‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!