I had planned to attend an awards do at a university yesterday – the MD of the company I work for had been nominated for an award and I wanted to share the experience with her. I’m not at home in an academic environment and ‘professionalism’ is one of my least favourite social constructs, but my colleague is an awesome woman and the least she deserves from me is to step out of my comfort zone to support her in celebrating her success.
If you know me, or have read my blogs you’ll know that I’m not all about appearances or fashion, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about what I wear – I like clothes and accessories, it’s just that I like clothes and accessories regardless of whether they’re fashionable, regardless of whether they have a label, and regardless of whether they match!
I thought about what I would wear to something like this, and my checklist was as follows:
- That I feel comfortable
- That I don’t embarrass my colleague
- That I minimise the potential for being judged negatively by other people present
I thought I had it planned, and even invested in a new top, and then there it was, “Dress code smart / business”…
Maybe you know what smart business means? I didn’t . I googled. Some of the highlights of my search included words like: tailored, conservative, skirt, dress, nylons (!!), heel, blouse, neutral, blazer.
And then I realised that I don’t own a single item of clothing or pair of shoes that fits the bill. If my wardrobe was a google search result you would find the words: bright, floaty, denim, colourful, patterned, boots, sandals…
So I flaked on my colleague. And although I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded what I was wearing in the slightest, I just couldn’t face any of the options that stood before me, which were:
- Buy a suitable outfit and shoes resulting in feeling uncomfortable, unconfident and impostor-like.
- Wear what I planned to but feel unconfident and judged.
For me, not going was the least anxiety inducing option and I took it, but it did get me thinking about dress codes and about why the hell they’re still a ‘thing’?! (I’m not talking about ‘no trainers’ at a nightclub – although I don’t get what that’s all about either to be fair)
I work in the third sector where I haven’t had to adhere to any formal dress codes. I’ve only had one job where this wasn’t the case, and that was at a chartered surveyors. I hated having to appear as something completely different to who I am, and as someone I actually didn’t want to be.
It was the only time in my life that I’ve had separate ‘work clothes’. Before and after that job, my wardrobe has consisted of only 3 catagories – ‘Clothes’; ‘going out clothes’ and ‘clothes that don’t fit at the moment’. I’ve never even had summer / winter clothes because I’m always boiling so cotton and light materials are all I need all year round thank you.
I hate that people are expected to look the same in the name of ‘professionalism’. I’ve met many men in suits and women in pencil skirts and blouses who are anything but professional – for example, sleazy, arrogant, aggressive, ignorant and clueless… Of course, this applies to people in casual clothes too, but THAT’S MY POINT. Wearing a certain type of clothes doesn’t make anyone more or less professional or competent.
And then there’s the classist aspect of dress codes. Suits and so-called ‘smart’ clothes are the territory of the middle and upper classes. Poor people generally can’t afford to section off their wardrobes into categories, seasons and events. (No, don’t even start with your Jeremy Kyle inspired narrative of how the working classes are all walking around in expensive trainers. I will shut your bigoted ass down before you can say “brainwashed”) Poor people get bullied in school for not having the right clothes and shoes. They know from a young age what isn’t for them. Children from poor families don’t generally see their parents going to work and / or social events in ‘formal’ clothes. ‘formal’ clothes are for well off people.
So then, the first time a person not from a middle class background is expected to conform to a formal dress code there is likely to be a fair bit of anxiety about fitting in. We all know that ‘impostor syndrome’ is real for a lot of people, particularly those who have achieved success without formal higher education or for people who have grown up lacking self worth. Being expected to look a certain way and dress a certain way often compounds deep rooted feelings of being out of place. It’s easy to tell the difference between the people with genuine confidence who are used to dressing up from those who are ‘dressed up’ because they have to be. So if the objective of dress codes is for everyone to fit in, it’s an epic fail, because clothes only cover bodies – they don’t change the way people hold themselves or impact on their self-worth.
Some forms of dress are worn to appear authoritative and we all then have a lovely visual aid to help us ‘respect’ that authority. Again… no thanks. I’m all about challenging traditional hierarchies and power structures when it comes to appearance. I do actually like a hierarchy of responsibility and accountability in a work environment, but I don’t see the necessity for this to translate into what we wear. In fact, two of the men I respect most, and who are widely respected in their work by their peers are men who rarely, if ever, wear a suit (You know who you are you sexy things!)
‘Professional’ dress codes literally exist so that we can all tell the difference between ‘professional’ people and everyone else. And all dress codes are literally just a visual aid to hierarchy. Power structures from yesteryear demand that certain dress codes are adhered to in order for respect to be earned.
And for a lot of people, what they wear as an expression of who they are is particularly important, like some transgender and non-binary people. And anyway, the work that most people do isn’t impacted in any way by what they wear, so surely a person’s standard of work is more important than what they’re wearing?
Why can’t I be me? In my clothes? Well, actually I can – I am. And so far so good – no one’s died or vomited or frozen in shock. I’ll be me, you be you, they be them! We all like to dress differently and nobody’s style is right or wrong! Of course, common sense applies – I won’t wear anything with offensive slogans on or clothes that are dirty or broken & I’ll leave the hot pants and string vest in the ‘going out clothes’ area of the wardrobe… But I won’t ‘dress up’ just because some guy in a suit is coming to visit, or because I’m going to a meeting. I will be respected regardless of what I’m wearing, and if anyone chooses not to respect what I’m saying / doing because I’m not dressed the ‘right way’, well to be quite honest I don’t care.
There are some occasions where I would happily conform to a request for dressing a certain way or in a certain colour – like weddings and funerals. I’m not about to spoil someone’s wedding or disrespect someone’s bereavement. But neither of these is about power or professionalism. I would also wear formal dress to court if I were accompanying someone, so as not to jeopardise their situation.
In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be spending most of my work life in a community hub and rest assured that the only thing that will matter there is that people feel comfortable to be themselves; that people will be able to express themselves and that, provided they’re actually wearing clothes, nobody will feel ‘less than’ or ‘better than’ anyone else. We will have stakeholder meetings, AGM’s and various other events and the dress code will always be: Wear your favourite clothes that make you feel confident.
(But rest assured, I’m not a complete fluff… if someone interprets that as a green light to wear their favourite gimp suit I will ask them to change!)