When I was in fourth grade, the principal made morning announcements over the intercom system. One morning in November, the announcement was particularly exciting for half the student population. Starting the next day, the girls were allowed to wear pants to school. Yes, up until that time, girls were required to wear dresses or skirts. This news was of great interest to me since I lived in the Midwest and during winter days my legs got exceptionally cold while walking to school.
The next day, most of the girls showed up to school wearing pants. There was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Wearing pants gave us more freedom on the playground, warmer legs when walking home, and a whole new set of norms for girls. Some of boys teased us about trying to be like them. However, even at that age, we had a sense that this was something big for all of us.
Fast forward a few years, and I am graduating and pursuing my first professional job. The popular magazine at that time was “Working Woman.” I subscribed and read each issue religiously, especially the section on “Dressing for Success.” The magazine suggested us working women dress like men in order to be successful. This meant a dark pant suit, a white shirt, and dark shoes. Any feminine accessory or color was discouraged. I took this advice to heart and made sure my closet was full of black, gray and navy blue clothes. The message was clear that in order to be successful we must pretend to not be women.
Slowly, the “dress for success” codes softened and allowed suit coats and skirts, some jewelry, a few more color options. Casual Fridays meant wearing flats instead of pumps, no jacket and perhaps a print blouse. While we were still advised to “act like men” it was acceptable to show that we were women. One of my employers even hired a color consultant to come work with the women on staff. This was seen as a way to help women develop in their careers. Personally, I was thrilled when it became acceptable to wear red, one of my favorite colors.
Recently, as I was helping my daughter shop for her new working wardrobe, I realized just how far we women have come. Not only do we have a wide range of dress codes available to us, we have the ability to represent ourselves as strong, successful women. We do not have to dress or act like men in order to be successful. In fact, today we struggle with being seen as “cold” if we dress too severely. Yet, appearance is still an important part of being a professional. The style in which we dress is a kind of non-verbal communication.
I have gone from wearing school girl dresses, to masculine pant suits, to daily choices of how I want to portray myself. It is an empowering responsibility. I aim to balance looking professional with showing my unique feminine side. I want to be a role model for younger women and also pay homage to how far we have all come. My goal is to dress appropriately so that I am judged by my professional skills rather than by my appearance.
We are still left with many questions when it comes to professional attire for women. We take into consideration the culture of our company, the day to day tasks we perform, and general comfort. We must remember, though, that how we dress is an important part of how we are perceived by others. What advice do you have for other women in our profession? Do you think what we wear matters? Share your thoughts.
Join Women on Adventures at the “Dressing Downtown” exhibition at the Rosson House Museum. This exhibition show cases the clothing worn at the turn of the century in Arizona. The event will be August 26, 2017. Watch for details!