Do we still need to dress for the job?

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A new report suggests that over half of women struggle when it comes to getting dressed for work. But what does an office dress code even mean, and is it a question we still need to be asking? Marisa Bate investigates

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By Marisa Bate on

We’ve all been there: standing in front of the mirror with 15 minutes to go before you need to be out the door. You’ve got a full day ahead of you, and a million things to think about, but something isn’t right. The next thing you know, you’re frantically pulling off what you’re wearing, clothes discarded round your feet like a jumble sale, until you find something that makes you feel like you.

This is what more than 50 per cent of us go through, according to a new report from luxury-workwear brand The Fold and London Business School, when trying to get dressed for work in the morning. One in 10 described the process as a “constant struggle”.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that dressing for work is more of a minefield than ever. Founder of The Fold, Polly McMaster, told me from her London showroom that it’s more “confusing, the lines are more blurred... You could be in your shared working space in east London, or about to speak to a lawyer in the City. It’s much more dynamic.” Plus, of course, the workplace has never been under such intense scrutiny. The Fold’s report throws up interesting conversations around the politics of dressing in the workplace in a #MeToo world. It considers whether or not dress codes still have any sort of place (when Mary Bara was the HR boss of General Motors Company, she ditched the 10-page clothing guide and replaced it with two words: “dress appropriately”). Our fairly new collective understanding of self-branding – thanks to our carefully curated online personas, and growing numbers of us becoming self-employed – brings new work environments and a new set of agendas. And, of course, there’s the brave new world of billionaire tech bros wearing Gap T-shirts to work. So, is dressing for success still a thing? And, if so, what does that look like?

The tangled web of internal politics around dress code perhaps mirrors our confusion around power and gender dynamics in the workplace more generally

The Fold’s research would suggest that it is very much A Thing: 98 per cent believe personal-dressing style can help them achieve certain objectives at work and 80 per cent say the right outfit can be crucial in creating the right impression, especially in an environment where women are in the minority. Not only do we believe that dressing is integral to our own success, one senior woman surveyed said she wouldn’t take what she considered poorly dressed juniors into a meeting. “If you don’t look the part, you won’t get to represent the company.”

The politics of dressing for the job, McMaster believes, isn’t about the actual garments, it’s about turning up prepared and ready to go: “If someone was thinking about giving you £1m, and you’d put together a really good presentation on your iPad, you wouldn't show up and suddenly discover that you'd run out of battery and that you don’t have your charger.” And “looking the part” can mean several things: “I don’t think it matters if you’re wearing a corporate suit or a smart dress or a pair of jeans and a nice shirt, you’ve taken the effort to think about the environment you’re in and give a particular impression.” But what about the grey-T-shirt-wearing overlords of  Silicon Valley? “It’s interesting, there’s still a sense of them portraying a particular image, like Steve Jobs and his black polo shirts, it’s very deliberate.” McMaster points out that women in tech at the top, such as Sheryl Sandberg and Nicola Mendelsohn, always look very smart, which could arguably be perceived as a reflection of how women have to further prove themselves in the industry. But, generally speaking, McMaster doesn’t believe there are particular rules for particular industries – it’s about showing you understand the room you’re in and the right way to respond to that.

The tangled web of internal politics around dress code perhaps mirrors our confusion around power and gender dynamics in the workplace more generally. Currently, from the feedback the report gathered, there tends to be several conversations going on and, unsurprisingly, some are more progressive than others. Constructive conversations around being smarter in the office are often directed by men but delivered by women, with men fearing what they can and can’t say. But often, when the message comes from a woman to a woman, it’s taken very personally. Other conversations, McMaster says, are just plain harassment. Respondents have had the following directed at them: “Wall Street Barbie”, “The Shoes” and “Are you wearing stockings under that skirt?”

Arguably, the growing conversations around women’s workwear, not to mention the gap in the market that The Fold caters to, reflects the increase of women in senior roles – but also that, when women take the top job, the question of what we wear at work and what it says about us becomes legitimised. McMaster mentions Jacqueline de Rojas, the president of techUK, who gives every member of her team – male and female – time with an image consultant. When interviewed for the report, de Rojas’s made it clear that a team needs to use every weapon to do the best job, and looking the part is in that arsenal. “She has the conversation up front, nobody gets left behind,” says McMaster. “That’s a really positive approach.”

So, looking the part, for McMaster and for many of her clients, levels the playing field. But, do you have to have a lot of money to achieve this? McMaster admits The Fold price points aren’t cheap, but she says a pair of beautifully made £150 trousers “will see you through season after season, year after year, and become a real go-to.”

So, what’s McMaster’s advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It turns out that a lot of the senior women they spoke to all get professional advice on this. Talk to sales women, try things on, get to know what feels and looks good on you. And she would like more women to help mentor women on the issue of dressing appropriately without losing a sense of self: “You don’t have to become bland because that’s not real either. It’s about making sure you are true to you but respectful of the situation.”

Click here for the spring workwear edit 


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Photo: Getty Images 
Tagged in:
fashion advice
fashion honestly
women at work
Marisa Bate

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