This month’s Feminist Fashion Blogger‘s theme is Youth and Ageing. I’ve written about my own feelings of looking young and getting older a little bit before, so today I wanted to focus on how the pressure on women to look grown up and the pressure to be youthful interact at work.
The place I work in (in government) has no formal dress code. There is a pretty strong informal code against jeans and trainers, except on Friday (isn’t it weird to have casual Friday when you don’t have smart week) and because a lot of people have a lot of external meetings and/or meetings with the (government) ministers, the general standard of dressing is pretty smart and it definitely gets smarter as you move up the grades. But at the same time, loads of people, including many of the analysts (such as myself) who don’t have that much external contact, will be much nearer the casual end of smart casual. And I’m not aware of anyone ever having been told to change anything about what they wear.
I was 24 when I started working where I work, and I gather I looked younger. I wore pretty much wore my normal clothes to work, i.e. bright colours, casual tops etc., partly because I had no money for a new wardrobe and partly because I didn’t see the point in wearing businessy clothes when I wasn’t seeing any externals or seniors. But because I looked young and dressed young I was often mistaken for an admin person. It was pretty frustrating, so when I was finally given a promotion, I decided to take that as an opportunity to dress smarter. It was a conscious decision to make myself look older.
And I think that happens quite a lot, dressing smarter as a way of making oneself seem older/more experienced, and not just among women. Economists at my work are usually recruited to start straight out of undergrad, and quite a few of the male ones wear suits and ties every day. It looks pretty silly, and really only draws attention to their youngness, but the fact that its not successful doesn’t change the intention.
So both young men and women benefit from to making themselves look grown up/professional/experienced/older through wearing business smart clothes (there’s a whole question around why we think that grey tailoredness represents professionalism, but that’s a different topic). But for women it then becomes more complex. Because while age and its symbols are valued at work, youth and it’s symbols are valued in society in general for women, in a way that it isn’t for men.
It seems to me that professional women find themselves in a place, where they need to be traditional to be taken seriously, but god forbid they just go for the suit and shirt ‘uniform’ and actually look old. Old men are fine to show their age, but no women that’s 55 wants to look 55, or so society tells us. So the professional clothes need to be constantly balanced out by elements that represent youth and health and fun, like accessories and hair and make up.
There is a minister at my work whose hair and make up looks almost eighties (think Margaret Thatcher: heavy foundation, solid hair) and everyone keeps going on about how awful she looks, could she not change her hair and doesn’t she realise she makes herself look old? Honestly, this conversation comes up all the time and some people seem to be quite offended by her failure to maintain a pretty and youthful look. And she does look older than her early 40s age, but honestly, who cares? She’s a cabinet minister and everyone knows that the stress of government ages you no end, just look at Tony Blair.
I wonder if the popularity of huge array of blogs aimed at helping professional women be to look fashionable in an otherwise conservative work environment, to express themselves while following dress codes, to be polished and classy, but also ‘sassy and full of colour’ can be interpreted in terms of the need for us to square the circle of looking experienced and youthful at the same time.
This whole age thing is of course wound up with general social expectations for women to be defined through their appearance, and to be expected to invest effort in their looks, while men’s appearance is secondary to their actions and thoughts. And one could argue that at least women have the option of expressing their personality and creativity through their clothes while wearing business suits in a way that men don’t. The lack of variety in men’s clothes even in high fashion is limiting to men, and men’s assumed disinterest in their appearance can create a situation where anyone that does try to inject a bit of quirkyness is seen as odd. And the semi-admiring/semi-disparaging comments Dave gets about his less traditional clothes every now and then from otherwise enlightened people are a testament to that.
What do you think? Have you ever consciously dressed older or younger at work? Or does age not enter into decisions about professional dress for you?
1930s-40s images are by the US Library of Congress