women who work

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“But a successful work uniform does much more than save time and brain space. It tells the world what kind of work you do, how seriously you take it, and — here’s the complicated part — what kind of woman you are…Your work uniform signals your ambition, authority, experience, age. It conveys if not actual competence, then your feelings about your competence as well as your desire (or not) to blend in.” – Lisa Miller, The Cut

Well, that’s the essay I should have written about three months ago. I had been trying to start a series of blog posts centered around the work uniform, and even contacted some other bloggers for contributions, but was too busy with, well, work, to actually develop this into a proper project.

On my blog, you can find examples of my work outfits in the early years of my career. I will not link to them because it embarrasses me, some of the things I thought was okay for work – there was a time where I thought a loose tank top tucked into a flippy grey mélange skirt from American Apparel was okay for press conferences.

How I wished someone gave me some career advice about dressing – no, nothing happened (to my knowledge at least; for all you know I could have been running a media conglomerate by now if I had dressed better) as a result of my cavalier attitude to work wear. I have the fortune of working in an office with no clearly enforced standards of office attire. But there are downsides. I don’t want to be told exactly what to wear but I wished someone had taken me aside early on and asked me to think about the professional impression I left on others with my dressing.

Was there anything offensive about that little flippy American Apparel skirt? No, but I looked exactly like what I was – a fresh graduate that hadn’t quite understood how to go from “student” to “super awesome and professional adult”. I didn’t understand that it didn't  matter whether I thought my outfit was appropriate – it was also about what other people, whom I was meeting for the first time, sometimes under antagonistic circumstances, thought. Once you enter that sphere of working for someone else, you have to look past your ego, and learn to dress for the gaze of others. This is especially important as a journalist, because, your subject, not you, is the story.

And yet, you want to signal your individuality, because that’s also part of winning people over. People respect independence of thought, which can be signalled through dress. And you want to be true to yourself, because that way you carry yourself with more confidence. The challenge of dressing for work is to nail that perfect balance of utility, individuality, and, as The Cut put it, the "public-facing self".

I figured it out, after a while. I embraced the liberties of my workplace, but I looked for ways to polish things up. I can still wear jeans, t-shirts, sneakers. But I made sure I had back-ups – a blazer to throw on for important events, for example. I gave up sneakers (well, most days I do) and embraced the oxford because they dressed up a pair of jeans well. I found shirts that worked for me - ones I could leave them untucked for comfort, and tuck in when I need to smarten up. I found a good alternative to the t-shirt – slightly structured, boxy short-sleeve tops in stiff materials that were comfortable as t-shirts for days spent outdoors, but less sloppy than t-shirts. I even found dresses that were neither casual t-shirty things nor power-woman tailored sheaths – shirt-dresses or similarly cut shifts, slightly loose on the body. A couple pairs of well-cut black trousers – loosely tapered, cropped – to take me through days where denim is really a no-go. I don’t wear make-up, but I realised well-groomed brows made me look less sleepy.

I learnt to maximise versatility and comfort, and show respect for the myriad of circumstances I encounter in my work. But I also learnt to make the casual edge work for me. People remember me, because in a room full of suits, I could wear a slightly oversized shirt with sleeves pushed up, and leopard-print loafers. My collection of jeans, dating back to my university days, have never gone out of rotation – even the ripped ones, or the slouchy boyfriend ones. I just had to wear it with the right items for the right occasion.

The Cut essay touched on a dimension I hadn’t given much thought about – sexuality. I've always thought, if you draw a lot of attention to your body in the way you dress, people will talk about it, and it's up to you as an adult to decide how you want to deal with it. Maybe you have the confidence to live with the chatter, or are so powerful that it has no detrimental impact on your career. Maybe your office genuinely doesn't care. Whichever option we choose, it's a statement.

So what do my work outfits say about me (apart from the fact that my clothes seem to rumple a lot)? But they're practical. Sober. I think they respect most of the professional situations I find myself. They're also consistent, which I find useful - it's nice to have a signature look at work so that people remember you (like Jenna Lyons and her glasses). What do you guys think?

I didn't want to make this just about me, so I approached some other bloggers to chip in. For a start, Maja of Maja Huse and Marlene of Chocolate, Cookies and Candies will share their thoughts on dressing professionally, and hopefully, I can add more to this list as and when.

Look out for the first feature next week. In the meantime, I would love to hear what you guys have to say about this.

Comments

jamie-lee said…
I shudder to think about the offensive things i wore to work. The worst of which was an oversized boxy cut tunic in a light fabric from Monki. It barely covered my bum. And I wore this while working for an MP!

There's so little advice out there, catering to any working environment, and I remember my earlier years were spent looking at the blogs of girls who were students, and who managed to make blogging a career - not exactly the best inspiration for someone working in a corporate environment haha.

I've got an email pretty much ready to send you (along with some suitable photos) however I've been back in Wellington the last week which, well, I won't go into detail here but I'm hoping to finally email you this weekend.
Shutterbug K said…
I can't like things on Blogger, can I?

This. +5 "But they're practical. Sober. I think they respect most of the professional situations I find myself. They're also consistent, which I find useful - it's nice to have a signature look at work so that people remember you (like Jenna Lyons and her glasses)."

I haven't quite found that blend of self-expression and formality yet, but I hope you write more about your experience and choices. I definitely agree that work dressing is a huge statement--many times I had MALE coworkers, of all people, tell me strange things like "wear more color!" or "you're wearing black again?" And these are men in hard hats, Carhartt jackets, and steel-toed boots giving their opinions.
Xin said…
I have so many thoughts on this subject! I will start full-time work in a very conservative white-shoe profession very soon (and have done a few internships in the field).

I don't think (knock on wood) that I've ever worn anything that rose to the level of being "not ok for work," but this is partially because I was never in a formal office environment until the age of 25.

I did, however, make many wardrobe decisions that were visibly not in line with what other interns chose at my internships. I was always the first to shift to "business casual" as soon as possible after the first day and I generally am the first woman in any given group of interns to start pulling out bright colors and somewhat loud prints.

For me, those decisions come partially out of a conscious desire to assert my identity as someone who is... maybe a little more cheerful and a little bit less serious of demeanor than someone in my field is expected to be. I don't take myself or my profession as seriously as many classmates do. I spend more time than many others thinking possibly "frivolous" topics like fashion and how to bring that interest into the workplace. Some part of me wants to assert these sides of my personality.

At the same time and maybe paradoxically, I also take my work extremely seriously and I hope that my work speaks for itself. Maybe I hope that people will recognize that I am both someone "defies expectations" of what a professional woman "should" look like while still being a force to be reckoned. Expressing this desire through my outfits is maybe not wise, I don't know yet.

Incidentally, maybe all this thought about my motivations is unnecessary. As far as I can tell, women are never scrutinized for how they dress at my company. Based off of observing the wardrobes of the women at work who are in the top echelons of the company, there's room for a wide range of approaches to dressing. Bright colors, somewhat casual approaches to business casual, power suits, all of these things seem to be welcome.

Hopefully this is not terribly unclear! I just have so many thoughts on this topic that I'm excited to share.
Pret a Porter P said…
Such a timely & relevant post for me. As I’m on the cusp of transitioning into a different (and more conservative field), today I spent the day shadowing an executive & networking. I’m fortunate that I have the mannerism & professional wardrobe to not embarrass myself (I hope!) or more importantly, the person kind enough to let me shadow her during her meetings with other ceos & executives. I really have to thank one of my professors for making us subscribe and read the Wall Street Journal, I actually sound intelligent and up to date on relevant events.
jesse.anne.o said…
I really love this idea. This is something I've been trying to do but it's not quite coming together yet.
Maja H said…
Oh how fun, I love the description (and photos) of your workwear, Lin! Your writeup is so much more on point than mine was, mine was a ramble and I namedropped Cher Horowitz. Groan! That said, I can't wait to see the posts and discussions that will follow in this series of yours :)
Ammu said…
It's crazy to think that when I started my career, nearly a decade back, I used to have long hair (worn loose) and always sport a tank top and a long Indian skirt. Can't imagine dressing so boho now.
The turning point for me came with a shift in my role at work and needing to look older - a couple of shopping trips to Brooks Brothers followed and while I don't wear those shirts too often these days, the ease and professionalism they embodied has become a major reference for me. I wear mostly neutrals - black, navy, grey and white - and am usually in a cotton or wool dress cut to flatter my legs and skim over the rest. And while I do sometimes wear jeans to work, they are very dark and cut like trousers and always worn with a shirt or a cashmere jumper. A good haircut, which I have held on to for 6 years now, and a little make-up -- not a full face but a little eyeliner and lipstick -- make me feel more pulled-together. Of course when I go on field trips, the look changes completely - loose jeans, loose tops or layers to keep warm, sneakers or trekking boots, no make-up and a lot of sunscreen. I think (I hope!) my workwear says that I like to be comfortable, I like how I look and I know who I am.

I used to dress more professionally, I would even get up earlier to iron my clothing! But I think the relaxed atmosphere at my engineering firm has gotten to me, I've become a bit lazy over the years. Obviously if I'm meeting VIPs or out at a site visit, I'll scrub up a bit more. It really depends on your profession, I guess. It's also difficult to look polished when it's below freezing outside, which it has been for the entire winter it feels like!
Vanessa said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vanessa said…
It has taken me years to find my style but, now that I have, it's lovely to have a consistent aesthetic that runs from my personal life into my professional life. At the same time, I know when to dress it up or keep it casual, depending on where I find myself. In the field that I work in (conservative office environment), it's true that you get taken more seriously at work if you dress up a bit more.

I've gotten two really good tips from coworkers over the years. One: have key wardrobe pieces, like a pair of basic black trousers and then just rotate your shirts. For someone who has a limited budget, like myself, this has simplified my shopping approach. Two: blazers can dress up an outfit in a quick second. One coworker (who had the nicest blazers) used to tell me that everyone should have at least one blazer.

I like your work outfits by the way!
Anonymous said…
Such an under covered topic, thank you.
Aïssa said…
Very interesting topic Lin which brings memories and sparks a lot of thoughts.

I don't think you should be so hard on your past workwear choices. I did the conservative look when I started after university and I was miserable. Certainly because I didn't know how to inject a bit of my personality into standard outfits. With time and experience, my relation to workwear has relaxed. I still struggle and it's not every morning that I like what I put on but it's easier now that I kind of found my balance between presentation and conservastism.

By the way, I like each of your work outfits pics! The pleated pants (1st pic and middle down) have a great fit.
lin said…
jamie-lee: amazing we never got told off for these things! in a way i think not having any rules sometimes backfires on us when we are none the wiser.

and no worries about the delay - take your time!


shutterbug K: thank you! your story reminds me of the times where i wear a slightly nicer dress to work, and without fail someone will ask me if i have a date that day. you think no one notices, but people do!

xin: thanks for your thoughtful comment, i identify! i completely get the need to assert personality even a place has a dress code - i think clothing is one of the easiest ways to assert identity without saying a word, and it should be used!

it's cool that you work for such an unjudgemental workplace - my office is quite all right as well but i think we might just be lucky.

jesse.ann.o: i hope to hear from you on this! it's just one of those things that get more interesting once you start thinking about it.

maja h: feel free to send me more stuff, or maybe you can share your thoughts on your blog :) I don't see what's wrong with your replies though haha.

ammu: i can see how workplace needs can push our personal style in a different direction - i used to think button-front shirts, argh, but now i love them, once i figured out what's great about them and what works for me and appeals to me.

i think your style certainly works for you!

koko: i can't imagine dressing for such extreme weather!

vanessa: i guess everyone figures it out eventually through trial an error. in a way i sometimes think it's harder in an office with no rules - you really need to learn from scratch how dressing affects the way people view you. a dress code helps set some kind of benchmark -- even if it's just to deviate from it.

anon: you are welcome!

aissa: oh i cringe, but well i learnt!

and thanks, the trousers are from COS! i love them because they don't need ironing.
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