It is depressing, if not suprising, that as we approach 2020 what women wear at work is still a topic of much discussion. Judged on how we look, as well as how we think, by ourselves and by our colleagues.
Dressing up, dressing down, not dressing at all is a relatively new freedom for workers - both men and women - today. Being suited and booted is fading into the past, dress down Friday's are oddly antiquated, and there has even been a high court case about high heels. More and more we dress for the task and to present our authentic self at work - in word, deed and wardrobe. Even in the great bastions of formality - the City and Wall Street - open necked shirts are de-rigure.
For women however, it seems this new freedom to dress as we wish at work is not as simple as it is for men, particularly as we climb the corporate ladder. I came across this quote from workplace coach Penny de Valk the other day which perfectly summarises our dilemma:
"Everyone agrees, in short, that there is a look, a style, an executive appearance that telegraphs ‘I’m in charge, or should be.’ It’s just that no one can agree on what that look is for women, or won’t risk sharing it."
A sisyphean task is being presented to us women, as we are asked to look the part, but given no guidance on what the part looks like. Getting it right requires intuition about our own personal style, insight into our personality and authenticity as well as understanding how we project ourselves and how we want to be perceived. Some of us might get away with level of casualness that others might not, others may chose to dress 'up' because it helps with feelings of empowerment.
I have witnessed huge dress code changes in my own place of work over the past 20 years. Working in marketing and PR, we have always been more relaxed, but personal style has increasingly taken centre stage. I still often think however, how much style gets in the way of brilliance, that what we say will be better received if we look/fit the part, and that this is simply not an issue for male colleagues whose brains are put ahead of their blazers.
So, whilst I was a little crestfallen a the content of a recent Woman's Hour on dressing for success ('really - we are STILL talking about this?'), my heart soared when I heard panellist Magdalene Abraha - a 25 year old graduate working in publishing - talk about her need for comfort in her job, her trainer and tracksuit wearing ethos - and how her attire, her deliberately neutral attire, forces colleagues to listen to what she has to say and not judge her by how she looks.
It filled me with hope for the next generation of young women stepping into jobs, that they will confound tradition, throw out the rule book and stand side-by-side with their peers - no matter what their sex or what they are wearing.
Clothes might maketh the man, but they should never define the woman.
Tailored suits, uniforms or jeans and trainers – do you dress up or down for work? How much does what you wear matter in the workplace? Do you feel pressure to be polished? How much do you suppress your natural style in order to fit in? How has fashion in the workplace changed over the years? And can you really dress for success?