WorkWear, Part 1

Editor’s Note: This post is from the original Genderplayful Community Blog, back when we were also a marketplace.

Black-and-white photograph of a high-heeled shoe treading into carpet.

‘Looking professional’ is a phrase that never fails to set my teeth on edge. ‘Workwear’, ‘office attire’, or ‘formal dress’ are some of the most binarist categories of clothing, and they just don’t work for me because of that.

People who code or are read as female, for instance, are often pressured to present as femme in order to present as formal. (h/t to Emma for this gorgeous phrasing) In this post, some of the Genderplayful team members weigh in on this aspect of workwear binaries.

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huimin says:

As s.e. smith writes:

There is an expectation, a demand, that working women dress fashionably. Not necessarily at the height of fashion, as runway looks wouldn’t be, as they say, work appropriate, but certainly neatly, elegantly. Dress codes are a snarled tangle to navigate when you’re supposed to be demure, but not drab, neat, but not flashy.

Whenever I have to dress up for a new setting – say an office job, or a formal presentation, or a dinner event – I become even more critical of my wardrobe. I am not a very femme person; I have some heels, some skirts, some dresses, and I wouldn’t have got them if I didn’t like them, but to present so explicitly as femme is a choice that I have to deliberate over, to be comfortable with.

Cosmetics counter at a department store.
The problem with all these settings, though, is that people who are read as female are expected to perform femmeness. Trousers may not always be considered professional enough. The application of cosmetics may be expected. Jewellery, too, is part of this performance – it’s coded femme and women are expected to be decked out in earrings and necklaces, but not too flashy, but not too understated.

Well! I like trousers just fine – I have about six identical pairs because I loved their plain black design. The closest tip of my imaginary hat I have to cosmetics and jewellery are glittery red lip balm for my chapped lips, and a religious medallion which I wear. And in all this I have the privilege of having employment to which I am well suited, and a workplace where I am accepted, so that inappropriate dressing will never be an excuse to fire me. But this isn’t the case for everyone.

Sometimes I do things that look ridiculous from the outside, if you didn’t know how visceral my uneasiness with prescribed femmeness is. My already dry skin cracked in 9-degree weather in Australia, because my skirt exposed my legs, but I’d be damned if I were going to wear pantyhose. Given a choice between uncomfortable flats and comfortable, frilly high-heeled shoes, I usually choose the former, because it feels less like giving in to social coercion. And so on, and so forth.

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freiya says:

School uniform with navy-blue blazer, red plaid skirt and polka-dotted bow tie, on a mannequin.

Formal wear is a nightmare for me, I actively avoid anything that involves wearing smart clothes, weddings, fancy parties, even jobs that involve wearing anything you could class as even vaguely ‘smart’. Thankfully everywhere I’ve worked has had a very relaxed dress code of ‘wear pretty much whatever you like as long as you’re not naked’ , so I very rarely have to confront my fear of formal wear.

I think one of the reasons for my dislike/fear/upset at formal wear comes from years of having to wear a uniform during secondary school that so did not conform to how I felt genderwise, and being made to wear it no matter how much I protested. Now I’m an adult, one thing I will absolutely refuse to do is wear something that I’m told I have to, or should, wear (hence the not working in a job that has a strict dress code!).

The other reason, I think, is that I want to feel comfortable in my clothes. For such a huge proportion of my life I haven’t even been comfortable in my own skin, my body isn’t something I can change to the degree I’d like, but clothes are. I have a choice with clothes, they are my changeable skin, the one I can choose. Formal wear makes me uncomfortable, and it shows, it’s not my natural habitat.

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Emily says:

Statue of Ernest Hemingway, Havana.

I have the weird dual issue of really enjoying some formal wear (like, specifically “male” formal wear) and very much hating the other end of the spectrum. I almost never wear skirts, ever. I look good in suits! But finding suits that I like, that aren’t too feminine and devoid of comfortable pockets (seriously why don’t women’s trousers have pockets, not everyone carries a purse!), can be extremely difficult. As of now this problem is more personal than professional, as I’ve never yet had to work in an environment where this was a problem, but I won’t say it’s not one of the many things that’s making me nervous about my job hunt! If I get some kind of office job, I’ll know I’ll probably have to buy some new clothes, and I just hope I can find something that works for me and fits the “mold” … ugh, office-mandated conformity. Shoes are going to be non-negotiable for me, though. I cannot wear high heels of any kind — literally the only time I ever wore heels was when I was acting in a community production of La Cage aux Folles, playing a drag queen. Similarly, theater is the only time I ever wear makeup.

Why can’t I be a bohemian writer and just wander around dressed like Hemingway? I ASK YOU.

Black-and-white photograph of a person in a two-piece suit lounging against a wall.

by Hen3k Hen3k, Flickr

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Of course, all of this deals with our experience of the impact of formality on femme gender expression, which is only a one-sided approach to the workplace. I invite male-identified and masculine-presenting readers who have contended with the same dress problem in the workplace to share their thoughts and reflections, and look forward to curating another post from this perspective.

Does anyone else feel that navigating the office is like walking across a floor loaded with sartorial booby-traps? Has anyone come up with genderplayful solutions to this perennial problem? Would anyone, like me, pick the impractical option over the expected option, sacrificing physical comfort for emotional comfort?

Share your horror stories, share your successes, and – if you’re selling workwear, or if you know of a perfectly gorgeous store – share your links!

9 thoughts on “WorkWear, Part 1

  1. Betty Nikia

    I’ve had my head shaved for about 20 years and that pretty much gives me license to dress how I want because people automatically take me out of the “should” category. Also, I’ve made the decision (based partially on privilege) not to put myself in situations that would impose those conventions on me. Not to say that I never bend to convention, but it’s pretty easy to tell that when I do, my heart isn’t in it. I pretty much always look to the people in history who have defied convention and succeeded specifically because they had the chutzpah not to follow the rules.

  2. JD

    For quite some time dress clothes have been the bane of my existence. I love things like suits, vests, ties, etc – and being someone who spent a few years attending a very formal church setting I was required to wear my “Sunday best” once a week which, honestly, is awkward when you present in a way that is perceived as the opposite end of the binary that you were born in. I’ve reached a point where I don’t care much anymore what people say (perhaps unwise for an aspiring minister, or perhaps exactly what the world needs – I guess we’ll find out) about the way I dress or my gender identity, but it does still bother me that if I ever did want to wear makeup or nail polish in a formal setting it would be deemed contrasting with my suit and tie. Why can’t my eye makeup match my tie? Why can’t my fingernail polish? These things bother me frequently, and probably always will.

    1. Twiglet

      Speaking from the theatrical-flamer branch of the FTM spectrum, I’d say that the problem is partly that loud makeup doesn’t count as formal at all, unless you’re a rock star. Billie Joe Armstrong gets away with eyeliner and ties, but he’s in entertainment, not an office job. Visually, officewear is a conservative culture and that does suck when you’re not a conservative soul.

      When I did do office jobs presenting as female, I had enormous fun to start with picking out lots of “nice polite girl” clothes and trying on a persona I’d never had before. But it was always a costume and it grated after a while. I’m still the same now; I recently quit a very proper job in a supermarket that still requires its employees to wear a collar and tie because the expectation of social conformity that went with that was just too much. I’m trying to work out where the heck to find a job that will let me be as eccentric as I am.

  3. Betty Nikia

    @jdsuperhero – I feel that. It’s not that I’m afraid to do it, but I just hate all the distracting comments and looks. It’s annoying; irritating. If I really want to do it, I still will. I like trying to do things in a way that both makes me happy and is done in a way where I can “pull it off,” so to speak. Always a challenge, though, it seems.

    1. JD

      isn’t that just how it is? I am fortunate enough to be spending my summer in a city (Atlanta) for the first time with some really awesome people. For the first time ever I had someone say “Hey dude your nail polish matches your shirt. Cool!” It was pretty awesome, but I wish it hadn’t been the first time.

      1. Betty Nikia

        Hey, that’s excellent. It’s cool to hear of the appreciative comments extended your way, even if it doesn’t always happen. I feel like that kind of feedback goes a long way. :)

  4. Margarita

    I’ve never yet had a job with a dress code, but I enjoy formal wear when going to the appropriate parties. It is a little fraught for me because, well, masculine and feminine formal wear both feel equally like drag to me, but in one I get read as nonconformist and in the other I blend into the heteronormative background. I too have to fight the urge to avoid clothes I like because they don’t signal the full spectrum of my identity. So I do little things to make dresses feel less feminine, like wearing hiking boots under them or arranging the chest area so that you can’t tell by looking that my boobs are made of flesh and not padding – if the observer can’t rule out the possibility that I could be a male-bodied person passing convincingly, it feels less like invisibility.

  5. Betty Nikia

    I like the last part of your sentence, Margarita:

    “…if the observer can’t rule out the possibility that I could be a male-bodied person passing convincingly, it feels less like invisibility.”

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