working clothes: how your job changes how you dress

earlier, when was at work, i was listening to some tape i gathered earlier this week of some sound art installations. “what is that sound?!” i ask myself as i hear a high pitched squeaking.

my colleague listens back and guesses, “was there a mouse around?”

“no,” i insist. “there weren’t any mice around. it’s a sound art installation! that’s not part of it… it distracts your ear too much though.”

my colleague agrees, “yeah, you can’t use that.”

i know it’s not useable. but if only that squeaking weren’t there it would be great! disappointed, i think back… was i holding my microphone correctly? which one was i using? where was i aiming? what was that squeak?!

then, it hits me.

my shoes.

my awesome black and white dapper shoes i bought in mexico city two years ago.

they are the stylish source of the squeak.

black and white outfit worn by garconnierei’m practically kicking myself listening back to my tape. yes, those shoes looked good. yes, when i got dressed that morning i chose flats instead of heels, because i wouldn’t make too much noise walking around the gallery space. but i forgot that these shoes squeak, and didn’t even begin to think they’d ruin my sound.

it’s alright, though. i found sound from later on where they don’t interfere too much… but it was still a bit more work than it needed to be, simply because what i was wearing interfered with my job (which is often gathering sound and information).

this brings me to my next point: since i started working in radio more frequently, there have been a few very clear changes in what i wear. there are the more explicitly practical changes that have happened; i’m a big jewelry wearer, and i own more pairs of earrings than i can count. i feel like a beautiful locket or necklace can really make a boring outfit really bold, and i love when people ask me about them and i get to share the stories behind them.

when working in my daily life though, i’m often wearing headphones. listening back to tape, cutting it, recording. when i’m not, i’m often on the phone, making calls, trying to find stories or guests.

slowly but surely, earrings have migrated their way out of my daily wardrobe. i tried with all different pairs, studs, dangly ones, light-weight… but every time they interfered and made their way from my earlobes to my desk drawer. now, they feel like a “special occasion” type accessory… which is part of why i wore them everyday! to conquer that silly “daytime/evening” outfit crap! bummer.

necklaces? again, much like the squeaky shoes, they can make too much noise. bangles are out of the question.

nov 20thfunky pins on chunky old man cardigans? hrm. not sure. will people be more distracted by what i’m wearing, than what i’m asking?

this brings me to my next point. it’s not so much just accessories that either prevent me from doing my job comfortably, or effectively… it’s also how my clothing choices have evolved. depending on what story i’m covering, i’m increasingly conscious of how i want to – or should – present myself.

february 24th - detailspress conference at city hall? let’s go for the tied and true black and white. yeah, sure it’s a white dress shirt i’ve worn since 7th grade with stains from high school art classrooms, but i look professional in it. part of this is obviously that i’m still kind of a rookie, and that i’m a young woman who wants to be taken seriously. a fun pair of tights can be my way of putting a little spin on what i would otherwise see as a boring conventional outfit.

reporting on the occupy quebec protest in november? get your slick looking coat out of the closet, some practical gloves, warm clothes. don’t forget, you don’t want to be mistaken for one of the prostestors, you slightly reformed hippie activist! but OH SHIT. but you get assigned randomly very early one morning, because there’s a big change all of the sudden and you need to go RIGHT NOW? forget one glove, wear your ridiculously over the top fur trimmed coat, look kind of ridiculous. get photographed and be in the background of all the newscasts. feel awkward.

overall, it’s nothing to lose sleep over. but i’d be lying if i said it’s not something i think about before i get dressed in the morning to go to work. everyone does it to some extent, but i’m more interested in tackling the shift of someone who plays with fashion and how it relates to their (gender, sexual, class or political) identity, and how they feel they should dress depending on their line of work.

four panels from jenna b.'s interview clothes strip. click the image for the rest.

some of these are ideas that j. bee and i touched on earlier this summer, when talking about why we looked “good,” and the frustrations of dressing for job interviews. dressing “professionally” for the first time can sometimes feel like you’re trying to fool people. if you’ve had a punk phase, or followed any sort of subversive community’s fashion decree, you might feel like you’re selling out to “the man” by dressing like the “suits.” i think i felt that a bit more when i had my very first “professional” job, but there is definitely a balance to be had of still feeling like you’re dressing in a way that is “you” all while still being taken seriously. sometimes, that means keeping my neon 1960s mod dresses, sexy lace shirts, sequined skirts, and funky tights at the back of the closet (or just until friday night).

of course, i’m not the only one who has wondered about these weighty questions. i shared this article on tumblr a while back, but it definitely deserves reposting here. Q & A with dean spade on Queer Couture is mainly a discussion about the ten years since spade’s influential essay “Dressed to Kill, Fight to Win” for an ANTI-FASHION SHOW zine in 2002. what really struck me about spade’s reflections was how his work life affected how he presented himself, and his own struggles with that. it’s something i’ve been increasingly conscious of in the past two years, as i made the shift from student, to unemployed, to working in a somewhat more conventional “career” driven environment. here’s some of what spade had to say:

A big influence on my day-to-day fashion experiences is my job as a law professor.  When I worked at SRLP, I had to go to court and deal with government agencies and officials, and I wore a suit for those things, but my working space at SRLP was an office full of trans and gender non-conforming people.  Even though we all looked different from each other, I still felt affirmed while in the office, like I was among people sharing an oppositional approach to many appearance norms and thinking politically about how we look.  It was a big shift to start working in such a straight, upper-class, gender normative environment. It’s a drag to manage my perceptions of other people’s perceptions of me.  It’s exhausting.   I think that is why reading the tone of this old essay feels good—its affirming and relieving.

Because I spend so much time now in a very professional, gender normative work environment, I have to remind myself that I love weird people, I am weird, I want to be weird, and being normal is truly horrifying.  I’m thinking of that experience of seeing someone on the street or on the bus who is working some kind of weird, non-normative look and feeling some delight and relief, like the person’s existence is making space for you. I have often felt that way when I see other visibly queer or visibly trans people, or other kinds of rule-breakers.  It’s beautiful to see people taking those risks and its wonderful to have those moments of mutual recognition with a stranger in the midst of a hostile world. I think I appreciate those moments now more than ever, as I wander the hallways confronted with the gray business suits of professors and the university sweatshirts and Uggs of students. Sometimes I’m just blown away when I look around a classroom of 80 students and almost all the women have long hair and almost all the men have short hair. The level of norm abiding and of standardization should shock us.  It suggests the significance of the processes people go through to decide to make major departures from those norms.

my relationship to fashion in the workplace is quite different from spade’s for a variety of reasons, but i can relate to the crux of the argument. once a wierdo, always a wierdo. and if fashion was the one way you feel like you can express that wierdness, it can feel wrong to have it taken away from you… even if you’re the person taking it away, to some extent. for the most part, i’m still able to dress however i choose, and have felt lucky enough to have not had any rude comments made about some of my funkier outfits. i’m also thinking back to the first time i had to wear work uniforms in my early, crappier jobs, and how it encouraged me to be more adventurous every hour i didn’t have to spend behind the counter. quit your rambling, julia! you know i could go on and on about this…

i’m curious to know of your own thoughts and feelings about this, and how this varies from field to field. i’m sure the opposite happens, as well – where more straight-laced folks might feel pressure to dress funkier, say, if you work in an organic health foods store but like to wear a suit and tie. what have your experiences been with your sartorial choices and your field of work?

let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “working clothes: how your job changes how you dress

  1. Mostly my work concerns are about whether something will be ruined if I spill beer on it, or whether dudes will leer at my ass when I’m moving kegs around.

    I… need a better job, hey?

  2. Ms Dorothy Damage

    I’m unemployed, but the field I was in and want to be in again (international HE) is more on the conservative side. I have had to rethink how I look and what I want to represent, which has been strange for a former punk and general weirdo. Entering the later stage of my 20s has caused a slight sartorial crisis in that I want to retain this important aspect of my identity, but I also want to be taken seriously by colleagues and students (esp. as I go out on interviews). Part of this also deals with the fact that as a black woman with natural hair, I already stand out -and not always in a positive way- in a field that is mostly white and middle/upper class. It continues to be a struggle for me to dress appropriately while still remaining proud of my identity, though lately I have found that my hairstyles and glasses can help me feel as though I am subverting some of the more conservative aspects of my clothing.

    Really good post. And I empathise with dean spade- it is very shocking if you work with students to see how gender normative and conservative their environment is (and as feminist, it is beyond depressing sometimes).

    • oh wow, i love your comment. i definitely relate on the struggle to still dress “for work” but the desire to still have pride in who you “really” are, and how you’d really like to present yourself. one thing i didn’t really touch on is how age, size, and race really also play huge roles in what we’re expected to present ourselves as. i’ve talked to other friends ad nauseum about how women often already have an uphill battle in a lot of fields (law, business) to want to be taken seriously… and sometimes have to play a part that is not really “them” to have that happen.

      i think far too few of us are aware of the performative nature of work clothes, and if we were more conscious of it, it might be a step in acknowledging the power fashion has more seriously in general.

      i used to think it was simply the getting older aspect of your twenties that can be jarring, but it’s all the changes that go along with it. we forget that as teenagers and young people, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to dress however the fuck you want… but past a certain point, you might get looked down upon.

  3. Thanks for this. I’ve been spending unhealthy amounts of time thinking about clothing and identity recently, and every once in a while I forget that our personal narratives matter. (I, too often, like to look for larger frameworks and bigger theories when I am confused about something, rather than focus on how I feel.)

    Anyway, I used to work in fashion retail and had to look “fashionable” at work. There was a lot of pressure to conform to not just what was fashion-forward at a given time, but to the general aesthetic of the fashion house I worked for. A couple of years in this environment had a huge impact in the way I dressed, both at work and in my free time. I guess I have always been easily influeced, although I don’t know how I pulled off not wearing make-up at work back then. These days I am self-employed and my style have changed a lot. I’ve played with vintage looks, and I’ve gone back to menswear-inspired styles that I have loved for a long, long time. I am still at a loss when I try to figure out what my clothing choices mean in terms of my identity. I try to reject the link between identity and clothes, but I’m starting to think that it’s a no-go.

  4. I think about this a lot too. I’m a grad student, which in some ways affords me a lot of freedom in what I wear; part of my job is teaching, though, and I’m always extremely (self-)conscious about choosing clothing that will help me be taken seriously by my students, and that isn’t too provocative (sexually or otherwise). Also, last year I helped to plan an academic conference and when the conference rolled around I suddenly panicked when I realized that 90% of my clothing doesn’t actually qualify as “professional,” at least to my mind. It’s so funny because on any given day I am usually totally OVERdressed, but I was thinking about that “dress for the job you want to have” maxim, which in this case is “professor,” and was completely freaking out because all of my pencil skirts are either too tight or are ripped or stained (either because they are thrifted & like that when I bought them, or because I’d dropped something on them or torn them because I’m clumsy as fuck) and most of my dresses are full-skirted and floofy and OMG floofy is not professional right?? and my fancier clothing is TOO FANCY and my non-floofy dresses are TOO SHORT and HOLY FUCKING SHIT WTF AM I GOING TO WEARRR. I did end up figuring it out and I think I looked ok but it caused me so much anxiety; and the thing is I spent hours and hours and HOURS putting work into this conference both before and during but here I am flipping out because if my dress is too poofy or short all of that work will be disregarded? and the paper I give at the conference will not be taken seriously? Ok this comment is getting super long so I’m gonna stop but all this to say I FEEL YOU and it is something I spend a lot of my time thinking about.

  5. oh my god julia, i have so many thoughts about this. i hope we can talk more about this when we see each other in person next week. I just came back from Dean Spade talk about his latest book. I wanted to go up and ask him some questions about fashion and related thing.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that I dress these days. Especially since dying my hair. a lot of the ways that i have dressed in the past has been more to do whether or not I would be read as a guy and if i could pass as a guy. But as I kind of figured out, and as Dean mentioned in his article that whatever way you try to conform to what a specific gender is ‘supposed to look like’ there are so many other things that inform how gender is read. How can I expect to be pronouned properly when I’m mostly amongst straight white middle upper class peers? And even, what, as a trans person of colour, kind of gender am i reaching for to be read? Also given the fact i go to art school, i think that how i dress isn’t that much of a matter of importance….

    anyways, i’ve been thinking about what you are writing about… i’ve been really into colour theory lately … will tell you more lately. I just talked to someone who sees fashion as an anarchist tactic of resistance? Ha, will tell you more later!!

  6. jasmine caron

    thank goodness I’m a nurse! although we can’t wear jewelry (or aren’t supposed to, i don’t even wear my engagement ring for fear of antibiotic resistant bacterias getting stuck in it) and are supposed to tie our hair back and wear white shoes, we can still be judge on the color, print or shape or scrubs we are wearing and sweater that we may wear overtop. I don’t even wear make up anymore because by the end of a 12 hour shift it just makes things worse. sometimes I wear colorful nail polish but I worry about how it much make me look to a patient or their family in critical situations.

    I’ve been wearing uniforms since I was 13 and starting working at a pizzeria and went to catholic high school, then went directly into nursing. maybe this is why my style is often so conservative outside of work?

    • why “thank goodness” my darling? do you find it nice to not have to think about what you wear to work, or limiting? it’s really interesting to think about how much our work defines so much of our lives, right down to what outfits we wear when we’re NOT at work!

      i was thinking about how this relates to my experience with uniforms, too, because that’s often something people would say when we told them we went to catholic school. i wonder if i’m more interested in what fashion says about me post-high school because i didn’t get to play around with it that much IN high-school, you know? 1st year university, i definitely tried a lot of new things clothing wise.

      P.S. YOU GUYS THIS IS MY AWESOME SISTER!!!

  7. Kath

    I work as a paramedic so my main sartorial challenge for work is making sure I’ve got a clean uniform. That said, when I first started as a student paramedic, I was a bit scruffy and much more androgynous – I had cropped hair, tattoos and no makeup. I definitely stuck out, and patients/relatives would sometimes mistake me for a boy. Since qualifying I’ve started making more effort to dress neatly, and this has coincided with becoming more femme in my ‘real’ life too. My hair’s longer now, and I wear it neatly pinned back (although with a blonde streak and a rolled quiff). I also wear liquid eyeliner and a bit of mascara. I do still have large, visible tattoos and I wear steel toecapped boots with a Casio F-91W watch (total queer signifier, at least in my scene), so I think my bent punk heart comes across to people tuned into that.

    Partly the shift in my work style fits in with a shift in my outside-of-work style, but part of it is about being taken seriously as a small, young-looking woman working a conservative, male environment. Sometimes I feel like I’ve sold out but mostly I’m happy femmeing it up.

  8. Ghostpaw

    Long time lurker here, hello :)
    I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot recently, because I’m about to make a major career change from being a scientist in hospital lab to being a psychotherapist. At first I was all excited that I’d be able to choose my clothes based less on physical practicality (we’re not supposed to wear heals, or have any skin bare below the knees/ bottom of the lab coat), and things like nail varnish and dangly jewellery which are utterly verboten in a hospital. Given I’m getting more femme as I go on, the prospect of skirts and heals and shinies was appealing.

    But then I realised that I was going from a back room job to a customer facing one. This means two thing: Firstly, no more jeans, sneaks and witty t-shirt days when I can’t be arsed; Secondly, I’ll have to dress more neutrally so I’m not ‘scaring off’ clients.

    Now, this latter thing, coupled with the fact I’m moving from a very queer party town to a rather more staid academic town worries me a little: Am I going to have to tone my entire personality down entirely, and if so, can I maintain my personal integrity? Can I get away with still being a bit of a freak? In three years time when I’m fully qualified, will I still want to be the therapist that all the ‘weirdos’ get referred to, and will I still be able to empathise with them?

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