Dressing to impress: One for the dustbin of history?

Opinion: Businesswomen are embracing comfort without sacrificing impact. Returning to the office shouldn't change that.

by Sue Unerman
Last Updated: 06 Aug 2020

When Kathryn Jacob and I wrote our book The Glass Wall, Success Strategies for Women at Work and Businesses that Mean Business, we tried to avoid gender clichés. But we found gender differences. Dress codes are one of them.

In a survey conducted in the UK, US and Russia in 2016, we asked men and women to say where they would put themselves on a scale of one to 10, where one is highly feminine in style (think Marilyn Monroe) and 10 is highly masculine/macho (think Arnie). Most women skew under five (in other words, more feminine). But between 30 per cent (UK) and 40 per cent (Russia) would place themselves on the more masculine end of the spectrum.

Nearly all men say that they are masculine in style and score more than six (90 per cent overall and 100 per cent in Russia).

This proved interesting, especially when it was discussed with colleagues. I personally would place myself at a six or seven in style, but when I said this to one senior colleague, he pointed out that I was wearing a pink dress… in his view: how then could I consider my style less than very feminine? 

It then dawned on me that I can swing from wearing a black trouser suit on one day to a pink frock the next, depending on my mood. He cannot. Not without still drawing considerable comments (to say the least). 

I only know one businessman who habitually wears a skirt. Every businesswoman I know sometimes wears trousers. 

This, of course, was not always the case. Trousers were not common practice for women at work until midway through the last century. 

Early in my career, I usually defaulted to trousers because it seemed easier to get on in a more masculine environment dressed that way. I stopped this, and started wearing dresses more of the time, after dinner with James Truman, then editorial director in chief at Condé Nast, who said that there was power in wearing dresses for women simply because men still commonly can’t.  

There are shifts now in how women are dressing. 

The top-selling fashion item for women at the moment is Birkenstock's Arizona sandal, which is also the most popular shoe of the past three months, according to the Lyst index. Since the TV show Sex and the City, women have been wearing very high heels to the office as a sign of status; frequently, shoes that cost a packet but don’t allow fast walking or running. Shoes that might only allow a stagger from a cab to a lunch table. Shoes that should command respect for the wearer simply from the perspective of managing to present complex discussion points whilst balancing on precipitous heels.

Not at the moment. One of the effects of the lockdown is that women are reverting to comfortable footwear.

The fourth-most popular fashion item is the Calvin Klein bralette. No underwire, no discomfort, no pushing up. Push-up bras hit popularity peak when the “Hello boys” advertising campaign launched and, with or without padding, underwired bras have dominated lingerie ever since. Not any more.

Creative chief Vicki Maguire has celebrated her own personal emancipation from the pain of the underwire by replying to the question about  the one thing that she will definitely keep from lockdown: “I’m never going back to underwired bras again.”

What you wear influences how you perform. A top athlete’s apparel now gets as much scientific attention as every other part of their training. Why these days would you dress uncomfortably to have impact? The impact surely should come from what you say and do and how you say and do it, and certainly you should look stylish, but you can feel comfortable, too. 

Look, if impossibly high heels are the item that gives you confidence, then so be it, but once corsets were essential for looking good, and they’ve long been discarded. 

Women dressing for comfort, flexibility and style rather than for a perceived notion of beauty is a step change. At times when so much of lockdown is damaging to women’s careers we should notice these changes and hang on to them. As even casual athletes do, everyone can dress to enhance peak performance.

Image credit: Fred Morley via Getty Images

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom. This article originally appeared on our sister title Campaign 


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