Thursday, May 24, 2012

culture club

What if your upward career momentum were hampered by your choice of fashion at work?

I realize that this situation is commonplace in many businesses -- for example, the one who looks like a slob will be passed over for promotion many times while the one who looks neater, cleaner, smells better might find herself in an office with a window. This is not news to me, this is what the fashion industry is selling: your image is your key to success. A neater cleaner version of you is going places! Doing things! Upward and onward!

But what if it's not a case of a clean shirt versus a wrinkled shirt? What if it's a case of this,

versus this?

It's not that the asymmetrical draped tangerine silk top is inappropriate. It's not that the silver foil bandage skirt is overly sexy or offensive, and we're not talking about a job at Target. Both of these ladies look great, they're covered in all the right places. The big difference is perception: one looks like an engineer, and the other one doesn't.

Part of me rebels against this concept like a teenager in high school - the punk rock chick on the inside is totally not OK with being told what to do, no matter how sensible it might sound.

Back in the real world of today, I know that looks count for a lot and we all judge each other.  Let's face it: when you think about sciencey types, you're thinking conservative, navy suit, red tie. I think this perception thing is a cultural issue. In the geek culture, geeks are supposed to look geeky. They're not supposed to wear big heels and fabulous accessories.

Part of the reason this irks me so deeply is because it doesn't really make sense. I know that in a business world, it's important to look appropriate and follow the rules. It makes sense to dress nice for company, embrace a Jackie O look when appropriate. Make the emphasis on your brain, not on your blouse when you're meeting new people. So what's wrong with expressing creativity when it has no bearing on your work product?

Are we willing to embrace the hypocrisy of conservative wardrobe all the time, just for the sake of being accepted or promoted? Is it a noble aspiration, to rise above narrow-minded perceptions of other people? Or is it just stubbornness and stupidity that will ultimately relegate the fashion outcasts to the ranks of the non-promoted?

Personally, I struggle with this -- anyone who knows me knows that I'm very comfortable with not wearing a filter, I don't spend much time indulging in overly-self editing behaviour inside or out. I know that my personality has earned me the trust and respect of friends who I trust and respect, and will continue to earn me the company of people I admire.  I have made peace with the fact that I'm not like the other engineers, which means if I were forced into a khakis-and-polo-shirt fashion pyjamas mould, I'd probably come out more like this:

Love that belt! 

I also know that I have many clients who don't care about how I dress because they deal with me over the phone. I don't get repeat business for my style points. 

I was confronted with potential hypocrisy this morning when my youngest appeared ready for school in a questionable outfit. I would never ever tell her little self that her navy blue floral romper did not go with her leopard fur vest, because I respect her creativity (and I've put some pretty crazy stuff together myself). I will leave it to her mean-spirited girl friends to tell her that she looks good or bad, as I know they will some day. I have a feeling that she'll decide for herself if the world judging her for her outward appearance will be important to her or not, but I'll support her in expressing herself within the safe boundaries of being her age. At her age she's still allowed to dress like a crazy old lady, and I think it's great. She's too young to put on a uniform, she has a whole lifetime of uniforms ahead of her, and I'll talk her through that when the time comes.

I did point out that she was walking a fine line with respect to the school dress code, since her romper was pretty short and had spaghetti straps. I had a feeling this would not fly with the fashion agenda in her elementary school (and was potentially a bit revealing for my taste as well). 

I sent her back to adjust it. She came back wearing a plaid dress over the top of it all.

You go, girl. 


moi said...

This is a toughie. But I think your post raises some important questions about what we consider appropriate dress out of a sense of respect, and what we consider appropriate out of a sense of fear, maybe even ignorance or envy.

While it would be nice to believe that we are all beyond judging people by what they wear, the reality is that this is a world in which uniforms of some sort or another dominate. They dominate not only occasions, sex, and age groups, but also professions.

That BCBG outfit would never fly in a law firm, for instance. Law is a profession whose uniform must tell the world that its employees and partners are capable of adjudicating a host of serious issues, some of them life and death. Just as you would not show up for a friend's wedding in pajamas, neither would you show up in a courtroom in an Herve Leger bandage dress, whose look says "party," not, "I'm about to ask the jury to sentence this man to life in prison."

Likewise, it would be inappropriate for a high school teacher, maybe even a drug counselor.

But in your profession? That's trickier. Here, it seems to me you are dealing with matters not of substance, but of style. While you are not required to wear suits or Dockers and a polo, neither are you quite "allowed" to express yourself beyond a certain boundary—made even more maddening by the fact that that boundary has not been clearly defined.

This seems to me to be a case of people who have a bias against those who stick out, even if that sticking out does not affect the imperatives of the profession. It's like how we all used to look down our noses at the pretty girls in school or the ones with money. People don't like people who don't "fit" with the majority and to pass someone over for promotion because of that is a problem.

the Dread Pirate Rackham said...

sometimes, the thought of getting dressed is the thing that gets me out of bed. I'm a creative person - balancing the cerebral with the aesthetic is not easy..