De-Coding Dress Code
I was having a conversation the other day with another woman in the geotechnical field. I mentioned a dynamic woman whom I admire in our industry, and the other woman looked apprehensive and said, “Yes, she’s good, but she wears such tight clothes to meetings.” To her credit, before I could become outraged, she said, “I know – that’s her decision, and it doesn’t change how talented she is.”
Obviously the line between inappropriate work clothing (short shorts and a tube top) and risky work clothing (a tight leather skirt and a sheer blouse) can be murky and worse, a moving target. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether you’re expressing yourself or committing career suicide. Often the older you get, the less you care, but the questions persist. We all want to meet a professional dress code, but…what is it?
We women have a very complicated relationship with clothing. On one hand, some of us love it. (Yes, I’m raising my hand here). We shop and read magazines and study the outfits of everyone around us. For us, our attire is part of our self-expression and even a necessary creative outlet.
On the other hand, some women don’t care. Clothing is a necessary utility, but they couldn’t tell you the state of hemlines this year or whether cargo pants are back. (If you just said, “They were gone?” then you’re part of this latter group).
Neither opinion is right or wrong. The same could be said for many similar items that we use every day, like phones and cars. My stepdaughter knows what changes have been made to the bumpers and roof lines of most auto models every year; I have a hard time finding my own car in Kroger’s parking lot on a weekly basis.
What differentiates clothing from these other necessities is the fact that what we wear has a direct effect on how others see us. From first impressions to professional situations, clothing is integral to our public persona. Even women who don’t care about fashion have to put some effort into what they wear, lest their lack of attention to their attire be mistaken for a lack of care about themselves. Show up sloppy and you’re telling the world that you don’t respect yourself.
This situation is complicated by the fact that even those of us who do like clothes aren’t always happy with how we look in them. Body image, internal perceptions, long-held erroneous images of ourselves – all of these things add hundreds of layers that color our opinions when we stand in front of a dressing room mirror and in front of our own mirrors every morning.
And if our internal baggage weren’t enough, we have historic social tensions that affect how we see other women. Until recent history, women couldn’t own property in most parts of the world, so they were dependent on relationships with men to survive. Women also weren’t valued for their minds, so men typically chose women based on their looks. Even if “clever” women resented their lack of prospects compared to pretty women, there was little to nothing they could do about it. Unfortunately, even though women now are valued more often for their minds and don’t starve just because they’re not married, we still retain that base competitive nature. “Yeah, she just got by on her looks.” “Of course she got the job – look at those legs in that skirt.” Tragically, we unconsciously reinforce those historic cultural views, that women are either pretty or smart. And we regard the blatantly “pretty” with catty envy disguised as lofty intellectualism. Magazines, movies, and 50-ft billboards don’t help by constantly telling us that we are not pretty or thin or tan or fill-in-the-blank enough. The world insists on sending us a constant stream of mixed messages, and few of those messages say that we look fabulous today AND we’re smart as hell.
Yes, you could say that women who obviously use their sexuality to get attention or get ahead are…what? Using an unfair advantage? You know that those looks will only go so far if the woman is question just landed a geo-structural position designing complicated retention systems. What if she’s actually smart, too, but she feels comfortable putting her sexuality more front and center than you do? As we’ve said before in this space, she’ll have to deal with the consequences. Those consequences frankly are often exhaustingly complicated and make me tired just to think about them, but if that’s the road she wants to travel, I fully support her choice.
I believe we should be celebrating each other and helping the women around us realize what fabulous attributes each one of us has. It’s hard enough to deal with the Hamlet-esque soliloquy in your own head when you get dressed and look in the mirror in the morning, much less if you feel like others around you are piling on. The aforementioned woman with the tight outfits at meetings? I am in awe of her and would sell a kidney to look like her. I think she should wear what she wants, because someday she’ll be looking at wrinkles in the mirror and thinking, “Wow, I wish I had worn that short leather skirt before my legs looked like a sharpei.” (Yes, anyone who wants to show her legs should do so and be proud, but those of you in the over-50 category will understand what I mean).
All of us deal with everyday fashion issues, like packing for a 5-day work trip using only a carry on suitcase. Or what about that arctic conference room where you go for a monthly meeting and need to look professional but not in the Inuit style? Are there fashionable heels that can be worn safely when running between meetings at opposite ends of the Philadelphia Convention Center?
In the spirit of our ongoing quest to create a supportive community here at Underpinnings, we are introducing a new feature. Yes – a new feature! One of our members has extensive fashion knowledge and exquisite taste (in addition to being a brilliant contractor). She has agreed to come on board as part of our team to help answer your fashion questions. The name of her feature, “LA’s Closet,” is a nod to her West Coast vibe and the title of a new page on the Underpinnings site. She will remain anonymous so she doesn’t get mobbed on jobsites by people desperate for wardrobe advice. We encourage you to send in your questions, and she will provide answers and suggestions. Some examples might be:
“I have a dress that I love that I feel like might be a little too short for work events. Is there something I can add to it to make it work appropriate so I can get more use out of one of my most confidence-building pieces?
“I never know what works on my body type, so I just wear clothes that are baggy. Any suggestions on how I can figure out what works for me?”
“Can you help me come up with a capsule collection that I can use to minimize luggage on work trips?”
You get the idea. As my dad would say, there are no stupid questions, and if you’re thinking it, six other people probably are, too.
E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Our regular posts will continue to appear, as well. The Underpinnings team is trying to give you as much useful content as possible.