Answer me this question: at what length, exactly, does a skirt become unprofessional? At what point, exactly, is a shirt “too low cut” for work? And why is it, while we’re on this subject, that dress codes are gendered in a way that necessarily makes it so that anyone who is not a cis man is perpetually forced to question whether or not they are dressed acceptably for work?
Before anyone gets in my face about the woes of trying to get dressed as a cis man: please do not. If you have never looked at your wardrobe and pulled out a button down shirt and wondered “can I wear this to the office without it being a problem”, this post is not about your struggle.
The reality is that dress codes are just another form of body policing and the policing of gender presentation and, often, female sexuality. I’ve written on this subject before when discussing high school dress codes, but the truth is, social expectations surrounding clothing is problematic in the workplace as well. To be perfectly clear: professionalism is a social construct, which means that it’s socially enforceable, but it’s not inherent to the practice of business. What’s professional in LA may not pass in New York, and what’s professional in the West may not be correct anywhere else. Writing for Everyday Feminism, Carmen Rios explains that professionalism as a social construct values white maleness above all else: what we think of as “professional” defaults to a masculinized, female-shaming, middle class ideal of what it means to participate in the labor force.
There are a couple of reasons this is true. First of all, in order to navigate the often unspoken rules of professional dress and behavior, one needs a certain level of social capital in the form of a middle class knowledge base as to what “professionalism” looks like. This means that if you have never worked in, or seen your parents or neighbors work in, a “traditional” work environment (read: an office environment), you might not realize exactly what the rules are. That’s how you get problems like the scene in Erin Brokovich where Julie Roberts’ character is chastised for dressing unprofessionally, in short skirts with low-cut shirts. But the other problem is that those are the clothes that the character owns, and as a single working-class mom, she can’t really afford a full wardrobe makeover just to take on a new job. Often, in order to break into the world of the traditional 9-to-5, you have to come from it, because “business” clothes tend not to be the cheapest things to get ahold of-~-and, fine, a moment of recognition for white cis men who come from socioeconomic backgrounds that make suits prohibitively expensive.
But the other problem is that the rules are complicated and reinforce gender-specific expectations that are problematic for genderqueer, gender non-conforming, trans, and cis-female individuals (in varying ways). I’ll start with the perspective of cis women, because as my lived experience, I know it best, but I’ll acknowledge right off that it’s even harder if you fall into any of the other categories I just mentioned. If you have long legs or large breasts, good luck finding traditional work attire that fits “appropriately”: from button-downs that gape open or pull too tightly, to skirts that aren’t quite long enough, it can be annoying enough to try to manage getting dressed without worrying where on the spectrum of professionalism something falls: is it business formal? Business casual? How casual is too casual for business casual? V-necks are theoretically okay, but they can’t be too low-cut; where is that line? Clothes don’t have to fit like potato sacks (in fact, that’s probably “unprofessional” too), but heaven forbid something is “too tight”-~-and I’m not sure where that line is, either. Add in a racialized element regarding the fetishization of women of color, and you have an extra layer of problematic when non-white women try to get dressed for work. Oh, and there’s also always the problem of pockets.
To be clear, when women dress “unprofessionally”, what we usually mean is “in a way that can be sexualized”. It’s the same philosophy that guides school dress codes: if women dress in a way that could be deemed sexual, then men “might be distracted” and it’s “inappropriate”. While I’m at least willing to acknowledge that it’s not as though men are being allowed to show up at work in short-shorts, the specific issues around gendered dress codes still make it more likely that women will fall out of line and be punished, either socially or by management. And the solution isn’t necessarily to dress in an overly masculine way; Rios points out that this, too, can have social consequences in the workplace.
This issue of navigating gender expectations falls even more harshly, however, on those who do not conform to the gender binary. In a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Why I’m Genderqueer, Professional, and Unafraid”, genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia writes:
For years, professionalism has been my enemy, because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased. In the workplace, the gender binary can be absolute, unfaltering and infallible. If you dare to step out of line, you risk being mistreated by coworkers, losing promotions or even losing your job. And if you are discriminated against for being transgender or genderqueer, you may not even have access to legal recourse, because in many states it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gender non-conforming employees.
This is all too true, and frankly, completely unacceptable. A college teammate of mine recently lost their job as a result of this same discrimination, and though they are seeking legal recourse, it is unclear what will happen. Only 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, have employment discrimination laws that protect individuals on the basis of gender identity, and clothing is a big part of one’s ability to “pass” or otherwise display gender identity, impacting interaction with those laws.
Ultimately, both our behaviors and our presentation at work are expected to fall in line with socially derived expectations that default to a power structure that favors white, middle class, cis-gendered men. At the end of the day, though, everyone’s work, abilities, and ideas should be respected, and every person should be respected, regardless of how they are dressed. Respectability politics are just another way to punish those who aren’t privileged enough to know how to play the game, and they’re hurting us socially, politically, and yes, economically, as we lose talented people who are pushed out of the system by oppressive gendered expectations.
What’s more important, really: if I can do my job, or I can successfully conform to a dress code that no one even bothers to spell out because it’s just assumed that if you’re in this office, you’re already privileged enough to know what to do?