dress for success

19 July 2007

I started a new job last week. In the large induction manual on my desk was a code of conduct, most of which was about not stealing things and playing nicely with others. And one short paragraph about employees being expected to ‘maintain a standard of dress generally acceptable to the business community’. No further information than that.

This has been niggling at me all week, particularly when I am trying to get dressed in the morning. Does this mean a suit? (I only have one suit, it’s a summer suit, and I don’t particularly like it any). Does it mean a jacket? (I have a couple of jackets, but they are hell to type in). Does it just mean ‘no jeans’? (turns out they allow jeans on Fridays). Who is this ‘business community’ anyway and who are they to tell me what’s acceptable to wear?

My colleagues in the new job are mostly men. It’s easy for them: one pair of polyester pants, one button-up shirt (ironed) and a tie in their desk drawer for appointments. On Friday, replace polyester pants with jeans. The end.

But me? There’s some subtle line out there, one side of which is ‘business’ and the other ‘casual’. But it’s not a line I understand, it seems to move, and loop back onitself, and twist about and disappear altogether. Take my red skirt:

red skirt 2

Is it ‘casual’ because it’s corduroy? Because it has jean-style pockets, fly and top-stitching? Or, if worn with a jacket, a button-up shirt and nice shoes, can it morph into ‘business’?

What about my grey skirt? Can look very business, being sober in colour and design. But I have no jacket to match it – does that push it back over the ‘casual’ line?

grey skirt

Jeans. Somewhere there is a stone tablet on which is carved ‘thy jeans shall never be other than casual’. I beg to differ. I can look smarter and more business-like in a pair of (clean, dark) jeans, boots and a jacket, than I can often manage in any of my other clothing. Why have we taken against this pair of pants and made it shorthand for ‘unacceptable’? What makes jeans jeans? The pockets? The top-stitching? Denim? What?

Suits. There’s another stone tablet on which is carved ‘thou shalt be all one colour and texture’. This is what I hate about suits. There’s nothing to suggest that I may have legs or arms, an upper body or lower body. In a suit, I am a head and a pair of hands poking out of a uniform fabric lump. I feel like a sofa.

Perhaps that’s the definition of the line. Casual: others can see that you have a body and personality which may be differently shaped to others’. Business: you have a head and the rest of you is a monotone blob which is completely interchangeable with any other blob on the market. The question for me is: how much of a blob am I willing to be?

Edited to add: This article about dressing for success gives me the heebie-jeebies. Whatever happened to being judged on your talents/?

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2 Responses to “dress for success”

  1. My mother always taught me to take my cues from the men, and go one tiny step nicer.

    So, if the men at your work are wearing poly pants, button-down shirts, and no tie except for appointments, then wear button-down blouse, skirt or slacks, and a jacket for appointments. If the men aren’t wearing suits on a regular basis, then neither should you. It sounds like you could wear either of your skirts, as long as you’re wearing a nice top. Don’t wear anything resembling a T-shirt, as that’s in the category of jeans: “looks nice but has the stigma of being casual”. Jeans are jeans (in the business world) because of the denim. Cords cut like jeans, or velvet jeans, somwhow are OK in many business environments, but not OK in others. Cord skirts should be OK (there’s some weird thing about conservative-length skirts being dressy…)

    I tend to view the dress codes as ensuring that you are judged on your talents, and not on first impressions. But you’re absolutely right: the work/casual line for men is completely different for men. They have fewer options. Just base your choices on what they’re wearing, and you should be fine.

    Sorry for the lecture. This gets me going every time. (And I _have_ done wardrobe consulting for both men and women).

  2. lsaspacey said

    “You are a marketing by-product” Indeed!

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