“Working it”

We edit ourselves as we go about life, don’t we? Not in the wholly condemnable Photoshop way employed by magazines etc, but we do present ourselves differently depending on the situation. Sometimes we choose to. Other times, we have to.

Now with this in mind, I am about to tiptoe into semi-dangerous territory as I essentially attempt to dole out advice on what people – well, women – should and should not wear. To work. Yes, I am mad.

We (most of us) do, of course, have the right to dress in whatever bloody way we like. Feminism is about the right to choose, after all. But for God’s sake ladies – pull it together when you are at work.

Just as we can’t be as gobby as we perhaps are in our personal lives, we can’t really be as loud with the clothes we wear in the workplace also. There is a time and a place, as they say. Being greeted by a crop top and leather leggings makes me uncomfortable at, say, the doctor’s surgery reception. Everywhere else – fine.

I am aware I am coming across as a ragingly conservative anti-feminist, but hear me out. Like it or not, you cannot get away from the fact that how you dress does project an image, a message to others. And at work, the only thing you want to show off is your professionalism.

I feel (relatively) passionate about this subject. On my commute to work I see a lot of other people on their way to work. A lot of young women. And there are times when when I involuntarily tut out loud as I watch one of them topple into an office in Spice Girls-eqsue trainer wedges. Cringe as a I catch a glimpse of the pants of another under a too-short skirt. Too much denim. Sports wear (literally, like they are going to the gym). A lot of skimpy, downright uncomfortable looking outfits that just seem plain incongruous with the workplace.

Maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by decades of fashion magazines – you know what I mean, those hilarious work wear sections that I’m sure most of us just flick through, yawning. Forever  dispensing the same advice, the same rules. It’s all pencils, body-con, shirts, cardigans – basically stuff that makes you look like a sensible grown up in the day, but will let it’s hair down with you as you ‘transition’ into a raucous evening. Stuff that says you’re ‘serious’, ‘strong’ but still ‘feminine’. The language is silly but it does ring true. This style of dressing gives us the flexibility, that armour we need.

And far as I’m concerned, flashing the flesh hasn’t really got much to do with empowerment, other than that you have freely chosen to flash it. But, more importantly, what you have almost certainly chosen is to mark your card as someone who can mis-read a situation.

Look, I’m not deranged – I can see how in some workplaces a relaxed dress code, a controversial one even, is accepted. Welcomed, even. Hairdressers spring to mind (the kind where people have beards and piercings, tattoos a-plenty… not Nicky Clarke). Bars, too. Trendy shops. Some PR companies maybe? I don’t know.

But take my place of work, for example – a creative small business founded by an artist who went around for three years in her twenties wearing the same boiler suit everyday. So you can imagine the atmosphere is a little loose – we can pretty much wear whatever we like. However, we are also a training provider, working with vulnerable school children. So, whilst we are not exactly your typical school, we do have a duty to be good role models for the kids. We also have a responsible image to project to our partners in the schools. Plus, there are times we have to look even more grown up for the local authority.

We are also, coincidentally, an all-female team. Each one of us has to re-edit ourselves a bit, depending on who we’ve got coming in – we constantly have to meet other people’s expectations. And, as a tiny company competing with the ‘big boys’, we have to push even harder to be taken seriously. How we dress plays a part in this. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. It’s obviously especially true for women, but men do have the same standards and expectations to meet also – a man coming into a meeting in a vest and shorts wouldn’t be tolerated in most workplaces.

It would be nice to think we could all just go about life true to our own code, the whole time. But this is not a reality for anyone (well, maybe Kate Moss). Perhaps this is a good thing, anyhow – I imagine we would turn out to be a pretty selfish race if we all did exactly what we wanted to, all of the time.

This mini-rant is brought on by something that happened this week, at work. One of our female students came in wearing a sheer lace corset dress and stiletto heels.

Now, we have a policy where our students are treated as fellow staff members. They are ambassadors for the company. Plus, this girl is just 14 years old. It was genuinely frightening that she had thought it was acceptable to come in dressed in the way she was – that she even owns such clothes. After a frank talking-to about self-worth and choice (my boss actually likened the get-up to that of a prostitute’s…not the most pc of strategies but I could see where she was coming from…) we had to send her home.

It can be difficult enough being taken seriously at work as it is. At the end of the day, inappropriate clothes make you look out of place. Not in a ‘I’m asserting my individuality’ way. But in an ‘I’ve judged it wrong’ way. And this does nothing for selling your skills.

I feel quite uncomfortable writing this post. I know it will rankle people. I would probably find myself a little rankled if I wasn’t the writer. But I do maintain that you can stay true to yourself as you present different versions of this self to the world. It’s not about conforming, or changing yourself. It’s about making considered decisions.

I genuinely hope that, sooner rather than later, we get to the point where men and women are finally considered as equal in the workplace, and in society in general. In such a society I imagine men will be able to choose to come into work in a skirt and feel no shame or recrimination. Women could choose to come in wearing an embellished bin liner.

But I still wouldn’t get my hair cut there.

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