Workplace fashion disasters

mean girls


We’ve all been there. The skirt that split halfway through the working day. The blouse you only realised was see-through when colleagues fidgeted when addressing you. The boots you finally twigged weren’t a pair when a client kept their eyes to the floor for the entire way meeting.

Even in workplaces without a formal dress code, there are rules governing clothing, and woe betide those who break them. At least, that’s according to a London law firm that last week withdrew a blogpost one of its trainees had written ‘advising’ graduates on how to dress appropriately. The legal world can, of course, be rather archaic, so adages like ‘no brown in town’, which sounds more Jane Austen than The Good Wife, can probably be consigned to history. Some of the advice, though obnoxious, was rather useful.

The blog suggested young male trainees buy suits in Marks & Spencer in patterns like twill, tweed or herringbone, and restrict shirts to white, blue or pale pink for Fridays. Dull, perhaps, but solicitors are supposed to look reliable. Female trainees were told to buy ‘expensive’ black suits in shapes that suit them. Suits are difficult for women, because our shapes vary so much, so this, too, is good advice.

After that, though, it verged on the silly, not to say sexist.

For example – warning men not to wear those coloured shirts with white collars ‘because you’re not an estate agent from Chelmsford’. Now, to the best of my limited knowledge of English geography, Chelmsford is in Essex, therefore the coloured shirt with white collar is a symbol of TOWIE tendencies I’ve always thought they were a bit Gordon Gekko, so while the reasoning is snobbish, I’m all for this one.

Women should avoid red bras, apparently. Well. If you’re craning your neck to see your female colleagues’ bras, perhaps you’re the one with the problem. Underwear is just that – under your other clothes – so nobody should be seeing it anyway. Unless you work at a fashion magazine, and are wearing the red bra ironically with a pair of Doc Martens and a net curtain. Then it’s just edgy. And most Irish people don’t really ‘do’ edgy. So that’s that looked after.

Unsurprisingly, women are in for a worse time in this blog. They’re advised never to wear trainers during their walk to work – surely this is beyond the bounds of workplace advice, and certainly contrary to medical advice? And they’re told to wear nude heels that ‘make their legs go on forever’. This advice is for solicitors, by the way, not soliciting. In case you, or they, needed a reminder.

This, of course, contradicts the lengthy discussion of women’s underwear (no red bras, no VPL, no bras with bumpy, ‘distracting’ lace that might upset the poor men) by bringing the attention right back to their bodies.

And to the fact that this is always a tougher battle for women. Women are expected not just to look neat and professional, but fashionable. Just look at Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton’s treatment by the press for their ‘unflattering pantsuits’. They are unflattering, but looking sexy isn’t really the point. What’s the betting Bill and Gerhardt Schroeder could’ve worn the same suit á la Mr Bean for every day they spent in office, with no comment?

The professions make life relatively easy – keep it boring. One legal friend points out that wearing anything except grey or black in court makes you a target for the judge – probably better to stay under the radar in a boring black suit, then.

It’s more difficult, though, when you get away from traditional office jobs. In most creative or tech jobs, anything goes bar an actual tracksuit, although flesh is a no-no. One techie acqaintance reports a midriff ban being inserted into a HR document after a new employee showed up in a belly top.

Female teachers and childcare workers encounter the biggest dilemmas. Nothing bright, nothing tight, nothing, nothing short, nothing low – they’re even taught that mantra in college.

Kneeling down to wipe one four year old’s nose while carrying a second, wailing one, and holding a third one’s dripping ‘painting’ calls for nothing short of overalls. Sadly, overalls are not an option. Teachers must look professional for parents, be wipe-clean, able to bend over without showing any flesh, and wear fabrics able to absorb everything from paint and chalk to bodily fluids.

Being a secondary school teacher must be worse still – 25 pairs of Mean Girl eyes scrutinising everything, from head to toe. Even the mantra can’t cover all the judgements those kids are going to make.

The shoes – one of my teachers regularly wore odd ones, and not for our amusement, although they generated quite a bit of it; the mad hair; the VPL; the bra line.

A teacher I know remembers turning beetroot at the top of a classroom when her ‘sophisticated’ hold-ups (you know the things, tights that go up to thigh level and are ‘magically’ held on by a plasticky rim) began to race down her legs. Men, you can’t imagine what this feels like.

You’d like to think adults have moved beyond the Mean Girls phase, but, it turns out, even at the highest levels of the career ladder, clothing is everything. It marks you out from the crowd – not always a good thing – and one wrong choice can leave you forever tarnished.

Better go and buy a few suits, then.

From The Herald, 14/10/13


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