My closet has an extensive assortment of clothes I've worn in different work situations. I have my hooker heels and stockings, piles of jeans from years as a full-time student, and a section of neatly hung trousers and cardigans. I mostly wear the latter for interviews and presentations these days. Dressing in office wear makes me feel like I'm playing dress-up in someone else's closet, someone who is a proper grown up.
The first time I worked in an office was a temporary position while I was home from college for a summer. My mom took me to the outlet mall and bought me my first work clothes: an A-line khaki skirt with an attached belt and a coral pink blouse. She also loaned me some of her clothes that reasonably fit since there was no point building a full office wardrobe for me yet.
I hated all of it. I grumbled loudly about fascist beauty standards and arbitrary norms of respectability. I argued that I could input data just as well in the clothes I wore to class. I was right, but being right didn't change anything. I still needed income, and to keep my job I needed to adhere to the dress code. Not only was it policy, but office cultures can be outright cruel to people who don’t satisfactorily embody office dress codes and demeanor.
PLUNGING INTO THE WORKWEAR ABYSS
A few years ago, I started working as a full-time office receptionist. The job description stated that I needed to present a "professional" first impression for the company. I again turned to my mother for help. After twenty years of dressing myself, I felt suddenly clueless about how to put together an outfit. Luckily, she was already coming out to visit me, so we went shopping together again and I relied heavily on her as the arbiter of sartorial propriety.
My mom and I usually immensely enjoy shopping together, even when we can't afford to buy anything. But that excursion was extremely frustrating all around. In retrospect, it was a great bonding experience for us and learning experience for me. But what I remember most vividly are the fierce disagreements we had about whether the heels I wanted were too high and if the pencil skirts I liked were too tight and too short (yes, yes, and yes).
Then came the sticker shock. Standard office clothing, especially for women, is fucking expensive. And putting it together is time consuming. Additional expenses include beauty products, maintenance of our hair and nails, and accessories like handbags, jewelry, and -- of course -- shoes. My mother never used to venture out of the house without nylons, and celebrates bare legs as one of the concrete victories of feminism.
And then most business clothes require dry cleaning! It's an added expense and an added pain in the ass. But it can also be at least partially tax deductible -- so save your receipts.
This all further reinforces socioeconomic status. Higher paying jobs require more expensive wardrobes, which creates a cyclical challenge. But all women who work in offices, whether executives or secretaries, pay dearly for their appearances. Because my mom is a sociology professor, she explained this to me in excruciating detail even as she dragged me through Banana Republic.
LEARNING TO WORK THE SYSTEM
But she also helped me learn how to circumvent the system. One trick is to first try on clothing from multiple name brands and write down your preferred styles and sizes. Most brands will have names for certain cuts or styles, especially pants, like "Editor pants" or "Cassidy fit" You can then use that information at thrift stores or shopping online, cutting both hassle and expenses.
Through trial and error, I eventually developed my own style regarding work attire. My taste turned out to be uncharacteristically conservative, though partially informed by the growing amount of fabric required to hide my tattoos. But I also feel that dressing "professionally" means consciously ignoring what I intuitively want to wear.
I've grown more comfortable in business clothes than I used to be, but it still feels like a costume. The presentation is a celebration of structures I resist and representative of a social class I don't belong to. Sometimes I pretend I'm an actress preparing for the role of Sophisticated Businesswoman to reconcile my displeasure with what I need to do.
It's unclear to me how much of this discomfort is a social critique and how much is personal distaste. Mandatory dress codes tend to highlight my melodramatic and rebellious tendencies. My mom claims I've resisted wearing clothes I didn't want to since I was diapers, and I had real trouble with our high school dress code as well. But I haven't been officially disciplined for my clothing since twelfth grade, so I suppose I'm making progress.
It's taken the past couple years to gradually compile a work wardrobe that I like reasonably well. Here's some of my typical work looks and how to recreate them! I signed up for Polyvore and lost a whole afternoon distracted by shiny objects to make this happen for you!
JESSIE NICOLE GOES TO THE OFFICE
Does anyone else feel like an imposter in office clothes? Or have tips for scoring pieces more cheaply?