When you look at how women in professional settings, such as politics, business, or academia dress, you can notice a trend. A simple Google search of “professional women” results in countless images of women all in suits: pant suits, skirt suits, dresses that look like a skirt suit, and high heels. All the women in the images found have perfectly tamed hair and heavy, yet simple makeup. There are no jeans, natural hair, or overly colorful clothes. When Googling famous women in politics and business, the results are similar, just with a bit more color. Women’s professional fashion has become an important part of the workplace, as women struggle to look as respectable or serious as their male co-workers. Their clothing becomes a piece of their identity, portraying the parts of their personality that they want to portray positively. In sociology, clothing is viewed as a social artifact, or a way of communicating through sign and symbols (Suchman, 2003). Clothing itself becomes a symbol of class, gender, professional position, or ethnicity that is communicated to others.
As Randall Lavender explains, throughout history, particular articles of clothing have been used to display a certain appearance of the wearer, such as creativity or position. Jeans, for example, have become synonymous with labor, art, and youth. Jeans in professional setting are usually frowned upon for everyday wear, especially with those who occupy higher positions within a company or organization (Giuntini, 2008). Lavender, a professor and artist, wears jeans on the daily, whether he is teaching a class or working on a new creation. Jeans have become an integral part of his identity and going without them feels wrong. Even though he knows that wearing jeans may be perceived by others as negative, his refusal to conform to business casual is a sort of social rebellion; even though society says he should be dressing differently for his position, he defines what is correct for him (Giuntini, 2008). Women in academia, particularly new faculty or those in the tenure track, are concerned with how they dress. Their appearance can make a difference when it comes to student feedback and the level of respect they receive in and out of the classroom (Drmellivora, 2013). Darker colors, simple jewelry and makeup, glasses, and heals are generally associated with a higher respect of authority for women, distracting students from focusing just on their gender (Drmellivora, 2013).
At Old Dominion University, how a faculty member usually dresses, based on my personal evaluation, depends on their field of discipline and their standing in the university. Those in the humanities or arts departments are more likely to dress casually, even wearing jeans on the occasional Friday. If a faculty member is tenured, he or she is more likely to dress casually no matter the day of the week. More male than female faculty members dress casually, no matter their tenured status, as females tend to dress highly business casual. Those in engineering and science departments usually dress more business casual then their liberal arts counterparts, except when they are in a lab environment that is not classroom based. Staff at the university are generally a mix between business casual and professional, mainly depending on their rank within departments and work environment. Universities “dress codes” seem to stand apart from the world of business and politics, as many different people from across a variety of positions break social contracts every day with their personal attire.
It’s a daily struggle that women in business and politics also face, one that we saw in the media during the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton was constantly criticized for what she wore, even if it fit the defined clothing expectation for her position. Her brightly colored pantsuits were traded for more neutral colors and she exuded power and dominance over her male contenders (Banks, 2016). Even though she met societal requirements for a woman of her position, she was dragged as being too masculine. Theresa May, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has been using fashion to her advantage, something Clinton did in the beginning of the 2016 election cycle. By wearing overly feminine or fashion forward clothing, Clinton, and so many other women in leadership positions, are making clear that they are women, setting themselves apart from their male counterparts in a way only they can do (Banks, 2016). Dr. Rebecca Arnold, lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, believes that fashion itself it avoided by most politicians, as their clothing choices are more about the morals they want to project (Banks, 2016). Many women in leadership positions are more focused on looking like men, whose dress is considered the typical or desired choice, but many are working to break up the monotonous trend with clothing that reflects who they really are. Maybe the reason women have such a hard time defining what a successful women dresses like is because there are not many models to draw from. For men, there are a plethora of other successful men to draw inspiration from, but women don’t have enough role models too choose yet (Banks, 2016). Clothing doesn’t ultimately define who you are or your worth, but ultimately people will pass judgment based on appearance.
This realization that image is powerful enough to control even the most successful women holds serious consequences for our young girls and women. As an educator, I want to work towards shifting society’s rhetoric about body and image so that the next generation has the confidence to continue the path into high level leadership positions. I constantly see the negative effects societal pressure has on young girls and women, as criticism can bring down their self-esteem and confidence. Constant bullying, especially from other girls, can really effect someone’s perspective for the rest of their life (Anon, 2016). Research has also found that parents comments about female children’s weight or eating habits is directly related to weight satisfaction in her adult life (Wansink et al., 2017). Media representations of women skew the public’s perceptions of what women and girls are supposed to look like, which is a direct result of society’s values and morals (Jacobson). Sexy is good, but sex is not, natural is sought after but only when you can use an arsenal of products to accomplish it, and curves are needed but you still must stay trim. There is an influx of contradictions that are thrown around daily, which can confuse and harm our perceptions of ourselves and others. I personally have struggled with issues of body image and self-esteem, which have affected my ability to feel comfortable in my personal and professional life. I feel that by standing up for young women and girls, educating them on these issues, and encouraging them to pursue their dreams, we will be able to make the world a more equal place in the future.
Women continue to struggle with the daily decision of what to wear. Whether they are taking over the board room or teaching the next generation of academics, women face daily judgment on how they appear. Through social contracts, society enforces female appearance to fit a mold influenced by male success. Those in violation are criticized, held back, and encouraged to participate in the professional standards we know and enforce. Not everyone is sticking to these molds though, with a growing generation of female leaders using their femininity to their advantage. By embracing their own form of professional dress, women are using the one thing that typically holds them back in the world of leadership: their gender.
Anon. 2016. “Our Mission: Dove Self-Esteem Project.”
Banks, Libby. 2016. “Culture – What Clinton and Trump’s clothes tell us about them.”
Drmellivora. 2013. “Dressing for Academia.” Tenure, She Wrote.
Giuntini, Parme P., Kathryn Hagen, and Randall Lavendar. 2008. “My Jeans, Myself, and I.” Pp. 81–92 in Garb: a Fashion and Culture Reader. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Jacobson, Rae. “Social Media and Self-Esteem | Impact of Social Media on Youth.”
Suchman, Mark C. 2003. “The Contract as Social Artifact.” Law & Society Review.
Wansink, Brian, Lara A. Latimer, and Lizzy Pope. 2017. “”Don’t eat so much:” how parent comments relate to female weight satisfaction.”
Angel Kearns is a graduate student in the Applied Sociology program at Old Dominion University. Serving as the current coordinator of the M-Power Peer Education Network, a peer education program out of the ODU Women’s Center, she is dedicated to educating others on issues related to interpersonal violence, gender roles, diversity and discrimination, and leadership development. She enjoys cats, coffee, and Netflix marathons.