want to stand out more than your boobs already make you.

    I have learned over the years to be a little more open to my own professional fashion desires though. Best thing ever is I saw a fellow engineer at a convergence wearing blue tights and a sparkly head band. Trust me she looked profesh for those saying that people are over reacting and it’s about your work not what you wear…you must live in a magical kingdom with no biases or prejudice.

    • I watched painfully through my childhood while my mother, an engineer, struggled to find appropriate work-wear. She’s not one to wear makeup, but found in some workplaces it helped establish her professionalism, but in others they were sexist to the point of asking her to “get the coffee” if she dressed femininely and wore makeup.
      I think it’s getting better, but her generation of female engineers had a real day-to-day struggle for women’s equality.

  3. sorry for the above comment my iPad would not cooperate.

    I’m an engineer and over the years created my own uniform. Comfortable but professional (also since we have a business casual dress code so no jeans). As the only women in my group and very often the only woman in the room at meetings/conferences it’s hard to want to stand out more than your boobs already make you.

    I have learned over the years to be a little more open to my own professional fashion desires though. Best thing ever is I saw a fellow engineer at a convergence wearing blue tights and a sparkly head band. Trust me she looked profesh!! (I also wanted to be her bff)

    Also for those saying that people are over reacting and it’s about your work not what you wear…you must live in a magical kingdom with no biases or prejudice.

  4. I just want to note that I am surprised by how many teachers at all levels are active in this discussion. I teach college and am lucky enough to wear scrubs 3/4 of the time, but knowing how many of you hold similar positions makes me feel even more happy to be here.

  5. OP wants to jump in again! I love the discussion, guys!

    It’s interesting that a lot of the comments have talked about wearing jeans and if that is professional or not. I didn’t get into it in the original post, but I have a few more things I thought I’d share that were thoughts that impacted my original post.

    Would wearing a sari be professional? What about a sikh turban? How about locs or other natural hair styles? And maybe yes, we could imagine that person being a teller at our bank. But is that what we would expect a CEO to wear? And if we wouldn’t expect a CEO to wear anything that I described above, why is that?

    While I think it’s great that some of the posters have stated that it’s all about the work you do and not how you dress, I would say that you are very lucky to work somewhere where this is the case. Clothing matters, despite how much we might wish it didn’t. Michelle Obama is married to one of the most powerful people on the planet, and yet she STILL is constantly scrutinized for what she wears, and if it’s “appropriate” or not.

    • I used to work (in a law office) with a woman who is Hawaiian, and her boss was culturally African. It was delightful sight to come in to the office and see one in bright florals and flowers in her hair, and her boss in traditional geometrical patterns and flowing skirts and natural hair. Although I know there was pressure from their (white, male, old-school) colleagues to tone it down a little. I cheered on my colleagues efforts to recognize their culture, but felt sad that there was so much push-back from “The Man”.

  6. This is a really interesting discussion. I’ve been teaching for 5 years (as white female grad student.) Increasingly, I’ve come to really embrace the “this is MY version of professionalism” philosophy of the article. If this means wearing shabby clothes because I can’t afford new ones, so be it: I like to think of it as a counterpoise to my middle-class students’ designer bags. And I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how students and colleagues have responded to my dressing queer (with neckties, etc.) which is something I wasn’t comfortable doing at first.

  7. I love this thread! So fascinating!

    For almost 2 years, I worked in at a firm with a “no bare legs” policy. Upon hire, we had to read a 3 page section in the employee handbook that dictated rules for dress. 80% of those rules governed the women. Pantyhose were required. No tights or leggings allowed. I can just imagine the meetings where upper male management sat around a desk and decided how the women in the office should dress.

    What I realized, after a year of being of being utterly miserable at that job, was that the restrictions on dress were only PART of the larger culture to oppress and control employees.

    During my performance review. My boss did not have a single criticism about the work I was doing, but she had the nerve to say something along the lines of “I want to encourage you to step-up your wardrobe a bit. I understand that you like shopping at thrift stores, but you can find some really good deals on the clearance rack at Nordstrom.” Oh, and I basically lived in a cubical. I NEVER interacted face-to-face with clients, vendors or the general public.

    Less than a week after I left that job, I got my nose pierced because I told myself I was not going to accept a job that didn’t let me be myself. I found a job at a law firm that is a much better culture fit for me. I can show my tattoos if I want (although I choose not to when clients come into the office), and I can wear neon tights or wild earrings whenever I please.

    Long story short, it’s nice to have a job where you are not made to feel restricted or judged by others. It’s much more conducive to productive work.

    • That is INSANITY. Woah.

      Although, it’s an excellent point. My school is in a conservative-ish area, so I for sure can’t get away with tats or funky hair colors. I’m actually seriously thinking of a career switch, and I never thought something like “do I feel like I can wear what I want and do what I want with my hair” would factor into the equation (but it totally does).

      • I think the dress code (whether severe, lax, or moderate) is a good indicator for the culture of the workplace. Some people really prefer to work in a place where they can fit in or blend in with the other people, by dressing the same. I’m sure some people even prefer workplaces that have strict rules about dress. I have found that I do my best and most creative work work in places that value diversity, and overall acceptance – which includes personal style and appearance.

  8. I use my position as a teacher of middle school kids as a way to show them that professional doesn’t have to be boring. I have blue hair and piercings. I have a tattoo, I dress professional, but kinda funky, vintage, bright colors and out there. It’s a way to communicate! You can send a complex message through your clothing, and that message can be very nuanced!

  9. Topics like this make me so grateful that I’m in a uniformed profession. I hate, hate picking out “outfits”, and when you’re a woman is seems like it’s an absolute faux pas to wear the same item more than once in a week (whereas men could wear the same suit over and over just by swapping out the tie). I’m taken a sort of vow to always have a job where I wear a uniform so that I never have to worry about what to wear.

  10. I have pretty free reign in my school. The only person who dresses up every single day is the principal. There are teachers who wear jeans or plain black pants and hoodies every day. The male teachers nearly all wear khakis, button down shirts and sometimes ties. All of us wear jeans and a “school colors” shirt on Fridays (it’s actually in our handbook). I feel most comfortable in skirts or dresses that hit at the knee, with tights or leggings underneath and flats, sandals, or boots on my feet, so that’s what I wear. I wear heels for going out and for promotion (I teach middle school, where the ceremony for moving from 8th to 9th grade is promotion), but otherwise, I wear something so that I can walk around all day and not feel like my feet are going to file for separate maintenance. I hate makeup, so I don’t wear it. I have my hair in a ponytail nearly every day, and if I were forced to straighten it for an interview (mine’s not really curly or perfectly straight), I’d go crazy.

  11. I love clothes. I love fashion. I love colors. I love heels, well actually all shoes in general. I work in HR for a company that has strict outlines for dress, hair color, jewelry, and tattoos. I have to wear long sleeves year round due to lots of tattoos on my arms. I had purple hair before I got the job, and for my interview dyed it back to brown. I wear my skin colored tape on my leg tattoo to hide that and still be able to wear dresses. I absolutely love my job, the people I work with and for, and all the great perks and benefits that come with it. I wish there was a way to be more of myself. I do push the limits as much as I am able. I am glad people are slowly working in more and more of their personal style into their work life. I love dressing professionally because I love so many different styles of clothing. I think as time goes on certain things may be less of a big deal.

  12. More than anything else, my experience with professional dress (including business casual) has been size-ist. My mother is 5’10”, and while she often describes her loathing of the skirted suits with nylons she wore to work in the 80s / early 90s, when dress codes were relaxed after she returned to work in 2000, she struggled to find dress pants that were long enough, until the fashion industry caught up with the change in dress code and started making “tall” sizes. She is an accountant, and that has been a blessing and a curse to my nascent career in the same field. By contrast, I am a petite plus size, and her notion of professional attire, and the cuts available to me within those parameters, unequivocally do not fit my body. I’m too big for shops catering to straight sizes, but too small for shops catering to plus sizes, and I spent a ridiculous amount of time and money trying to build a professional wardrobe that actually fit. Mom told me that I had to have a suit for interviews – and she was right, but I drove myself and my best friend crazy trying to find a blazer that was unstructured enough to give the illusion of fitting properly. Dresses and tops were impossible to find because my shoulders are so small that a neckline that was demure on the mannequin (or my mother) was positively indecent on me, or else there was so much extra material that the whole bodice would have to be reconstructed to fit. I could go on, but the bottom line is that I struggled to look professional for nearly 4 years with clothes that never really fit. I finally found a brand that fits perfectly with no need for alterations a few months ago, and I feel much more confident and comfortable in these clothes, but the fabrics are often loud prints and bold colors, and the only “pants” they make are leggings (thankfully, leggings are acceptable at my job, provided you wear a longer top or dress over them), so although my mom and many of my coworkers have complimented me on my new professional wardrobe, I am on the fringe of business casual and will be in serious trouble if my clothes are suddenly unacceptable.

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