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Fashionistas on the Leash

Vivia Chen

February 17, 2011

Photo 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 [email protected]


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Children used to be brought up to know what it's appropriate to wear for different occasions. Now good judgment about appropriateness has disappeared. This hurts women lawyers, and it hurts their clients, too. No one who has seen a woman lawyer appear in court in a peasant dress or march into the Harvard Club wearing platform shoes and with uncombed hair, would say, "Gosh, what a great fashion statement." Ms. Hewitt is right, these women lawyers need help!

Uniforms and strict dress codes are patronizing. We women lawyers are professionals – we don't need to be told by Big Brother exactly how to earn respect at work, and that includes earning respect through our appearance. Each lawyer needs to decide what's best for her own career and what aligns with her personal working and fashion style. And if a particular lawyer makes bad fashion decisions, she would be confronted with the same consequences as if she made a mistake in a contract or something. She would make adjustments accordingly and learn from her mistakes. On the other hand, a strict dress code may keep those of us who have a strong fashion voice from being able to shine professionally through our appearance.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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