1 How (Some) Women Dress For Work | The Billfold

How (Some) Women Dress For Work

hqdefaultAs workplaces get more casual overall, not just with regard to clothing, fewer and fewer things are codified, and more is left up to judgment. Just because there are no rules doesn’t mean there aren’t (wildly varying and complicated) expectations, and often unspoken consequences. It’s nice to be treated like a human and not be condescended to in that way, but people aren’t born knowing some of this shit, either.

Which is why I love this: A group of six senior women at Buzzfeed (+ Aminatou Sow!) did a roundtable discussion on what they wear to work, how they think about it, and their expectations for the people who work with and for them. It’s great.

Sapna Maheshwari: …I think it’s way easier for guys and I’m insanely jealous of that. I think workplace clothes can be harder for women in certain situations. Like if a guy has a huge meeting, he knows he can wear a suit. And fine, buying a suit looks a little stressful, but that’s a manageable task. It’s way harder as a woman to decide what to wear for that same situation. Do you look “nice enough” in slacks and a blouse and heels? Should you go for a dress? What kind of dress? What materials? Some of that uncertainty can be frustrating.

Katie Notopoulos: What’s frustrating to me about workplace clothes for women is that there’s a lot of judgement about it — some of the stuff we talked about earlier. If we all love fashion because it’s a way of self-expression and making your own identity, then office fashion kind of fucks with that. If you dress a certain way, people will make the wrong judgements about your work. I think this make it so much harder for women than for men.

Doree Shafrir:
This gets at the heart of my struggle over talking to young women about their office attire. There’s an element of it that feels anti-feminist to be telling a young woman what she can and can’t wear, especially when the complaints originate with men. It’s like, I’m sorry you can’t stop staring at this woman but maybe you should check yourself. On the other-other hand, it made me stop and think about what IS “professional” and why we have workplace dress standards in the first place.

Re: Doree’s point, that is how I feel about bras at work. Philosophically, and politically, I support you not wearing a bra. You should not have to wear a bra ever, and that includes work. Fuck bras. And what undergarments you wear or don’t wear are CERTAINLY none of my business. But also: wear a damn bra to work, okay? Jesus.

Also, Aminatou Sow’s response for the ideal interview outfit she’s recommend “to a young woman for a job in media/journalism or a non-suity industry,” is excellent:

AS: I’m at the point now where I will just call the office and ASK! If they say casual or biz caj then I know what is! People are always so happy to tell you that stuff! Especially bomb ass receptionists who are glad you took initiative!

This is a very good call. I can’t tell you how many times, however unethically, I have tried not to laugh as some poor withered soul came to interview at at a startup sweating under a business suit while we interviewed him in jorts and a t-shirt. Dressing up and looking polished for a job interview is always a good call, of course, but part of a job interview is that ethically questionable but always inevitable assessment: are you a “good fit”? Do you belong here? Overdressing sends a signal, subconsciously or no, that you don’t get it.

Again: I don’t think people should be judged by what they wear to interviews. And yet, they are and they will be, as much as that sucks and can throw you into a self-doubting tailspin when you’re picking out an outfit for an interview. But that’s why these conversations are important.

For the record, I second Madewell (with the necessary caveat: if you can afford it/fit into it, because it’s not for everyone), and generally any cute, semi-nice dress, flats, interesting necklace combo.


44 Comments / Post A Comment

I have been working in the same super casual work environment for 13 years. If & when I get a new gig, I will have to spend a mint on “grown-up work clothes.” Button down shirts look terrible on me as do most pants. I may have to pursue my dream of selling paint at Home Depot instead of career advancement just so I can wear jeans.

Allison (#4,509)

the only pants I wear to work are jeans, but I’m trying to upgrade my tops/dresses/sweaters etc. So thanks to all the LOFTvangelists on here for finally pointing me to grownup clothes that don’t make me feel like I’m pretending to be my mom.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

I work in an office with no dress code (someone took the liberty of wearing shorts that show a copious amount of man thigh) and everyone dresses in flip flops.

I just wear what I wear outside of work. I’m into fashion so it’s lot of dresses, skirts, cute, fun things. I come from a business casual environment and was still overdressed. I’m just now WICKED overdressed and I don’t mind it.

If someone can “be themselves” by dressing casually, I should be able to be myself by dressing fashionably, which seems to overlap a lot with business casual. I don’t get why you would think someone doesn’t fit the culture based on the fact that they dress well.

garli (#4,150)

I think this is a great point:

…because workplaces have had subtle yet significant differences in what was expected.

Where I work there are even subtle differences between departments where some are def. more formal than others.

Also I hate this:

I didn’t even know what eyeliner was until someone pulled me aside and told me I would look “more professional” if I wore makeup ::sideyeye:: It made me feel kinda insecure and I realized that women police other women’s looks so much harsher sometimes.

If someone told me that I’d be pretty annoyed.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

I work in a business cas environment which seems to suit me well. I like wearing heels, a button down shirt and skirt every day I don’t opt for a dress and flats. I own a jacket for client meetings, but I hate how I look in dress pants, so I just pop it on over a dress.

nell (#4,295)

@RiffRandell Heartily second the work pants hatred. I cannot figure them out and why I just hate the way they look on me. All about skirts and dresses for work (with a number of pairs of tights commensurate with the temperature).

sayevet (#6,237)

@nell Have you tried different cuts? I look trashy in boot cut dress pants but as soon as I tried on a pair of relaxed fit (straight from hip to ankle) I looked so classy! But now I just wear slim fit cropped pants because it’s too warm for full-length.

madeline (#6,071)

@nell I am so glad that I’m not the only one! I’ve been trying to buy professional clothing since I just graduated (my college wardrobe was jeans + the closest clean T-shirt). So far, all I can find are dresses. They are just so much less complicated than pants because I don’t have to worry about tucking things in or matching properly.

To the suggestion of Madewell for work clothes I say: ahahahahahahaha. Even with the caveat.

@Jake Reinhardt Ok, it won’t let me edit this for some reason, but I think that comment came off as unreasonably abrasive, so let me rewrite: I think Madewell is a very maybe specific store for ‘creative’ fields that make a lot of money…if I had worn Madewell to any of the administrations I worked for in Chicago, I would have gotten the serious side-eye. It was all Ann Taylor and the like, all the time. I…I did not fit in. And I hated office clothes, so I basically looked insane most of the time. Now I look insane, but for different reasons-I work at home, so I’m typically wearing an elastica shirt from 1996 with my sweatpants (jcrew!).

fletchasketch (#6,453)

@Jake Reinhardt agreed. every dress at madewell is absurdly short- waayyyyyy too short for the office.
To be fair it isn’t just madewell, jcrew, banana, etc are all too short (even their suits). Sometimes I can buy the tall sizes, but those are not in stores to actually try on. How do retailers not understand that when you sit, the hem is several inches higher on the thigh, and office jobs sit most of the day. I have no desire to show half of my thigh to my coworkers, and I don’t think that is an unreasonable request.
/end rant. no end to my anger over the issue though, yet.

sayevet (#6,237)

@fletchasketch It’s really hard to find dresses that aren’t crazy short. Even just-above-the-knee can be tough to find :(

EmilyStarr (#4,035)

@Jake Reinhardt @deathcabforcutes Dresses from Boden (during their clearances). You can sort by length, they have almost everything in a tall, as well, and they have a lot of work-appropriate ones. Also, as someone who travels for work, they have a lot of dresses in fabrics that pack well.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I work with mostly undergrad students in an environment where we try to be as non-threatening as possible, which means we’re business casual at best and jeans are totally acceptable. I wear mostly dresses because I’m more comfortable in them, I’m more comfortable slightly dressing up, and also I have to dress older than I am, otherwise I get asked what year I am. My guy bosses wear button downs and jeans/khakis most of the time, and my only girl boss varies between white eyelet bustiers/Jack Daniels t-shirts and very structured business dresses…

RiffRandell (#4,774)

@andnowlights Sounds like your girl boss has a diverse sense of style.

joyballz (#2,000)

@andnowlights I’m all about the dresses because I only have to make one decision. Pairing skirts/pants with tops can sometimes be way too much for me, even if I only own basic colors.

honey cowl (#1,510)

DUDE. I went to Madewell for the first time this weekend and their sizes are HUGE. Like, I am a regular sized person, 8-10. But I couldn’t wear any of their size 8 dresses, they were all too big. For the record I have not worn size 6 since middle school, so this was very confusing.

Of course I am also gargantuanly tall so they were way too short, but that’s neither here nor there.

EM (#1,012)

@honey cowl Agreed that the sizes are kind of insane– but I find that at J Crew too, and they are the same company. But I have found I am always needing two sizes smaller than usual at Madewell.

Meaghano (#529)

@honey cowl ha, this is probably why I like them! I can be a size 6 and stuff isn’t too long!

ronswansonluva (#6,465)

@honey cowl This makes me crazy!! I am a Banana Republic size 0 or 2, and I can’t fit into Madewell at all. Their clothes are huge! Vanity sizing is the worst.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@ronswansonluva welllllll I think the way you phrased it there may have been a little… insensitive? “vanity sizing” kind of implies that the rest of us just want to feel good. I’m sure that’s not how you meant it, but dude, you can alter clothes smaller or shorter. You can’t alter them bigger.

ronswansonluva (#6,465)

@honey cowl Oh, it’s the term I’ve always heard used to refer to this phenomenon – no insensitivity intended :) I believe the thinking behind this is that stores inflate sizes so that folks feel better and buy more of their stuff.
Edit to add: It’s enough of a phenomenon to be on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanity_sizing

gyip (#4,192)

Sort of related: I don’t know why people still cast shade at women for wearing trousers to formal events (like weddings).

Sorry, it’s the 21st century. Let’s let go of dresses-for-ladies. (Especially since I’ve seen tons of dresses at weddings that were not really all that appropriate …)

theotherginger (#1,304)

@gyip yesssss. Right now, my work uniform is dresses, so I would wear a work dress and fancy it up with a necklace. But if my work uniform (self-imposed) were pants, I would wear awesome pants, shirt and fancy jewellery. Srsly. It looks hot.

cryptolect (#1,135)

re: the tag: I go with the phonetic “cazh,” but then I’m never sure people will understand and I feel the need to add “(as in casual)”, thus defeating the whole purpose of abbreviating.

I’m totally freeboobing it at work right now. Then again, there’s not a lot to support anyway, and they’re quite perky, if I do say so myself, so I don’t think it looks inappropriate. And I’m the only one here.

sayevet (#6,237)

@angry little raincloud I’m too scared to freeboob anywhere. I found a perfect compromise with the Jockey Modern Micro Crop Top. Super comfy, and no need for a cami underneath my tops or dresses!

Julie (#5,374)

I have a work uniform of black pants, a nice top (usually from Loft), and heels. It works well for me, it’s easy, and I’m more comfortable in pants than in skirts or dresses. Technically my work is business dress, but our dress code isn’t really enforced and most of the women dress like I do.

potatopotato (#5,255)

@Julie: I do this, but I alternate between flats and heels based on how long today’s pants happen to be. Basing my entire wardrobe around only black pants was the best wardrobe decision I could have made.

Julie (#5,374)

@potatopotato I feel the same! I have some navy and grey pants, too, but I prefer black. It means all I have to do is pick out a nice top to go with my pants, and I’m set.

SnarlFurillo (#2,538)

“There’s an element of it that feels anti-feminist to be telling a young woman what she can and can’t wear, especially when the complaints originate with men. It’s like, I’m sorry you can’t stop staring at this woman but maybe you should check yourself.”

I wish this round table (which was interesting!) had questioned the premise of the dress code a little bit more, since it seems that office dress codes are almost exclusively enforced on women. I wonder if there’s any actual research on that or if it is just my feminist bias, but I don’t seem to hear many stories about young men in their first professional jobs who have to be “counseled” on appropriate attire. Anybody have bias-confirming anecdotes to share??

OllyOlly (#669)

@SnarlFurillo My last job I had a male coworker who was made to go home and shave before he could start work. He had let his beard grow in over the 3 day weekend and our manager decided it was inappropriate. But that’s all I have for you.

(We also had an announcement reminding us we couldn’t wear denim after an admin started wearing these slacks made from a denim material, but that was kind of an obvious rule she tried flouting.)

EmilyStarr (#4,035)

@OllyOlly @SnarlFurillo My first non-temp job after college, a co-worker had to be counseled against wearing shorts. His argument – this is DC in the summer; the women wear skirts, tank tops, and flip-flops and want to turn the AC off; let me wear professional-looking shorts if I don’t have external meetings. Nope.

guenna77 (#856)

@SnarlFurillo i have heard plenty of guys be chastised for not having their clothes ironed, or not wearing a tie, inappropriate shoes, etc. i think that the thing is that there’s more ambiguity for women. men have a few set levels of outfit, and there’s really not much variation. women have a range of looks with subtle differences within each based on fabric, length and cut.

i find that they key is generally ‘don’t look sloppy’. you can get away with a lot as long as you look like you put in some effort.

lalaland (#437)

I work in a primarily male-dominated industry, and the guys who work in my office have gotten lectures about tucking in their button downs on “casual Fridays.” On the flip side, because all the managers are male, they’re not comfortable telling the women what to wear, so we actually have a more lax dress code (we’re still business casual, but no lectures on any slight infringements).

nell (#4,295)

@lalaland I was once the only woman employee on a team that had a rotating slate of interns and I was always the one who got stuck taking aside the 20-year-old girl in an American Apparel tube dress and asking her to please not wear it again. (Respect to anyone who has found a way to make this exchange a chill, friendly mentoring moment and not the most awkward thing imaginable.)

@lalaland Yes! I worked at an office once where leggings were technically against dress code, but women wore them all the time. Because to chastise a woman for wearing leggings means you were looking closely enough to know that they were leggings. I, personally, was not a fan, but I thought that little piece of office culture was hilarious.

Goodie (#5,447)

I work in a job that has a compulsory uniform, and most days this makes me happy as it means no worrying about what to wear. Every now and then though I see nice clothes that I think I would want if I worked in the city and I kinda wish I did have somewhere to wear them. This feeling normally passes pretty quick though

megra (#2,906)

My job has an extremely lax (non-existent) dress code. I’m the only young woman (the others are in their forties/sixties and wear dresses/business casual) so I don’t have a reference point for what is normal or acceptable.

The men in the office wear jeans/shorts and ratty t-shirts.

I’m stuck in the middle because I work mostly in the office, but also do a lot in the warehouse. I usually stick to jeans or skirts in the summer (I hate going from a 70 degree office to hot warehouse in jeans!). My boss once told me I could wear shorts, but the thought of gross office chair fabric on my legs is too awful.

The best is when I wear a skirt or dress and have to deal with truck drivers. They have no idea how to react to me happily doing heavy lifting in a skirt.

I’ve found this work clothing site to be great for ideas: http://www.theclassycubicle.com/
I work in science, and the culture at my company runs from business casual to very casual. I err on the side of business casual because I’m a supervisor (I’m female, and supervise men). I don’t have a large sample size, but the women who give important presentations and are seen as leaders are not the ones who look like they rolled out of bed. That is not to say they are not good at their jobs, but their appearance unfortunately hurts their visibility (and career). The men I work with (both managers and direct reports) unfortunately can get away with the unironed shirts and dad jeans.

fletchasketch (#6,453)

@Catastrophe Waitress Yes! Her and http://www.caphillstyle.com are the best business wear blogs. The offices I’ve worked in aren’t suits and closed-toe pumps every day, but sundresses and jeans won’t cut it either.
I’ve never noticed a huge discrepancy between the appearance niceness levels of women and men. I do think it’s easier for men- button down and slacks, mostly neutral colors /small repeating patterns on the shirts and not obviously wrinkled and you’re fine. Women have more options (and room for error), but if we stay away from anything tight/short/sheer/cleavage-y in addition to non-wrinkled it’s not that difficult either. Finding clothing that fits that requirement in stores… is a separate issue, and that’s where the gender divide really starts.

PinkQueen (#7,643)

I, personally, was not a fan, but I thought that little piece of office culture was hilarious.


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