Women are likely facing challenges when it comes to stressors surrounding the way they dress. Dressing for success in today’s workplace should not define a woman on who she is or what she hopes to achieve. Instead, dress should be an expression of their individuality and their career aspirations.
Formal attire within the workplace is evolving and the norms associated with acceptability are always swaying. Women (and arguably men and non-conforming folks, too) have faced the pressures of dressing conservatively whether that be covering their tattoos, eliminating piercings or wearing a bra or even more so fitting the gender norms of doing gender.
“I think because of the history of our patriarchal society and that women have been relegated to a lower position in society that these pressures in the workplace still haven’t gone away,” said Kelly Reddy-Best, associate professor in apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University.
Women dress to empower themselves and reclaim their aesthetic. Their dress is an avenue where women can express themselves and portray themselves to their counterparts.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, women have taken on the term of power dressing. Power dressing is the fashion style that allows women to own their power and take their authority into professional and political environments traditionally dominated by men. In our culture, how women dress compared to men has often been viewed as more sexual. Power dressing neutralizes natural femininity and inherent sexuality, preventing the misconceptions of women’s dress in the workplace.
As seen in the media, power dressing has taken over the political and professional realm with Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher. But more recently power dressing has taken a new meaning. Women are reclaiming the rights they deserve for equality and choosing to dress like a boss. For instance, Tessa Thompson has claimed the no blouse, no tie, no problem with confidently stepping out into the world with baring her midriff.
Reddy-Best is in a women-dominated field, so it is different. However, for women working in men-dominated fields like civil engineering and mechanical engineering, how you dress as a woman is heavily weighed. Because of the reinforced masculine stereotypes, women are often halted to excel and the battle to own it or float with it is tossed around.
“I have a lot of privilege because I am a white woman and appear feminine, so I am not challenging many normative ideologies in the way that I look. In my field, I am mostly surrounded by women so I don’t necessarily think about the power-dynamics of my dress,” Reddy-Best said.
If you were to take sexism out of the picture and look at its intersectionality, women of color most certainly face oppression in the workplace. Because of that, some women carry more privileges than other women when it comes to dressing. For example, Reddy-Best talked about her research that unveiled various answers for what queer women experience in the workplace and their dress. Some queer women embraced their normal aesthetic and chose to not work at a place that didn’t accept them. Whereas other women hid some of their aesthetics.
“I think that’s the way that I’ve seen it personally and I think that it’s an important point to think about, not only white women but women of color or trans women and their experiences are important to highlight because they can be rooted in a lot of oppression or microaggressions,” Reddy-Best said.
In the workplace, there are expectations for women, men and nonbinary individuals because what we wear communicates who we are. How we dress takes on this meaning of professionalism and whether you want to appear to be productive or equipped for the task.
“I’ll see men in a sweatshirt at a professional meeting and I’m thinking to myself I would never be able to wear something like that,” Reddy-Best said.
It all comes down to dressing for what fits your identity. Be authentic to yourself and aware of the workplace you are choosing to associate with. If oppression is perpetuating based on your dress, then your voice is vital.
“A lot of the times it can be difficult because the people who wrote the dress code rules can have numerous biases, so it’s important to educated folks on why the dress code might be biased towards cis-gender women, trans women or people of color,” Reddy-Best said.
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