Down With the Dress Code
Alexi Strong Gonzalez
I’ve always been a wardrobe addict. I’ve also always been an obsessive follower of rules, both real and perceived. The place where these two facets of my personality intersect has been a tricky one to navigate, being a young woman in professional settings.
Since I entered the workforce, I’ve always had a tendency to overdress for the job. My first post-grad paid internship was at a fantastically eclectic state theatre where my fellow interns showed up to work in stage costumes as often as business casual (emphasis on casual) attire, and management was cool with that. Yet every day for the whole summer, I arrived in sweater sets and tailored pants, or pencil skirts from Banana Republic, achieving the look I felt young working women should present.
When I got a job as a reporter, I wanted to be taken seriously, especially working at my hometown local paper where half the people I interviewed on a regular basis had watched me grow up. Short in stature with a baby face, I wore high heels every single day, to every meeting and every event. I once wore high heels on the beach while photographing a sea turtle nest. I probably helped put J. Crew’s and Ann Taylor’s kids through college as I continued racking up a very specific professional wardrobe that, to me, felt like the only appropriate way to dress.
I loved getting dressed for work every day. I’ve always been a fancy-pants kind of person, and skirts and dresses are more comfortable to me than jeans. I didn’t feel pressured to dress in a more feminine way. In fact, my female boss basically wore sweatpants every day, and the men in the office wore jeans or shorts. But in that job and the few that followed, I obsessed over every possible perception of every outfit I picked out. If I found a cute pair of wedges or heels with an open toe, I would take mental notes of the shoes I saw other women around me wearing for weeks before deciding if I had enough evidence to make a pro-wedge or pro-peep-toe decision (and rarely did I take the adventurous leap into new realms of footwear).
I worked at a place for seven months before I wore my first sleeveless top, and even then, I brought a cardigan to pull over my exposed shoulders in case I got pulled into a meeting. I panicked constantly about the exact length of my skirts (which were always more than long enough), and whether the male head of the division would ever tell me that what I had on was too short. Getting dressed was still fun, but I felt like continuing to put so much pressure on myself to dress exactly like I’d seen yo-pros dress in movies had stripped away so much of my own personality. I wore stud earrings every day worrying that anything dangly wasn’t office-appropriate, even though I love dangly earrings. I never wore items that seemed too modern or trendy, even when I’d buy something really cool I loved.
I was recently struck by an article I read about Mary Barra, the first-ever female CEO of General Motors, which referenced her sweeping change to the company’s formerly 10-page-long dress code. Thanks to Barra, it’s now only two words: “Dress appropriately.”
While she admittedly had to handle some confusion and push-back from middle management on exactly what the meaning of “dress appropriately” is, to me it speaks volumes. Every time I’ve been hired, it’s because of my experience and accomplishments in professional settings. Every time I’ve been involved in hiring someone else, it was for the same reasons. I never needed to be told what not to wear to the office, and neither did anyone who I interviewed for a job. When office dress codes become overly rigid and include needlessly long lists of rules, women are the ones who are made targets. Men have the luxury in the workplace of sticking to a simple suit or pants-and-button-down combo, whereas plenty of working women are still required to wear skirts or dresses with pantyhose and pumps every day. It’s more often women, not men, who are made to feel a certain piece of apparel is too tight or too low-cut.
By getting rid of the self-doubt and overthinking that plagued me for years about my office wardrobe, I’ve slowly learned that while women have more variables to factor in when getting dressed for work each day, we also have infinitely more fun. Having enough confidence in yourself to know you can decide what is or isn’t appropriate (without adhering to a strict set of societal standards) is a very freeing feeling. It means you can wear a funky necklace, or a comfy maxi dress, or colorful flats or even, if you’re sure it’s appropriate for your office, leggings as pants (shhh!).
Know each morning that you are a smart and capable woman who understands the difference between appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong—and getting dressed is sure to be one of the highlights of your day.
Alexi is a journalism grad from the University of Florida who recently traded years in non-profit communications for a corporate marketing management gig she totally loves. She and her husband are raising the world’s most adorable baby boy while updating their beach house and catching movies when they can leave the kid at Grandma’s. You’ll find her bike-riding and watching football games at kid-friendly breweries on weekends. For alarmingly liberal political opinions and TMI motherhood musings, follow her on Twitter at @alexigonzo.