Is That What You’re Wearing? Dress Codes in the Workplace

I grew up in the Deep South, y’all, a place where looking good often overrides feeling good and a common bit of advice when you feel sad is “put on some lipstick and you’ll feel better.” As a child, I watched as my Mom put on a full face of makeup, washed/dried/styled her hair, and lived in high heels pretty much every day. Never mind the pantyhose, “power suit” with shoulder pads, and jewelry that was added to the mix Monday through Friday. My Dad wore a suit and tie to work for many years, but his ritual of getting ready each morning was not nearly so intense. His weekend style was and still is sporty, as though he could be ready to play golf at any moment.

As a child, I remember having clothes laid out for me before school – washed, ironed, and always in a matching color scheme. Some days that was fine with me, and some days I wanted to come unglued because I was so uncomfortable. My Grandmother, Nonnie*, was an amazing seamstress and made me dresses that were beautiful but that I would have rather gone naked than wear. (*Nonnie is still living – at age 92 she still sews, and her closet is now my favorite place to shop when I visit home.) My relationship to clothes has always been love/hate. When I am uncomfortable, I am miserable and can think of little else than getting whatever piece of clothing causing my discomfort off as quickly as possible. I’ve since learned that my clothing issue may be related to traits common in a Highly Sensitive Person. “When you were a kid, you were very picky about the clothing you wore, basing your choices on how things felt. For example, you may not have worn clothing made of itchy fabrics like wool, “footie” pajamas that covered your feet, or leggings, tights, or pants that tightly hugged your waist. Your parents may have had to cut the tags out of your clothing because they scratched you. You may still do these things today as an adult.”

One of the major sticking points in my relationship to clothes has always revolved around the Dress Code for work. I’ve worked at least 20 different jobs since choosing to go to work at age 14. Some places had uniforms, some allowed anything, some preferred “business casual,” and some might as well call what they allowed a uniform since it was so restrictive. I’ve heard arguments both for and against Dress Codes – “you work better when you’re dressed up” and “I am more productive when I’m comfortable.” I tend to agree with the latter, though I do wish uniforms were the norm. They’re not usually glamorous, but you know where you stand, and they tend to be tolerable if not 100% cozy. There’s no competition for “Best Dressed,” and more important, no tattletales running to the boss because someone wore flip-flops and “if they can why can’t we all?” and, and, and…. Enough already!

In higher education, the contrast in dress between a professor, staff member, student, and administrator is stark. Many professors I’ve seen tend to dress like students – very casual. Staff members, on the other hand, have to tread a fine line of appearing casual and approachable while still being professional. And administrators are in a category of their own – the traditional business outfit, suit-and-tie set. The real trick is dressing when you are both professor and administrator. The dual role of professor and administrator needs to approachable but commanding respect. How do you dress for this? Blazer and jeans perhaps?

Photo: Ann Taylor

No matter where your workplace falls on the Dress Code spectrum, there’s one issue that remains taboo: shorts. The prohibition of shorts in the workplace speaks to the inherent gender bias in today’s office. However, in the heat of summer, a woman can walk into work wearing a skirt or dress at or even above the knee and no one bats an eye. In my love/hate relationship with clothes, I’ve had to become comfortable wearing skirts and dresses so as not to melt from June to August. There have been several stories lately of men rebelling against this bias by wearing skirts to school and dresses to work. Boys at the Isca Academy in Devon (Exeter) protested the schools no shorts policy by borrowing their sisters and girlfriends school uniform skirts for the first day of school last year. Joey Barge of Buckinghamsire, England was sent home for wearing shorts to work during a heat wave so he changed into a dress, something perfectly acceptable for a woman. This prompted a change in policy from management. You can check out his story here. I love these stories. They put the absurdity of such a policy on display. Why, in our quest for equality at work, is such a simple thing still such a big issue? Are we afraid the men will go wild if we allow them to show their calves? Other than the “They don’t look professional” argument, I’ve yet to hear a rational argument for banning shorts in the workplace. If a woman can wear a dress or a skirt, regardless of how “dressy” she may look, why do we outlaw a man wearing say, a polo and knee-length dress shorts? Could this be related to the idea that women are expected to show more skin in general? Maybe the idea of a man in shorts seems too feminine, as though he were close to wearing a skirt. The idea of heteronormative masculinity leads me to believe that a man showing skin may not be taken seriously. Of course, I think this is crazy but I do believe it could be true.

What’s your preferred Dress Code? Are shorts acceptable for work?