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FFB: Workwear, women and ageing

Girl inspector confers with a worker as she makes a a careful check of center wings for C-47 transport planes, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

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.

Working with the electric wiring at Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

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.

Woman putting on her lipstick in a park with Union Station behind her, Washington, D.C. (LOC)

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.

A noontime rest for a full-fledged assembly worker at the Long Beach, Calif., plant of Douglas Aircraft Company. Nacelle parts for a heavy bomber form the background (LOC)

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.

Annette del Sur publicizing salvage campaign in yard of Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

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.

So as usual, treating men and women differently is bad for everyone involved.

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?

Read the rest of this month’s themed posts on the FFB blog.

1930s-40s images are by the US Library of Congress

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rhianne 19 October 2011, 8:39 am

    Interesting topic Franca… I'm looking forward to seeing what people say. I've always been the youngest where I work, its pretty obvious, so I never let my age affect what I wear as I don't think it makes much difference. I work in a pretty casual place though so I'm normally in jeans, a smart top and a cardi… oddly I got more fuss from people when I was wearing my skirts and dresses, especially from the women here which I hated if I'm honest, I prefer to just wear what I'm comfortable in, put my head down and get on with my work.

    I just read your other post about ageing and I get ID'd all the time still and people think I'm younger as well.

  • Helen 19 October 2011, 11:42 am

    Currently I don't really have this issue as I wear a uniform, but eventually I will be a primary school teacher. I have been working in schools a couple of days a week and I noticed all the teachers seem to wear bright, cheerful, but also practical clothes. It's quite fun to be in an environment where individuality  isn't even commented on. This may have something to do with it being a very female work environment, and also because the kids love it!

  • Citizen Rosebud 19 October 2011, 12:02 pm

    What a fantastic theme for the Fem-Fash's to discuss. I may have to make the rounds and read the other posts.
    I think dressing "older" in the office really means dress for power. Putting more authority in your outfit- somber colors, more constructed silhouettes, sharper styling. An older woman ironically must fight harder to look youthful as opposed to her male colleagues because our power is tied up in our physical/sexual attractiveness. Which sucks but there you have it. I am glad to see the trend of "older" women be more comfortable in representing "themselves" and not their age, by being comfortable in their skin, confident and proud of their accomplishments (mother, wife, friend, professional) as well as their personal history and see it reflected in the new "power" dressing which less about age and more about confidence, in and out of the office.

    Citizen Rosebud

  • By gum, by golly! 19 October 2011, 2:58 pm

    Interesting topic. And one question I guess is how one personally defines what is 'older' and what is 'younger', 'conservative', 'professional', etc. I think of typical office-wear as more or less professional, not necessarily by age. So I've never tried to dress older or younger, but more or less professional. I currently work in quite a casual office environment, where it would be pretty out of place to be wearing a suit (for either gender). I typically wear a blouse, cardigan and jeans or trousers. I don't wear skirts or dresses as I have to hide tattoos, so that kind of limits some of my clothing choices.

    However I would never interview in such clothes; I have always interviewed in a suit (blazer, blouse, trousers, sometime adding a touch like a scarf around my neck). Except for my first job out of college when I guess I was too young/naive to know that was considered a good way to present yourself professionally in an interview. I have never thought of that as trying to dress older but trying to dress more professional, so I'd say age hasn't really played into how I dress in the workplace throughout my adult working life.

  • Cynthia 19 October 2011, 9:26 pm

    When I was first a professor (at a larger, more old-boyish university) and constantly got mistaken for a student, I wore a lot of long jackets.  Sometimes with short skirts, a la Cake.  Now I no longer have this problem and I feel more free not to try to set myself apart.  Everyone knows who I am and that I'm not a student.

  • oranges_and_apples 20 October 2011, 12:18 pm

    Yeah, if people know, then you can just do what you want. But my work is a huge organisation (6000 people) so I'm always meeting new people. Another thing I haven't mentioned so much is that after my concerted effort at grown up dressing, I went more casual again for a bit, because I felt that the things I was doing showed my level of seniority, so I didn't need the clothes so much. I go through phases of dressing more smartly. When I first started, it was in a training grade, which I was in for much longer than I should have been. One of my bosses was also super gradist, and wouldn't ever let me near the stuff I was clearly capable of and basically treated me like her admin monkey. So that may have contributed to the misconception of me as much as the clothes.

  • oranges_and_apples 20 October 2011, 12:20 pm

    That's good! There's definitely some jobs where you are more able to go and do your own thing than others. The people working in the big insurance companies with tight dresscodes are probably thinking of us government workers as having all the freedom. Or they think we're scruffy!

  • oranges_and_apples 20 October 2011, 12:33 pm

    What's interesting to me is why those things become recognised as professional/authoritative! I do wonder what it is about suits that makes people think the person is serious, and I find it odd that they (suits) still have this power to dazzle people. I personally try to judge the person's work much more than the clothes (within limits of course). And if the person a bit rubbish/lazy but are all suited and booted then it will actually make me think worse of them than if they were dressed casually as well as acting casually. I'll think style over substance. I'd prefer a smart, hardworking person in jeans any day!

  • oranges_and_apples 20 October 2011, 12:36 pm

    Haha, interview clothes! For my first promotion interview I wore the same as for the interview I came into the job for (black trousers, black shoes, and a smart shirt) and what I would consider on the smarter end of the scale now, and was given feebback to dress more smartly next time (I still got the promotion). By smartly, they meant wear a jacket. It's just all so odd. there's also this slightly mad person who is in charge of recuitment who after the last promotion board announced, loudly in an open plan office, that there was a positive correlation between those candidates that wore a skirt suit and those that passed. Well, I bucked that trend! She has also told me to always wear skirt suits because you 'sit better', but also told another girl to never, ever wear skirt suits cos they're old fashioned. Like I say, slightly mad.

  • By gum, by golly! 20 October 2011, 3:36 pm

    Oh my goodness, what gall to say that out loud!! I love how the "rules" apply differently to different people. Slightly mad, indeed.

  • oranges_and_apples 20 October 2011, 8:10 pm

    I remember when I did my Masters a lot of the PhD students would dress up for giving tutorials. I didn't though and the first time the students were very surprised when I started speaking away, so maybe I should have dressed up more. Probably wouldn't have made much difference though, I was a terrible tutor!

  • Bettina 23 October 2011, 4:49 pm

    I definitely dress up on teaching days. I look very young – once a student actually felt the need to question me about my qualifications! Can you believe it? It was a male student and I wonder if it had anything to do with my being a woman as well. Maybe he just wanted to try and see how far he could go. So somehow feel the need to put a bit of a distance between me and the students. When I walk into the lecture room, I want them to know I'm the instructor, not another student. On office hour days, I dress down a bit but still dress smarter than on any other day when I'm just doing research.

  • Cynthia 23 October 2011, 5:01 pm

    I've never had a student question my qualifications, but I did once have a male non-trad student, not much younger than me, who would lounge on the desktops at the back of the classroom and clean his fingernails with a big hunting knife and otherwise be weird.  Not in a particularly threatening way, just in an "I'm going to be the weirdo in your class, you gonna stop me?" way.  That was in my first year or so though.  I have since learned to enforce boundaries, which I am in the camp that there definitely should be, between professor and students.  These days my undergraduates are much better behaved.

  • E. Sedia 24 October 2011, 2:29 am

    Mannish dress (tailored suits) is used to convey power, I think, because men have been holding power traditionally. Also, lack of options for men is a double edged situation: on one hand, they can dress in a perfectly neutral way without anyone making assumptions about their sex lives, abilities, etc. It's not a coincidence that most cases involving dress code violation are about women: not only they are patrolled more strictly, but the impossibility of truly neutral can be vexing. OTOH, men and their limited options are a reflection of deeply entrenched gender roles, where caring for clothes is feminine, and nothing is a bigger crime in a patriarchal society than surrendering one's masculinity (hence 'girly' men are so viciously ridiculed). More evidence that patriarchy hurts everyone.

  • Charmaine 28 October 2011, 12:04 am

    I tried dressing older when first started my career at 20 years old, but it never felt like me. Then I tried half & half, if I worn work trousers I wore a more casual top, or if I wore jeans I added a blazer. But now in my mid to late 20s I have no need to prove myself to anyone, people know who I am & what I'm capable of. I don't need to try to convince them of my work maturity by wearing what they expect me to rather than what I feel best in. I think it's best to be yourself.

  • MANVI MITTAL 30 October 2011, 9:03 am

    Really nice topic and well written.

  • Jean of all Trades 9 November 2011, 5:59 am

    Great post! I never thought about it until now but in my 20s I dressed conservatively at work and tried to hide my age. I think looking/acting older was a way to gain credibility.

    Now I dress more freely and have a ton of work experience to back me up. Just today I was in a meeting with the “big wigs” and it’s the first time I didn’t feel the need to “prove” anything. I let my work speak for itself and figured I looked old enough to know what I’m doing.

    You’ve given me something to think about…

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