Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Humor me.
Close your eyes and imagine an executive at a successful business. Really picture this person in your head, and don’t filter yourself. There’s no wrong answer here, and this isn’t a test. But I would be willing to bet money that many of you imagined a tallish, dark-haired white man in a sharp suit, the archetypal Don Draper of the American mind. It almost goes without saying. He has an office. He squares his shoulders. He keeps a mug in his hand, a pen in his jacket, and a tie around his neck. He drives a nice car, goes to fancy parties, is a charismatic smooth talker, and is surrounded by men who likely look a whole lot like him.
That is the image of professionalism that—even after all these years and all the progress we've made—still dominates our imaginations, and it’s the image against which we’re all judged. It wasn't that long ago that any deviation from that was, if not shockingly alien, then at least considerably less than ideal. If you don’t cut the right figure, well, maybe you aren’t executive material. Thus, when women began to enter the workplace, it was important to strike a new pose (with a look unmistakably distinct from the image of wives and mothers), so we started wearing suits. Suits with skirts, suits with pants, and of course the power suit of the 80s, with its exaggerated masculine cuts. Striving to be taken seriously, women rising in the ranks of business would literally cloak themselves in masculinity, existing in a carefully balanced Goldilocks zone: just the right cocktail of masculinity and femininity to be competent but never threatening. In other words, “professional.”
Portraying professionalism is a razor-sharp tightrope that women have learned to walk adeptly—and in heels, of course. Polished, perfect, but not in a way that looks like you're trying too hard. Too little effort and we’re sloppy, too much and we’re frivolous, unserious, and shallow.
We’ve run into this problem headlong in recent months, as employees comfortably accustomed to working remotely must face in-person offices and the uniforms they typically require. For men, well, it can just be a matter of throwing on some chinos and a button-down, but for women, it means the whole shebang: the neat blouse, the tasteful necklace and earrings, makeup (but not too much), an uncomfortable underwire bra, and sensible flats if not out-and-out heels, all of which require a substantial investment in both time and money (never mind the fact that women also pay more for goods marketed toward them, creating what’s colloquially referred to as the pink tax). And that toll goes up exponentially for anyone who isn’t white, thin, cisgender, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive. Women going gray are expected to dye their hair, Black women are still pressured to relax their natural hair (despite hair relaxers’ potential link to cancer), and if you’re disabled, getting ready in more restrictive clothing can take a considerable amount of time.
Women, for the past few years, have had a kind of blessed liberation from looking “professional.” No longer did you need to be worried if your shirt was sheer under fluorescent lighting, or if your slacks did an inadequate job of hiding your panty line, or that your bosses might see your baby bump and conclude you just aren’t committed to the job anymore. Maybe you’re distracted. Maybe you’ve got your eyes on the exits, and you’re just killing time. If you’re a woman of color, you can add increased sexualization of your body to the list of things to worry about; is your butt just too big to look professional? Is your hair not straight enough?
These are just a sample of the myriad of things we’ve had to worry about if we hoped to be seen as professional in the workplace. I think we’re long overdue for a change that lets every woman succeed at work based not on what she wears, but on what she brings to the table.
The “suit” as we know it was defined by 19th-century fashion icon Beau Brummell, who emphasized slim silhouettes, straight lines, and tailored fits over the sumptuousness of 18th-century velvets and silk brocades. The mass production of clothing was beginning, and so tailoring (rather than the visual deliciousness of the material, or the amount of expensive fabrics) became the surest way to indicate one was a man of means. Black shades became de rigueur where once color reigned; a bit of dour Calvinism, for taste. We’ve spent the last two centuries trying to contort ourselves into being Beau Brummell. But none of us is Beau Brummell, least of all working women, and I cannot help but wonder how much human energy is wasted on our trying to be. The time, effort, and money required scales inversely with how close you are to that ideal, which, again, is some random guy from Regency England.
Not one woman reading this is that random guy from Regency England. We all have the bodies that we have, whether abled or disabled, tall or short, slim or stout, and it’s absurd to me that we’re judged not for the performance of our jobs but by the shirts we wear. The return to offices needs to be accompanied by a reimagining of what “professional” is supposed to look like. So let’s get to brainstorming!