I recently received critical feedback about my professional dress at work. Now let me take a step back and set the stage. I’m 35 years old, a mom and a working professional. Over the course of my life, I’ve had many jobs with varying dress codes. But I’ve never had a problem dressing appropriately for the workplace. In my mid-30s, I would definitely say I have a uniform – a set formula that informs how I dress each day for work. That uniform consists of cropped dress pants (the Sloan style from Banana Republic, to be specific), ballet flats (currently rocking a leopard print) and assorted tops, from flowing to fitted, but never scandalous.
A few weeks back, I was having a meeting with my supervisor when she shared feedback that she had received about my professional attire. There was reference to yoga pants and a t-shirt, but last time I checked, I’ve never worn athletic apparel to my office job. I know better. And I politely said so. There was also mention of not dressing for my title. Now, I should also mention that our dress code is not tiered, nor overly specific. There are no spelled out guidelines based on roles. From what I’ve seen exampled at my place of work, professional dress includes dress pants (with no exclusions by style or brand), blouses, sweaters, button-ups, etc. All criteria I deliberately and thoughtfully stay within. Unfortunately, there was no resolution at the end of our dialogue.
And since this conversation, I’ve been overthinking and dwelling on the topic of dressing for work… to an extreme. I’ve been wearing the same style of dress pants to work daily for years without receiving any negative feedback. Now that the temperatures have started to turn downward, I tend to wear sweaters. Some might be a bit trendier in cut or pattern, but nothing inappropriate or even remotely revealing. I’m also a strong believer that one can dress professionally without wearing a suit.
[In fact, I fully believe that my professional dress is appropriate for my age and role in the modern world. And everyone with whom I’ve shared my concerns seems to be surprised by this feedback, especially knowing how I regularly dress for work.]
Following this conversation, I’ve found myself obsessing over details that shouldn’t matter. I’ve found myself judging others who dress more casually than I but aren’t being criticized for it. And I hate this. I hate that what I wear and what someone thinks of it matters more than the quality of my work and the impact I am having on the organization. I hate that I’m being judged for dressing differently than others in the workplace. I hate that I feel pressure to conform in a world that is largely more casual than it once was, and claims to value difference over most everything else.
In this situation, I have felt like I’m being judged… first, for being younger than the majority of my co-workers and secondly, because I choose to be myself and find joy expressing myself sartorially. I wear quality clothes that fit me well. And while I work for a conservative organization, I am pretty conservative myself. I have worked there for a number of years and never before worried about the judgments of others on anything other than my work ethic.
In the midst of all of this this, I’m also a bit scared about what this means for the future. I’m raising impressionable children and I want them to grow up in a world where they can express themselves however they choose, as long as it’s also appropriate for the situation. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to professional dress. So much of what we wear is an extension of who we are and how we want to be seen in the world. I want to know my children are growing up in a world where they will be free to be themselves. Because what kind of world is this without self-expression?
While I am generally not a fan of the word hope, it is the word that comes to mind in this situation. I can’t help but cling to hope. I believe that this situation is unique, an anomaly, a one-off on my professional path… And if not, I know next time I will be better equipped to speak up for myself and have direct dialogue about the perceived issues, because I will have walked this road before.
This experience has left me with so much sadness and doubt, and I don’t want others to ever feel this way. I don’t want others to be judged for insignificant things. I don’t want others to feel pressure to be anyone other than who they are. So at the very least, I have decided to be the change in my own life by encouraging others, not cutting them down, as I walk forward in confidence.