It's Fashion Week in New York, and, amazingly, I actually got into one of those fabled tents. For a legal journalist, that's no mean feat. Thanks to Fordham law professor Susan Scafidi, director of Fordham's Fashion Law Institute, I got to see the fall collection by Bibhu. His clothes (pictured right) are glam and sporty at the same time--lots of asymmetry, deep back cuts, and contrasting fabrics. But as a blogger for the legal set, I kept thinking: How do you wear that to the office?
Put another way: Can you be a fashionista without undermining your professionalism? The problem, says economist Sylvia Ann Hewitt in the Harvard Business Review, is that it's "one thing to grasp the importance of looking professional, and quite another to interpret the ever-shifting notions that define a professional appearance."
Hewitt suggests that we--women, in particular--are insecure about how we look, and secretly want/need to be told what to wear at work. In HBR, she bemoans the fact that UBS, after issuing an excruciatingly detailed 43-page dress guide last year, retracted it after being mocked for micro-managing its employees. As a result, writes Hewitt, "a lot of up-and-comers badly in need of grooming guidance simply won't get it."
The Wall Street Journal, which also commented on the UBS manual, offers a peek at the content: There was the usual advice about wearing dark gray, black, or navy blue (they "symbolize competence, formalism, and sobriety"), warnings about skirt length (they should hit the middle of the knee), and the plea for "light makeup" (foundation, mascara, and "discreet" lipstick).
Then, UBS offered these tidbits:
• Don't wear "designer stubble" or "excessive facial hair" if you are male (or female, I suppose).
• Do wear timepieces, "since wristwatches suggest reliability and great care for punctuality." But don't wear earrings if you are male.
• Don't eat garlic or smoke cigarettes to avoid imparting bad odor.
The manual is apparently as detailed as The Joy of Cooking, including advice about hair coloring (UBS advises against it for men). The guidelines are "a bit over the top," writes Hewitt, but perhaps necessary. In HBR, she reports that in her research, she found that survey respondents (1,000-plus males and females who work in large corporations) thought appearance was a key issue that "contributed to, or detracted from, 'executive presence (EP).' "
But women, she writes, particularly "believed that dressing the part was a vital factor in attaining success." Hewitt writes: "Half the women surveyed and 37 percent of the men considered appearance and EP to be intrinsically linked; they understood that if you don't look the part of a leader, you're not likely to be given the role."
Oh dear. Frankly, I was hoping that women had gotten over these types of insecurities about appearance. But apparently not. And who can blame them? Women are still fielding a lot of mixed messages: Be substantive, but be sure to look attractive. Be businesslike, but don't be de-sexed. Wear gray and blue, but flash some color.
Sometimes, preparing for work seems almost as challenging as the work itself. The dress, the suit, the hosiery, the hair, the makeup, and all those accessories (jewelry, scarves, etc)! So much easier if someone just issued us some "uniforms."
But are office dress codes the solution to these anxieties? And readers, are women really that lost about what we wear in the office?
Related post: Tell Her She Looks Ridiculous
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.