The Unspoken Rules of Workplace Attire for Women

I don’t own a pantsuit, and most of the women I know don’t either. This one-time sign of passage into the professional world is less common now because the professional world today doesn’t always require us to dress, well, professionally.

As the American office moves away from business casual, the conversation about workwear for men and women has evolved. As workplaces become less rigid and work-from-home is an increasingly expected benefit, the lines between casual and inappropriate are fading more and more.

Loosening up our ties

Today’s casual workplace is one of many by-products of the U.S. loosening up culturally over course of the 20th century, according to reporting by The Atlantic.

Coworkers giving a group high five. Workplace Attire pbs rewire
Group high five for business casual!

In the early 1900s, people dressed up for everything—movies, restaurants, travel. But things started to relax in the 1950s, and work and church became the final frontiers of formal wear.

Business casual was the first step down from there, but then, in 1980s Silicon Valley, business casual became obsolete as well. Companies like Apple and Atari traded in the 40-hour, suit-and-tie work week for an 80-hour one that only required jean shorts and a T-shirt.

However, the rules of casual workwear for women were never parsed out. You’d think that women would have experienced relaxation in workwear at the same rate as men did. But, instead of absolving the workplace of fashion inequalities, casual culture just created new ones, experts say.

Shira Tarrant, an expert in gender justice issues and author of “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style, said there have been obvious changes to make women’s workwear more comfortable and on par with the comfort men enjoy. Shoulder pads, panty hose, heels—they’re are no longer hard-and-fast requirements. But change doesn’t always translate to equality.

“Just because it seems like dress codes have relaxed doesn’t mean we have gotten rid of sexist double standards,” Tarrant said.

An insidious double standard

On paper, men and women have the same freedoms at work, but research suggests women are judged more harshly on average for things that have nothing to do with their performance.

According to a 2016 study by researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Irvine, women who put more effort in to their appearance often make more money. On the other hand, a 2014 study showed that women who are perceived as putting too much effort into their appearance are seen less qualified. That means the line women are expected to walk is very fine.

People are more eager to make connections between a woman’s appearance and her other qualities, Tarrant said.

“If a male faculty walks in with mismatched socks and forgets to tuck his shirt in, the assumption is that he is so brilliant that he forgot to match his socks,” she said. “If a female does the same thing, the assumption is not brilliance. It is that she is a little bit weird and owns a lot of cats and is single.”

Group of young office workers pointing and laughing at those with post-it notes on their face. Workplace Attire pbs rewire
Let’s make Post-it Notes part of the dress code.

Kathryn Bingham, the CEO of leadership coaching company LEADistics, said women’s outfits still come up in high-level meetings in workplaces, but men’s rarely do.

There is also friction between participating in fashion and being constrained by it.

“For instance, if I straighten my hair, I am expressing myself and at the same time I am conforming to pressure that says straight, pulled-together hair looks more professional,” Tarrant said.

In an article for CNN Money, University of Chicago professor and co-author of the 2016 study Jaclyn Wong said that beauty also only helps women early on in their careers. Because beauty and competency are often seen as incompatible, women in leadership roles who are also traditionally attractive are often perceived as incapable in their jobs. The worst part is that these biases are often unconscious and difficult to address.

Navigating dress codes

Bingham said she often fields questions from women about workwear.

“Whatever the norm is for your environment, you need to find a way to take that style and make it your own,” she said.

She said to keep regional differences between dress codes in mind. Having moved recently from Santa Barbara to South Carolina, Bingham said she felt the difference immediately.

“What you wear in L.A. is different from what you wear in Dallas and then you go to Boston and then you get judged for that,” she said.

Equally as important is where you work. A startup and a law firm and a nonprofit organization will have different cultural norms. If you’re not sure, the best way to find out is to ask, Bingham said.

Although many women are still forced to worry about their workwear, Bingham said she’s hopeful there will come a time when it will no longer be an issue.

“Clothes do not equal competency,” she said.

Aditi Shrikant

Aditi Shrikant is a Brooklyn-based writer whose goals are to eliminate mansplainers along with the top sheet. You can follow her on Twitter @Aditi_Shrikant and Instagram @aditishrikant.