Professional Women and “Empowering” Clothes

empowering clothesDo you find it “empowering” to dress how you want?  Do you think confidence gained by clothes is 100% of the answer for work — i.e., if it makes you feel confident, you can wear it to work?  There was an interesting discussion here — years ago now! — that I just took another look at, and thought would be a great jumping off point for discussion today.

I recently saw someone comment on an old post that another commenter’s words had stayed with her through the past few years, so I took a closer look at the discussion. The post was on patent leather heels — a reader wrote in wondering if they were appropriate; my counsel at the time was to be wary and avoid “eau de hooker,” as I so delicately called it, but that by and large patent leather heels were just fine for most jobs.  The real fun started in the commenting section, when another blogger named Samantha wrote in to disagree with me:

This advice seems a bit dated to me. As a 20-something young woman who works in a corporate public relations setting, I think it’s silly to say that a certain color or fabric of shoe is “unprofessional.” I think bold, funky shoes are the one thing that we can always “get away with” in the office, no caveats. And I certainly wouldn’t call patent leather bold or unusual. I’ve done very well in my career despite wearing colorful/printed/patent shoes and booties (including purple snakeskin), flat suede over-the-knee boots, patterned dresses, colorful tights, and harem pants. I’m always dressed appropriately –no cleavage or short skirts–and I’ve never, ever been told (nor has it been insinuated to me) that my clothing is unprofessional. In fact, my unique, stylish clothes and accessories make me stand out in the office and I think have actually helped me. …

To tell women that they should only wear dark, solid shoes without any personality just perpetuates the idea that we need to hide our personality to succeed in the workplace. Yes, some jobs require women and men to wear suits or other specific attire, but if you work hard and do well at your job, I don’t think any employer will think less of you for wearing purple croc pumps with your business suit.

Women should wear what makes them comfortable. If a woman feels more confident and comfortable in her workplace in plain black pumps, she should wear them. But if a woman wants to add a bit of pizazz to her outfit, she should not be discouraged from doing so.

A few commenters wrote in to defend me and Samantha’s misreading of my advice (always appreciated, ladies!) (I really mean that!) but commenter Amy (who is anonymous beyond that to me) took issue with Samantha’s post in more general terms.  It was Amy’s comment that the more recent commenter said had stayed with her as great advice through the past few years:

News flash: dressing however you want at work is not “empowering.” Women’s magazines love to say this so they can encourage you to spend lots of money on things and they can get more advertising dollars. Then women wear things to work that are not appropriate, they experience negative consequences and career stagnation, and they can’t figure out why. Why can’t I wear my bright-red platform patent-leather peep-toe stilettos and still be taken seriously? I have seen many, many commenters on this blog put forth the idea that as long as your work is great, even as a lower-level employee, you can wear more or less anything you want to work. That is really, really incorrect.

You know what is really “empowering” at work? Actually having power. Having not only a voice, but having people listen to you and do what you’re suggesting. Having a say into important decisions. Being able to run your own show. Directing, managing and encouraging people who will move up in their careers. Providing people with jobs so they can make a living and support their families. That is empowering. Being able to wear whatever shoes you want to work? Who cares? That kind of fake empowerment has been sold to women over and over by the media. I don’t know whether I’m more disgusted that the media keeps doing it, or that women keep falling for it.

I would wear a chicken costume to work if I thought it would get me promoted faster. I don’t give a rat’s ass about what some editor from Vogue thinks about my shoes; I care what my boss thinks, because she’s the one who has power over my career. Not my friends, not my husband, not the salesgirl in Nordstrom’s. I am really discouraged when I see young women equating “wearing what I want to work” with being empowered and successful. They. Are. Not. The. Same. Thing. At all. Want to do something that makes a difference? If patent leather or peep toes are not appropriate for your office, put them away. Get some acceptable shoes, work your ass off, and get promoted. Move into management. From there you will be able to influence corporate culture a lot more than if you remain a junior-level employee, slaving away at dead-end assignments, albeit with super-cute shoes. I’d rather sit in the C-suite in “boring” shoes that don’t “show my personality” than wear the cutest shoes ever and go to work every day pushing paper in a cubicle, where no one pays attention to my shoes because I don’t matter.

Some readers gave Amy’s comment standing ovations; others wrote in to argue that when they wore what they wanted, they felt empowered and confident, and Amy came back with some more spot-on advice (in a bit of a tougher tone than you guys normally get from me), quoting some of the replies she’d gotten:

(Reply from other reader:) “To dress like that, which is appropriate but still shows some personality, is, to me, empowering because I like what I’m wearing, feel great in it, and will therefore project more confidence.”

If confidence was all it took to get promoted, I have a 21-year-old B-school intern this year who would have been promoted to president of our company by now. Unfortunately, his work sucks and he keeps wearing sandals to work despite being counseled about them. Fortunately in about two weeks I get to cut him loose and wish him well in the job market, because he sure as heck isn’t getting a job offer from us.

Wearing things that make you feel good is awesome, unless those things make you stand out in a bad way to your higher-ups. It won’t feel so great when you get dinged on your performance evaluation for “professionalism” and lose out on raise or bonus percentage points, or a promotion, because of what you wore to work. You are confusing “feeling good” with “power.” I know that all Gen-Y kids were taught that those things are equivalent from the time they were knee-high to a grasshopper, but they are not the same thing.

“It also conveys personality, which can be hard to do in a corporate setting. People like people who have personalities.”

Undoubtedly. But there are lots of ways to show your personality other than what you wear. I like hiring interesting people with varied interests. That has nothing to do with how they’re dressed. Someone can be very interesting and dress in a way you consider to be boring, or dress in an “interesting” way that shows “personality” and actually be a completely shallow, uninteresting individual. Surely you knew that – right?

“Not everyone wants their employees to be worker bees droning away at their desks – in some offices (like mine) it’s also important that everyone gets along and is interesting and has a sense of humor.”

What does that have to do with what they’re wearing?

“Obviously there are limits, but I wouldn’t agree with the general blanket statement that the way we dress cannot be empowering.”

Sigh. I think it’s pretty obvious you read maybe the first two lines of what I posted and then ran off to draft your response. I hope you aren’t doing that with work emails or documents, because it will come back to bite you. Let me reiterate. What you are defining as “empowering” is actually equivalent to “feeling good about yourself.” “Empower” actually means “to give or delegate power or authority to.” Are your clothes inspiring people to give or delegate you power or authority? If not, then they’re not “empowering.” I implore you to learn the difference on your own, before someone with power over your career has to deliver the message, which I can assure you will not come gently.

Looking back over this conversation, I was obviously personally awed/inspired/thankful for the amazing women we have here commenting and the great level of discussion we’re having — in ways that we often simply cannot have in our workplaces themselves — but I also thought that the conversation was just as relevant today in 2014 as it was in 2011 (and, indeed, as it was in 2008, when I started this blog with those very thoughts).

So let’s talk about it today, ladies — how do you tell the difference between when clothes may make you feel confident but won’t help you get promoted any quicker?  Do you think there are times in your life when you may CHOOSE to go the route of “feeling good about yourself” versus “gaining power”? Does this all just come down to “know your office”?  I just thought it was a fascinating discussion and one we should return to.

Comments

  1. I’m just counting my blessings that my office is business casual, and that I work in a semi-technical field where clothing is not a dealbreaker.

  2. Miz Swizz :

    Once you’ve established yourself as a smart, competent worker, you can push boundaries a little. But you must have that foundation of being a woman who gets things done. I would much rather be known as Miz Swizz, the work guru than Miz Swizz with the distinct fashion sense. Coming in to work lookin’ cute feels great until you get called into a meeting with higher-ups and you’re very under-dressed for the occasion. I thought it was a fluke the first time but after the second, I wised up and dress as though I’m going to get called into a meeting with the director.

    • Somewhere in the southeast :

      Yes. And if you push the boundaries, the moment you mess up publicly, it’s all “bless her heart; if she spent half the time working on her work instead of her outfit, she might have gotten that powerpoint slide fixed in time / remembered to amputate the left leg / not let the statute of limitations run.”

      • I really don’t think anyone is ever going to say that.

        • Anonymous :

          People in my field (mostly men; finance) would totally say this.

          • Really? My field is mostly men too, and I don’t think they really notice one way or the other. Anyone else have thoughts? Has anyone ever had someone *actually* say this?

          • Killer Kitten Heels :

            Sadly, I’ve heard women in my (male-dominated) field say stuff along these lines about other women with some frequency. Woman-on-woman snarking in my area is pretty well-known, and I honestly think it comes from feeling like we’re all competing for a limited number of “lady jobs” against each other, rather than competing directly with men for the entire universe of open positions.

          • I have heard women say that, I’ve never heard men make any comments like that. Not to say I haven’t heard men make other sexist or objectifying comments, because I have, but in my experience they don’t tend to notice clothing as much.

          • I have but it has usually been other women. And it can be about anything! I once had someone say to me that “So-and-so should spend less of her summer working on her tan and more of her summer working” — really, even a tan will get you a snarky judgment.

          • KS IT Chick :

            Healthcare here.

            I’ll admit, I’ve thought it when a colleague (and friend) takes off for an entire afternoon every 4 weeks to get her hair re-highlighted. And then can’t get all of the meetings & management tasks in that week and complains about having to much to do.

          • Anonymous :

            Quote: ” I don’t think they really notice one way or the other”
            My husband assures me that they notice. They may not say anything, but they notice.

        • I have definitely worked places where both men and women would say things like this about other women (and about some men).

        • I have heard people say similar things on multiple occasions (without the “bless her heart,” because I’m not in the South).

      • Just this week, my husband was talking about one of the articling students at his office who is always very well dressed (I’ve noticed). Apparently, the head of the studen program (who is also a woman) commented that she wished the student worked as hard on her work as she did on her wardrobe.

      • Yikes. Just realized I’ve thought that about a male colleague. Nothing ever seems to get done on his watch. And he shows up to meetings dressed in red pants and bow ties and the like all. the. time. I’ve gone from thinking how artsy he is to thinking I wish he would just fix what is wrong with the project he’s working on instead of worrying so much about perfecting geek chic.

      • I think this is so weird- it takes no extra energy or effort to look put together. Comments about wishing someone would work as hard on work as they do on their wardrobe just dont make sense to me, because what about the wardrobe requires work? Everyone has to get dressed in the morning. I put my makeup on and do my hair in less time than it takes my husband to shave. Why wouldn’t you want to have a closet full of flattering things to put on? Corporate workwear isn’t so full of trends that it would require a significant amount of time to keep up with. I can zip on my figure flattering sheath dress in the same amount of time it takes someone else to pull on frumpy, ill fitting pants and a poorly fitting button down.

        There’s one older woman in my office who I admire a lot and she has been very vocal about the fact that being well dressed doesn’t mean you don’t care about your work. She goes into a personal shopper at one of the high end department stores twice a year (winter/summer) and comes out with some items and a list of the ways to combine the items into at least 20 new outfits. Then she’s done shopping and thinking about clothes until the next time she stops in. She always looks fabulous and is so well respected at the office (seriously she reminds me of Diane on the Good Wife. I want to be her.) I also love that she basically tells every new associate this and offers the phone number of her shopper to anyone who wants it.

        • The way I read Amy’s comments, there’s nothing wrong with looking put together, but rather with the idea that by pushing the limits of propriety, you are “empowering” yourself rather than just enjoying yourself. For example, a guy might want to wear his Nantucket red pants to the office because he likes them, but he might realize that this could potentially be viewed negatively and hurt his chance at a promotion (and thus, potentially relegate them to weekend wear). Not that it’s fair to judge anyone for clothing, but it’s a risk that we run. I think that this is a valuable perspective that personality and power aren’t necessarily tied to what we wear.

    • Famouscait :

      The most relevant comment I can offer is that I have a colleague (40ish years old) who everyday wears 4+ inch platform heels to work. She walks slowly and unsteadily – she pretty much teeters along the hallways. Once when she turned in a report at the last minute/a little overdue (I don’t recall which) another female colleague made the comment to me that, “Maybe she could get things in on time if she could move faster in those heels”. So it does happen, unfortunately. The comment was as uncalled for as the footwear.

    • Miz Swizz :

      It doesn’t have to be something overtly snarky to be undermining. If someone said “Oh this is Miz Swizz, she always looks snazzy” as opposed to “this is Miz Swizz, she’s our resident PS expert”, I wouldn’t feel empowered or confident. It would feel like I’m saying more with my outfits than the quality of my work and that would sting a lot.

  3. Somewhere in the southeast :

    there is a woman wearing 4″ slingbacks with a 1″ platform with spikes* to a work event in the daytime.

    The wearer of said shoes (and the men in attendance) are wearing suits. The industry is finance. The event is in an office. No one (else) seems to be there for a lapdance.

    * Not studs a la anything Rockstud. Spikes like you might see on a mace, scaled down for a shoe.

  4. Tesyaa, I feel the same as a government attorney whose work is very behind-the-scenes. As a Californian with quirky and hippie tendencies, it’s difficult for me to be 100% polished.

    The reality is that actions have consequences. Adults have the freedom to do what they want, and the maturity to accept the consequences of their behavior.

    From my outsider perspective, it appears that BigLaw has a very narrow path* to achievement, which is why many detail-oriented commenters here ask questions about many things, including issues that would not be a problem in a more relaxed work environment.

    When I say narrow, I mean that there is a template to follow in order to be considered acceptable and someone who should be promoted. People who stray from that path seem to have great difficulty re-entering if that is what they want.

  5. Aww, I remember Amy!

    I was actually thinking about something similar recently. I’ve been looking at a bunch of different fashion blogs for inspiration and came across this one (http://www.theclassycubicle.com/p/about-this-blog_19.html) … In the “about” section, the author writes, “Fashion doesn’t have to be everyone’s “thing” but when it negatively affects your reputation and upward mobility at work, it’s time to step it up a bit. Get serious, ladies. No matter how many times your grandmother told you “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” the reality is that appearances DO matter, especially in corporate America where your bosses, colleagues, and clients may never get to know the real you.”

    I thought this sounded a bit harsh, at least in tone, but I also think it has a measure of truth. In any event, I think there is a middle ground here. It’s good to show a little personality and not dress like an office drone, but it’s equally important not to take that too far — just because you feel awesome in something, doesn’t mean you come across awesome in it.

    • I think the Classy Cubicle is similar to how I dress and how I want to be perceived. It is put together and professional with flair and color. I wouldn’t say it’s empowering, but I do think you can get some respect and be seen as more confident when you wear outfits that are actually put together with accessories, etc. I do not wear a suit every day, even though some women in my firm do, but no one could say I dress s*xy or anything.

      Today, I am wearing a white button up blouse, a gray pleated skirt with a bit of flare, a beautiful scarf around my neck, black tights, and sort of funky but closed-toe gray tall pumps. That’s the kind of outfit that, to me, says professional, put together, confident, with a little style. And if I got called into a meeting, as discussed above, it is the type of outfit where I can throw on a jacket and look perfectly put together.

      • And, when I joked with a very senior partner the other day that I spend too much on shoes to buy lunch every day, he very awkwardly commented on how put together and professional I look, despite not wearing a suit every day. I’ve had others make similar comments.

        (Of course, when I need to wear a suit, I wear one.)

      • I agree – I think it’s really good for your reputation if you dress professional but with a bit of flair. Being well put-together inspires confidence I think.

    • I really like the Classy Cubicle. I think some of the more recent college grads sometimes need a little tough love.

    • Senior Attorney :

      Of all the fashion blogs out there, I think The Classy Cubicle is probably the most similar to how I dress on a day-to-day basis. Although I feel like I’m a little more dressy than she is. So maybe I’m closer to Extra Petite dot com, but with less skin showing.

      Anyway, I generally agree that one must be very careful to know the rules before one starts bending or breaking them, and make sure the bending/breaking is in service of one’s larger goals.

    • Anonylicious :

      I like the style on the Classy Cubicle but I’m not really a fan of the writing.

      • I think her writing is amazing! But, she doesn’t really write that much. Also, she’s one of the few top bloggers that can actually construct a complete, coherent sentence. So many of the others sound like complete idiots and have nothing interesting to say. Either way, her outfits are amazing.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      I think she often wears lovely clothes, but sometimes she wears things that are totally work inappropriate for most law firms (and that may be fine for her, because she’s not at a law firm). For example, her recent all blue outfit with strappy sandals, (another?) all blue outfit with ankle length pants, the crop top pink sweater….

    • *Sigh*

      I clicked on the link you just posted and read the bio for Classy Cubicle. I had such high expectations for the blog — I thought it would be all professional looks. Unfortunately, when I saw the first couple of posts, I realized that although the blogger looks perfectly fine for a casual office, she’s simply too casual for mine. My search continues. . . .

      • HillStaffer :

        Check out caphillstyle.com

      • Her outfits aren’t business professional, they are business casual and lately she’s been posting casual friday/vacation looks. If you look through her site, she is very business casual with occasional full suits.

        Imo Classy Cubicle is the best reference for business casual. You can make adjustments.. I’d rather not integrate cropped pants or ankle skimmers, so I just wear full length pants instead.

  6. Frugal doc.. :

    My “empowering” approach to work clothing has always been heels. I am 5′ 7″ woman in a heavily male dominated field. With a good 2-3 inch heel, I feel more on the eye level with many of my male co-workers. It improves my posture and confidence to be at this height… no doubt.

    But my shoes are often much less more practical then heels shown on this website – with a thicker heel for support and all-day standing/walking. There are no open toes (a no-no for my job), strappy sandals, or anything more eye-catching then a deep burgundy suede. Nothing too sexy.

    I want to be remembered for my work, and looking professional and pulled together. I have seen the unfortunate fall-out from women dressing too hip/expensive/sexy and being judged unfairly based on this. And this poor judgment… sadly… was more from other female peers.

    But a good heel… is part of my power uniform.

    • Frugal doc.. :

      oops… typo… “But my shoes are often much more practical then heels shown on this website…”

      I can’t do the narrow/spike heels. I would topple.

    • Can you give some examples? Being 5’1, I’d love some comfy high heels.

      • kjoirishlastname :

        Truth, but even at my height (5’2″), I’ll never find heels tall enough to put me at eye level with any of the males that I work with. So I usually just don’t bother. Sad though it is.

    • Word. I’m 5’6″ and high heels are my empowering, unhealthy addiction. My clothes are conservative and not too attention-drawing, as suits my workplace, but I love looking the men in my office right in the eye. It might not be “empowering” by Amy’s definition, but I believe it does subtly boost the gravitas of what I have to say. Having worn 3.75 to 4 inch heels 5 days a week for 8 years now, I’m starting to feel the ill effects but I can’t give them up.

  7. It’s funny–I’ve always noticed that when I start shopping funkier or more rebellious clothes and accessories, it’s a clue that I’m unhappy in my job. My usual taste is already a bit creative, shall we say, but I mean spiky bracelets and such. I think subconsciously, when I’m feeling disillusioned with my professional life I am drawn to clothes that say “f___ it.”

    I agree overall that the concept of “empowerment” is overused and thus diluted–in fashion and also elsewhere. I justify my purchases more by the fact that I enjoy wearing them, and not everything I do or have must relate to my identity as a worker. When I am thinking directly about clothes and my work role, I’d say I strike a balance between what I like and what is expected. I don’t think I have ever advanced or failed to advance based on my work look, and that’s as it should be.

    • Rather than a balance, it’s more like the middle section of the Venn diagram.

      Oh, and I remember this original discussion too. The one thing I don’t like about how these threads sometimes go is the weird threats people seem to make, as if they had crystal balls foretelling stranger’s lives. See the reprimand this woman is allegedly going to get regarding her clothes, “which I can assure you will not come gently.” Who knows, and also who cares?

  8. Wow, whoever Amy is, she gave some very good advice! I am lucky that I work in an office where I can wear almost anything I want, in the business casual range and up, I mean. But our office culture does have a few weird things, like no bare arms. And I follow it, even though I think it is dumb, because yep, I want to get promoted.

  9. Kate Beckett :

    This just made me insecure about the shoes I’m wearing today. They are black platform patent-leather peep-toe pumps. They’re fine for my current job (business casual), but I’m moving to Biglaw (associate level) soon. Can I take these shoes with me?

    • no

    • Yes.

    • Not immediately. Get to know your office first.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      Depends on your firm and your location. In a firm where “business casual” = “you may occasionally remove your suit jacket so long as you’re wearing appropriate sleeves”, absolutely not. In a firm like my current firm (business suits always!), no way. But I previously worked in a firm that would be considered BigLaw that was “business casual” with a heavy emphasis on the casual (at least in the office where I worked) and they would’ve been fine in the summer (I’m assuming the platform is a reasonable-ish 1″-2″, and not the 4+” nonsense I’ve been seeing on high-schoolers lately).

      Personally, I’d shelve them until I saw another woman (preferably someone more senior, and preferably someone known to be well-respected/consistently dressed “acceptably” by firm standards) at the office wearing something similar before I’d bust them out.

    • a passion for fashion :

      Um, yes. Wear them and dont think twice. I’m sorry but I just dont buy the “absolutely not” cr@p. I disagree with Amy and I disagree with those agreeing with her. While it might be sage advice for some, its just not gospal. I have never thought twice about wearing all of the “know your office things” despite working in a BigLaw firm in NYC and another major US city. And yes, I wore this stuff both before and after I made partner.

    • Kate Beckett :

      Thanks all. I’ll stick with my closed-toe, non-patent, non-platform pumps, at least initially. In that vein, any other tips for stepping up my wardrobe? I won’t be wearing suits every day, which in some ways makes it harder because the lines are more grey for when an outfit is acceptable. Is a suit without a blazer professional? What about suit skirt, blouse, and sweater? Is that too casual? Does the shirt always need to be tucked in? Can I wear a cotton tee, or must it be silk/button down?

      • Killer Kitten Heels :

        Same answer as the shoes question – err on the side of conservative/formal until you’ve gotten a feel for what other people (especially people one or two notches above you on the hierarchy) wear.

      • All of these things would be perfectly ok in my office, and in fact (except for maybe the cotton tee, if not worn with a suit) people would ask why you are so dressed up. But I agree you have to wait and see what others are wearing. Although I can’t imagine a business casual office where a suit without a blazer isn’t ok – if you need the blazer, to me that means your office is business formal. Also I think patent pumps are perfectly ok even in more formal offices, it’s the platform/open-toe part that makes them borderline.

    • no

  10. I would like ice cream a la mode. Is that ok for your tuchus?

    • You want ice cream with ice cream on top? No, two scoops are never okay for your tuchus. Next thing you know, people will be wanting waffle cones. Nobody wants to see that. 8)

  11. One thing that I wish thissite and other sites would stop doing is perpetuating the idea that you have to wear heels to look your best and be professional, authoritative, appropriate, or otherwise confident at work. Women can look polished and professional in a wide variety of clothes and shoes, but I’ve found that this site rarely recommends flats for work and will often say things like “I think pencil skirts require a heel.” I absolutely disagree that footwear that is impractical, often uncomfortable, and often bad for health is “required,” EVER.

    I’d love to see some blogs where women demonstrate how to do your best work and be your best self in flats. Most of the women I know and look up to wear flats often and it’s no big deal – it just seems that many fashion sites and conservative industries would have us believe it’s a HUGE THING or that we’re all so frumpy and less authoritative with one inch of added height instead of three or four.

    • There are more choices than “flats” and “heels”. There are comfortable, professional looking wedges (Donald J. Pliner are my favorites). There are loafers with heels ranging from 1/2 to 2 inches that are in no way related to stilettos. I think people think of “flats” as “ballet flats with zero elevation”, so it certainly pays to be more specific when making blanket recommendations like “no flats”.

      • This. My most comfortable pair of flats are actually lovers with a 3/4″ heel. I feel shoes with even the slightest heel have better arch support than ballet flats.

    • You should look at Classy Cubicle. She wears flats quite a bit in a very chic and professional way.

      • Thanks for the pointer. I so miss wearing heels! And I still only have two pairs of work-appropriate flats that can accommodate my ankle brace. So tired of it. I should suck it up and buy another pair or two.

        The physical therapist is pleased with my progress, and it hurts a lot less, but I am still probably a couple months away from full functionality. Range of motion and strength and balance are all still pretty terrible. Boo.

    • Somewhere in the southeast :

      What might be helpful is pictures of something reasonable on a person who is put-together. Not scuffed Revas with a wrinked above-the-knee skirt. Not dungeon wear. If you google pictures of Jackie O in the 1970s, she seemed to wear a lot of 1-2″ block heels that were just lovely (and, I bet, comfortable). That’s what I aim for and it has been tricky to find.

    • Senior Attorney :

      The Classy Cubicle, which was mentioned upthread, features all kinds of great professional looks that include flats.

    • Absolutely. I like heels and wear them. But I know many, many successful professional women who don’t, full stop. And, in fact, many successful professional women who would immediately be dismissed by a lot of people as “frumpy.” There is merit to paying attention to how you’re put together versus the norms of your environment, but I think we can and should do that while fighting back against the normative expectation that women in an office environment have to be decorative (in precisely the right “not slutty” way).

    • Agreed! I haven’t worn proper heels for over a decade. My max heel is about 1″, and I hate how looking fashionable = wearing heels for a lot of people.

      • a passion for fashion :

        looking fashionable and looking professional are not always the same thing.

      • Shoe problems :

        Speaking of heels one inch, they are hard to find! I have back problems so I cannot wear anything more than an inch and a half or so, which is fine because I’m tall, but I also have feet arch problems and I cannot wear flats! Maybe this was due to too many years wearing completely unsupportive flats in a city and running around and ruining my arches. Now I am in a weird predicament where I have to find shoes that have 1″ to 1.5″ heels. I have a pair by AGL that look like flats and are really comfortable but I would prefer not to shell out that kind of money all the time. Kitten heels aren’t great for my back either. Any ideas?

        • I have a bad back. 4 herniated lumbar discs. Posture is of the utmost importance and heels will throw my body all out of whack. This includes many wedge heeled loafers that are supposed to be comfortable (read, “Clarks.” However, a low pump *with a slingback strap around the heel* is a godsend for when I need heels. Trotters are great for this purpose, I get them from zappos. They are fabulous and beautiful. What makes them work is that they grab around the back of your heel. That is a must for any shoe. My favorite shoes are some Coach loafers. It can be hard to find good loafers that are nort frumpy… I got mine from the Macy’s website about a year ago. I am very image conscious and wouldn’t be caught dead either looking unfabulous or being in any state of discomfort. I hope this is helpful, I am so empathetic to others with back pain.

      • I discovered something interesting about heels last week. I have bunions, and thought I’d never be able to swing a high heel again.

        I found a fabulous pair of 3″ heels that actually work for me (while replacing a painful pair of 1″ heels). The difference was the width of the toe box. The shoes that work for me are very, very (!) wide in the toe, such that my weight can be well-distributed over the entire ball of my foot. Then it’s just a case of keeping my calf muscles up to snuff, to provide stability and reduce pressure on my heel.

        Flats can be uncomfortable, if they force your weight too far on the heels. I’ve been running into that issue a lot lately.

    • Diana Barry :

      +1. I think in general Kat likes heels rather than flats and skirts rather than pants, so the recommendations follow those same lines.

    • Eh, I don’t generally wear heels because I’m 5’11 and in a male-dominated field. I’m already eye-level with most of the folks in the room and I start to tower over them in tall shoes.

      That’s not to say I don’t rock them occasionally, but am especially mindful of my footwear when I’m spending a lot of time with my (male, 5’9 on a tall day) boss.

      • +1

        I’m 5’11” and work mostly with men.. many of which are my height or shorter than me. Heels also really hurt my feet regardless of style (don’t bother recommending any to me I’ve tried every variation and cushioning) and it’s hard enough finding pants that are long enough for me in flats.

        This being said, I don’t always think flats look good with a skirt and especially not dresses. It can work but not always. I kind of like the d’orsay style with skirts but those flats arent particularly supportive.

        I’ve accumulated a pretty big collection of attractive and somewhat comfortable flats.. the key is to find a pair with an internal wedge, like the JCrew Cece. Finally other brands are starting to jump on this concept. At the end of the day though, nothing will make my feet feel good besides a pair of sneakers, but that’s just my awful feet.

    • I actually think heels are LESS professional. They’re the same general style as shoes one would wear on a night out (and yes, they often have different details/structures/materials/etc. – but the shape and idea is generally the same). They limit your mobility in a way that can make it hard to run around to meetings or walk ten blocks to a lunch or go down the stairs in a fire drill or walk home from work quickly at night. They serve no distinct purpose as specific professional wear (i.e. they’re not steel-toed or non-slip or whatever) other than to create the impression that someone is more professional because they look taller/skinner/sexier/cooler. I actually can’t think of one single argument why heels are inherently more professional than a polished loafer or a pair of sleek leather flats.

      • For those of us who are very short, the taller thing shouldn’t be written off quite so quickly. I certainly am not arguing that flats aren’t professional, but I never wear flats to any professional event where I might have to stand and talk with others or where I will have to stand behind a podium.

      • anonymama :

        I think it’s a stretch to say that heels are less professional because they are similar in some way to shoes you would wear for a night out… You could also say that flats are the same general style as shoes you would wear for ballet dancing and bedroom slippers (and yes, they often have different details/structures/materials/etc. – but the shape and idea is generally the same). Heels have been part of standard business attire for women for decades, since women have been in business (I’m not saying only heels are acceptable, just that it’s more than a bit of a stretch to argue that they are less acceptable than flat shoes). For me, they feel more professional because they feel different from and more formal then my standard weekend/lounging sneakers, just as wearing more tailored clothes like a blazer makes me feel more professional than wearing a sweatshirt.

    • I agree. I love the look of heels, but have a low tolerance for them. At 5’10” my legs are not going to look short because they’re not.

      To be honest, I view high heels as the opposite of tampons. There’s so much that becomes more difficult, such as running, walking over grates, walking on uneven surfaces, walking on ice, walking long distances, walking on grass, carrying a bag on one shoulder, walking downhill, etc. For those of you who are able to do so, more power to you! I am even more impressed by the women who commute via public transit in heels. The last time i wore 4″ heels, tons of coworkers made comments because we had a staff meeting. That type of attention is unnecessary.

    • Wildkitten :
    • Seconded.

      Also looking forward to a time where women have to worry less about their attire preferences distracting people from noticing their talents and intelligence.

    • what we really need is for shoe manufacturers to make better flats!!!! like with somewhat of a sole and some support inside, and substantial enough that I don’t feel like I’m walking directly on the concrete. RAWR (this is a top10 pet peeve)

    • I’m with you on the heels, if only because my feet are anti-heels. If I’m in them too long, I get a laundry list of aches and pains from past injuries that’s too boring to list here. Flats, or near flats, on the other hand = good as gold. (I can do wedges too, but some are so high that I’d risk another sprained ankle.)

    • Anonymous :

      Agree times a billion.

      As a plus, I think the idea of heels = professional is ridiculous and totally smirk-worthy.

  12. I agree with Amy wholeheartedly. Left to my own devices, my fashion sense tends towards a punk/goth aesthetic, but there’s no way I would ever wear that to the office. My “empowerment” comes from rising through the ranks of my company quickly and earning the respect of my peers, which I could not have accomplished if I wore skull earrings or zombie shoes to work (both of which I have multiples of). And doing well at work means that I have expendable money to spend on clothes that suit my weekend aesthetic, which you could never tell if you met me Monday through Friday.

    • I have a similar aesthetic! I am an accountant so I do not express myself through fashion Monday through Friday. A few of my previous coworkers are now really good friends of mine and when they first saw pictures of me dressed for a concert they were stunned.

  13. I work for a technology giant which is headed by a woman. People think you are attending an interview if you dress formal. Only people who are very very high up on the ladder (say CEO, CFO, COO etc) wear formal but not suits. They wear formal pants and shirts and ladies wear formal pants and nice blouses. People who are at VP level (they have thousands of people under them) still wear jeans to work regularly. Most of the engineers regardless of how senior they are dress very very casually (think shorts, capris,t-shirts and flip flops and sometimes graphic Ts or hibiscus print shirts). Even our customers engineers from other companies) dress like this. I now have a job where I meet customers on a regular basis. The only change to my outfit is to wear a blouse instead of t-shirt. I would feel very uncomfortable and out of place even when we meet the customers if I swap out my jeans for a pair of formal pants.

    That said, I think mini skirts and very short shorts, spaghetti straps and very low neckline can lead to a bad impression on you and will definitely get a warning if repeated.

    So at least in my workplace, what you wear is not a deal breaker as long as it is not overly revealing. You can wear what you want including the ethnic wear and that will not impact your career.

    • Anonymous :

      But if people would judge (“think you are attending an interview”) if you wore a suit, and you “would feel very uncomfortable and out of place” in formal pants, is it really true that at your workplace you can “wear what you want” without impacting your career? If I “dressed for me” I’d always be in a poofy party dress and pearls – it sounds like, in your work place (as in mine) that would send a message of cultural deafness that would make it more difficult to earn the respect of coworkers and supervisors.

      • I didn’t understand some part of what you have said. But yes…you can dress what you want for most part and I have listed the exceptions above..I have never seen any one in my office wearing a poofy part dress till now…but huge and multiple pearl strand are completely acceptable as I have seen the lady who heads our company wearing them. I have seen men with waist length hair who leave it open, my lady colleague wearing a t-shirt with an artistic skull print on it. So as long as you are performing well at your job, you might be able to get away with party dress as well..

        It’s a different culture than in law firms and what you wear doesn’t matter as much.

  14. I think this is a false dichotomy. No matter the dress code, you can always find a way to dress appropriately and show your personality at the same time. I’m a recent grad, and over the course of various jobs and internships I came up with a pretty simple way to find the right style for each office: show up to the interview in a suit, and while I’m there notice what people are wearing. Show up the first day in an outfit on the formal end of what I observed. Never be one of the more casually dressed people in the office. Also, if all the men are wearing suits and the women aren’t, wear a suit or suit separates anyway. Even when I was in a very casual office I never went below “smart casual.” Even when I wore a suit and heels every day, I could show my personality by wearing great, work-appropriate boots or a nice scarf.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      I don’t feel like you’re actually saying anything different from Amy – I don’t take her comments to mean that you should stamp out all personality to “get ahead” at work, but rather that you shouldn’t take the “whatever, I do what I want” approach to dressing yourself for work.

      So wearing “work-appropriate boots or a nice scarf” fits right in with Amy’s point – you choose to dress appropriately for your workplace. My favorite scarf that I own right now is a magenta infinity scarf with a greenish/tealish skull pattern – I’m certainly not wearing that to my conservative law office, but I will wear a thin silk scarf with an abstract black print on it with one of my suits to jazz things up. I’m being me (the me who loves scarves) while still being appropriate to my workplace (versus what Samantha seems to have advocated, which, to me, boiled down to “do whatever you want because yay personality!”).

      • Baconpancakes :

        I will admit, I find ways to sneak the rebellion into my outfit. I have a teal scarf printed with teeny tiny little black skulls, that look like polka dots from three feet away, that I’ll wear on days without meetings, and I have a pair of gold stud earrings in the shape of snake vertebrae that no one can recognize. (Verameat is the designer, if anyone’s interested)

  15. rachelellen :

    This is fascinating. I’m a finance journalist. For a lot, a lot of reasons I wear only skirts, never pants. Actually, most of the time I like dresses, but dress/skirt, you get the idea. I think one of many reasons I do this is because I unconsciously take cues from women like Becky Quick on CNBC, and then it makes me nervous and upset because I like to think I’m more thoughtful than talking heads on cable who are often perceived as eye candy.

    But then I think this is only one of many reasons I wear skirts, and also, who am I to judge women who’ve achieved a lot, in their own way. And I’m just going to say, like the poster who said it makes her feel good to meet men in higher heels, it just makes me feel better to be around men, and I’m mostly around men in my work.

  16. Amy – whoever you are – you are fantastic and I would read your blog (alongside with Corporette, of course).

    I know your tone is tougher than what most read online, but, it’s so so crucial for people to hear, especially on this issue.

    I just want to say thank you and send along support.

  17. The Samantha who commented back in 2011 was not me, and I unfortunately don’t agree with her at all that “bold, funky shoes are the one thing that we can always “get away with” in the office, no caveat.”
    I’m not sure there is any one thing that we can always get away with, no caveats – except maybe underlayers that aren’t visible!
    There are other ways to show personality than clothes. It seems like we’re all being encouraged by the fashion magazines to show the *same* personality (bright! bold! exotic! prints!) – would that be the fashion editor’s personality?

  18. Can someone more tech savvy than me go post a link to Amy’s comment to this IntoTheGloss article? Please?

    Why Adults Should Embrace Glitter Nail Polish
    http://intothegloss.com/2014/03/why-adults-should-embrace-glitter-nail-polish/?utm_source=hp&utm_medium=hp_infeed&utm_campaign=Piaget_1

    The author writes:

    Yet here I am, denying myself that most carnal of all girly desires—and for what? To be a living, breathing LinkedIn profile? I’m not being honest with myself. Sparkly—This is who I am (to be read in the voice of Oprah).

  19. I feel rather sorry for women working in BigLaw & other such forcefully fashion prescribed fields. It really does sound like there is a Uniform Not to Be Deviated From If You Want to Succeed. I’ve worked in high tech on the West Coast in my 20+ years since college, & hardly anyone wears suits, even to job interviews. I rather like suits, I do enjoy structured clothing, & will wear such things as a lark (tho’ with my particular gothic edge; click above for my This Is CorpGoth blog). I’m always the most “dressy” person in the company, sometimes more than the CEO. Does this make me feel empowered? Maybe. Mostly, it makes me feel like me. I feel comfortable & relaxed & in a better mindset to do my job. That’s what’s important. If I was forced to wear a uniform, I’d feel uncomfortable & on edge, & I bet my work would suffer.

    Perhaps this is what some people are trying to get at with wearing clothes that make them feel good about themselves. Not everyone is able to do a stellar job while wearing a chicken suit like Amy. That chicken costume could feel pretty demoralizing, no matter how great the pay & benefits. Unless chickens are really your thing. I bet there are people who love the hell out of the job of being a BigLaw lawyer, but who don’t love the uniform. Reconciling those two things would be a lifelong struggle, & sometimes doing stuff just for the money or advancement isn’t worth it.

    For those who say “it’s just clothes,” fine, wear a chicken suit & enjoy. Everyone has something that is “just a thing” & NOT “just a thing” to them — please don’t belittle another’s feelings because you don’t share it.

    • a passion for fashion :

      Thank you, Trystan. This is my point exactly. And is often my point about so much on thissite. So many of the recent (and some who have been around for a while) constantly find it necessary to belittle, judge, and speak in absolutes. Life is simply not like that. And I have found — BigLaw and all — that these rules about which so many often speak are simply non-existant. Sure, they might be good guidelines for those folks who really dont know what to wear, but for those of us who are comfortable in our own skin and who do enjoy fashion — including the heels and beautiful blouses and skirts that come with it — wear what works for you and do you best work. If you are not doing the latter, yes, people will talk about the former, or they will talk about something else because you are not doing your best work.

  20. Anonymous :

    I wonder if this is a “if you wear it, own it” type of thing. i.e If you wear red platform peep toe shoes, make sure you have the type of assertive, take-no-prisoners persona to go along with it. In my industry (Finance), rain-making MDs can definitely wear power shoes! (male of female). Lowly nobodies should wear conservative shoes until they make it!

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