Code You: How Workplace Style Has Shifted For Women Leaders, Entrepreneurs

Conformity and dress for success codes have lapsed, allowing for more style in the office.

Conformity and dress for success codes have lapsed, allowing for more style in the office.

Before I began my first job out of graduate school in 1979 as a managing editor of a regional magazine, my sister Madeleine, a lawyer, took me shopping. She insisted I buy a handful of blouses with bow ties at the neck in white, beige and black, plus a few black and gray skirts below the knee and a tan blazer I hated.

She told me I needed to look professional, not like a student. She may have been right, but I didn’t feel like myself. I am all about bright colors and lots of bracelets, and certainly not blouses with bows at the neck.

Luckily, professional dress codes and expectations of appearance for women entrepreneurs and women in leadership holding corporate jobs have loosened in four decades. Or have they?

Have professional dress codes and expectations of appearance for women loosened in four decades?

Many businesses may have the practice of casual Friday, and many women CEOs can dress as they please, while independent women entrepreneurs also report they can dictate their own style choices. In the “9 Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career,” Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead, asserts that Power Tool # 2, “Define Your Own Terms,” can also mean defining your personal style.

Heather Rangel, principal in Deloitte’s Global Employer Services practice, writes in Fortune,that much of the historical conformity dictates about style and appearance for women leaders are random.

“One piece of advice I often heard early on in my career was to look for role models in other women and try to emulate them. I also received a lot of tips on how to dress and present myself in the workplace. A common one: ‘Never wear anything but clear nail polish. It will distract people from your message.’ That’s a piece of advice I actually followed for a decade—until I decided it was nonsense.”

Rangel continues, “When I looked around me, I realized that successful women don’t follow a single path when it comes to style or presence. What they do have in common is a level of comfort with themselves and confidence in the value they bring to their work. I found that authenticity not only builds trust with my colleagues and clients, but it also creates a solid foundation for collaboration—and that’s far more important than one’s style.”

What we look like in our workplace and in professional settings does have consequences.

While the current bikini/burkha debate in France has much wider and more severe implications about international laws, customs and racism, than simply what women wear to work, the controversy has sparked debate on the pressure for women to dress a certain way in the professional sphere.

What we look like in our workplace and in professional settings does have consequences.

“Throughout history, a combination of legislation, local regulation and social pressure has influenced the way women have dressed – corsets and decollete, hoop skirts and bustles, the controversial advent of pants,” writes Alissa J. Rubin in Business Standard.

And the connection between what we wear and our identities is deeply historical and philosophical, claims Shahidha Bari, lecturer in romanticism at Queen Mary University of London, in Aeon.

“If dress claims our attention as a mode of understanding, it’s because, for all the abstract and elevated formulations of selfhood and the soul, our interior life is so often clothed. How could we ever pretend that the ways we dress are not concerned with our impulses to desire and deny, the fever and fret with which we love and are loved? The garments we wear bear our secrets and betray us at every turn, revealing more than we can know or intend.” She adds, “Perhaps the power of the right dress necessarily comes only rarely, like hard-won self-knowledge, the shining truth of which cannot stand too much scrutiny.”

The connection between what we wear and our identities is deeply historical and philosophical.

What we wear in the workplace is also a source of contention and conflict.

Earlier this summer, a receptionist in London was sent home for not wearing high heels to work, according to the Guardian.

“A Portico spokesman said: ‘In line with industry standard practice, we have personal appearance guidelines across many of our corporate locations. These policies ensure staff are dressed consistently and include recommendations for appropriate style of footwear for the role. We have taken on board the comments regarding footwear and will be reviewing our guidelines in consultation with our clients and team members.’”

Such dress codes may be infrequent, though a certain “uniform” is expected of many professional women leaders, including real estate agents, leaders in the hospitality industry and retail entrepreneurs, for instance. All of this leaves us possibly in a quandary when we get dressed for work.

A new British study of 2,000 people concludes we spend a lot of time in the morning before work trying to decide what to wear. “Women use up nearly six months of their adult lives just deciding what clothes to put on. Broken down, that’s 17 minutes spent each day just deliberating in front of your closet,” according to Patricia Dayacamp at Female Network.

“One in 20 adults will say they have absolutely nothing to wear, despite having, on average, 152 clothing items. Having no clue what to wear also tends to be a mood killer: 15 percent say this whole process tends to ruin their day,” she writes. “One in 10 have been late for work because they could not decide on an outfit, while 14 percent simply abandoned their plans due to a perceived lack of clothing.”

And the lack of choices for what to wear to work may begin at home, but does not end there.

Retail observers say declines in sales in women’s clothing this past quarter are because the offerings at stores such as  Anthropolgie, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and more, do not reflect what women want to wear to work and after work, writes Sarah Halzack at the Washington Post.

While style is not a prerequisite to becoming a powerful woman leader, appearing put-together can broadcast confidence as well as competence. Think of how often there are comments in the media about what a female politician or world leader is wearing.

Many women leaders are looking to popular culture icons and fashion leaders for cues on what is appropriate to wear where and when—particularly in the workplace. September is the month when legacy fashion magazines push their style agendas and print enormous issues. Vogue weighs in at 800 pages in September, Elle at 528 pages. And the women’s clothing brand, Elie Tahari, recently launched an advertising campaign called “Madam President” featuring Oval Office-worthy work clothes.

Television series role models express their dynamism at work through their wardrobes—that are carefully crafted to create a distinct image for the character. Julianna Marguiles recently told New York magazine that she was most proud of her role on “The Good Wife,” because so many women told her it taught them how to dress for work.

“And I take that as such a compliment, because it is hard, when you have a powerful job, as a woman, to still be able to celebrate your femininity, and not be called — I don’t want to be rude, but a ‘slut,’ because your skirt was tight. But to look streamlined and feel sexy, and still be powerful, I think, is important.”

In a series of illustrations of what women wear and comments people make, artist Daisy Bernard writes in The Tab, “The workplace is one of the most notorious places where women are told how they should be.”

She adds, “Women are constantly judged for how they look, or should look. We’re expected to look ‘feminine’ – wear makeup, nice clothes, shave everything – but if we’re ‘too high maintenance’ it’s off-putting. If we’re feminine we’re ‘too much of a girly-girl’ to take seriously, but too masculine and you’re written off as ‘one of the guys.’ If you’re open about your intelligence you’re ’emasculating,’ but if you’re not clever-enough you’re patronized for being ‘basic.’”

This judgmental criticism of how women leaders look professionally is nothing new.

Emma Bell writes in Newsweek: “All too often, women are either accused of appearing ‘too sexy’ for work through their clothing choices, or excessively masculine. Studies of female professionals show that in sectors like banking and finance, women often feel scrutinized and made to feel out of place. Whether they wear a plain dark suit or a ‘too bright’ dress, women report that they find it almost impossible to blend in and not be the focus of male comments.”

Power can be communicated through how we dress.

Emily Arata wrote in EliteDaily about Rihanna’s appearance at the recent VMA Awards, where she accepted her award in a flowing ballgown: “It was an important reminder of a fact-based truth: Extra effort can make you stand out from the crowd, and dressing better than everyone else in the room can set you up for success.”

Thankfully, for women leaders who are starting out, mid-career or positioned at the very top, there is no longer a single rule book on how women dress for success.

Nandini D’Souza Wolfe writes in Wall Street Journal, “The suit is no longer a catchall for the lady in command. These entrepreneurs often ask themselves, ‘What are you trying to say in life, business and fashion?’ said filmmaker Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, 38, who is WeWork’s founding partner/chief brand officer and married to co-founder Adam Neumann. ‘You want your message to be consistent; otherwise, it’s very hard for people to latch on to it.’”

Chances are your message will no longer include a beige blouse with a large bow at the neck.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon