Fall is here in Washington, D.C. so I have been struggling to find work attire that is warm enough for my morning and evening walks to/from the office but cool enough not to make me sweat in our over-heated (in my opinion) building. I appreciate that women have more options for professional attire than men – we can wear suits, skirts or slacks with blazers, dresses, etc. However, our attire is also much more scrutinized, so this array of options means more room for missteps. As one “longtime professional fashionista” notes: “We’d all love to believe appearances don’t matter, but the reality is, packaging counts. What you wear is part of your overall personal brand, your professional image. If you want to move up in your career at almost any big company, you have to look the part.” That is a lot of pressure. I often find myself wishing I could just throw on slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie every morning.
Sure, men can make poor clothing choices, too. Every once in a while a guy in my office will come in with a garish tie, stained shirt, or baggy pants. With men, however, no one is likely to comment or think of them differently because of how they are dressed (unless it’s a complement, like, “Way to rock a Simpsons tie!”). By contrast, I get comments on what I am wearing almost daily. They are usually complements, but sometimes even complements are veiled judgments (for example – “In those shoes you look ready for the nightclub!” or “I could see you coming from down the hall in that yellow dress.”). The vast majority of all clothing-related remarks come from women, and I think that women are particularly judgmental of other women.
We all know that no one – male or female – should wear clothes that do not fit properly, are soiled, or are too revealing. The level of formality is determined by the office environment and culture. Attorneys in my office dress slightly less conservatively than our private sector counterparts, but more formally than our colleagues at regional offices on the West Coast. The consensus among experts who advise women on workplace wardrobe seems to be to err on the side of being over-conservative, while “asserting a little bit of individuality and personal style.” But, in asserting your personal style, be sure to avoid all of the potential work attire minefields.
Forbes’ 10 Office Fashion Don’ts includes the obvious – don’t show too much cleavage, avoid dramatic make-up, and be tactful about tattoos and piercings. But it also counsels against suits with shoulder pads, anything in bright colors, and “loose trousers.” Several of my suits have shoulder pads – should I cut them out? Why should I have to wear neutral tones every day? As a new mom, all of my pants are either too tight or too loose, so which should I wear? Experts recommend getting clothes professionally tailored, and only wearing jeans on casual Fridays if you “make sure they’re neatly pressed.” I don’t have time for that! Apparently, “[w]ork fashion now includes peplum, pleats, darts, draping and shawl collars.” Huh? Am I the only one who don’t know what all of those things are?
And what about footwear? I grew up believing that high heels were the mark of a professional woman (indeed, in a 2009 TODAY Show poll nearly half of women polled said they felt empowered by high heels), and have worn them most of my professional life. As I get older, however, I am more aware of the toll they take on my body. My own experience of knee pain and back aches was confirmed by a recent infographic published by the Washington Post, which reported that “high heels put stress not just on feet, but on ankles, knees and backs, contributing to the approximately $3.5 billion spent annually in the United States for women’s foot surgeries.” Fortunately, there are indications that flats are increasingly acceptable office wear, as long as they look “borrowed from boys” with pointy toes, metal toe caps and embellishments, even feminine takes on oxfords and smoking slippers. My comfy ballet flats don’t make the cut.
Anyone who has known me at any point in my life knows that I am fashion-challenged (yes, you remember the head-to-toe forest green ensembles), but also that I don’t care. The vast majority of my casual clothes are gifts or hand-me-downs from my fashionista mother, and I’ve had almost everything in my closet for five years or more. The need to wear tops that are both breastpump-accessible and nursing cleavage-minimizing is challenging enough without having to find something that also exudes trendiness and personal style. I dress in whatever is comfortable, clean, and makes me feel confident. That means that my fall wardrobe will consist mainly of pantsuits (some with shoulder pads and others in non-neutral colors – gasp!) and dresses with tights. I hope my clothes say that I am mature, responsible, have sound judgment, and can be relied upon, but if they also convey that I have no knowledge of fashion and little time/money for shopping, that is accurate too. There are just too many other things that are more important. Who’s with me?