Should office dress codes be taught at university?
Miranda Kerr makes her own dress codes.
Legal Skills class ended on an interesting note this week. While discussing our upcoming assessment - a mock client interview - my teacher remarked, “While boys are usually fine, girls have trouble adhering to the dress code.”
She was right. A girlfriend had marks deducted for wearing pants that were too ‘tapered’. Another had a comment made about how red her top was, and recommended I buy a sober skirt-suit from Valley Girl before I do mine. That’s what’s expected from the profession, after all.
While guidelines for men usually extend to ironing that shirt and zipping up that fly, women have a much harder time navigating the rules of professional attire. First impressions count and apparently, a woman’s outfit is the first thing she says.
To counter the trend toward ‘casualisation’, some top-tier law firms and banks have come out with wordy guidebooks and seminars addressing everything from style to make-up. And if Lara from HR still isn’t getting it, she may always be referred to the company’s ‘image consultant’.
An article titled Summer Associates: Please Don’t Dress Like Fashion Victims written by a New York University professor, recently made the rounds during clerkship season. Professor Akbari offered up a myriad of handy hints such as, “Women should always wear a skirt or dress, as it is heavily favored over pants by interviewers (many of whom are men).” and “Avoid flats, except in emergencies. They do nothing for your stature or outfit, and they are some of the least powerful footwear you can wear." The whole thing read like a Cosmo pull-out from another era, reminding me of when Joan had a word to Peggy in the communal kitchen of Sterling Cooper. Remember, she too was only trying to help …
The finance industry makes similar demands. UBS in Switzerland sent its staff a 43-page instructional booklet covering everything from hemlines to hygiene. And, surprise, surprise, most of the rules were directed at females – wear skirts that touch the middle of your knee, avoid trendy spectacles, and apply light foundation, mascara and lipstick (never gloss) to “enhance your personality”. There’s so much to remember, no wonder they need to start teaching us in school.
As one 24-year-old investment banker from Sydney notes, “Women used to feel the need to wear suits, speak in a deeper pitch, be more male-like in professions like these, but nowadays, we are encouraged to reinforce the fact that we are female.” What’s the go in her office? The red-heeled Louboutin is popular, worn as both a style statement and “for showing you’re not to be messed with”.
With so many unspoken rules, female corporate players find themselves walking a fine line between looking “feminine”, “professional” and “powerful”. The whole thing is exhausting.
Also, disregarding suits of the highly-flammable Valley Girl variety (a crime within itself), workplace attire can be a costly expense. All those lipsticks, pencil skirts, and Louboutins add up, especially given the fact that women’s fashion cycles are significantly shorter than men’s.
Are nitpicky employee dress codes outdated practice? You’d think so. You’d think that women capable of managing hedge funds and overseeing property transactions are competent enough to choose what shoe to put on in the morning. While big-name companies are spending time constructing rules around what you’re wearing (when standards of acceptable appearance have shifted significantly over the years), attention is inevitably drawn away from what’s really important – how you’re performing.
If it’s any consolation, at least corporate women don’t have to wade through the murky, shark-filled waters of ‘biz casual’. We’ll leave that for another article.