It’s consistently true that how we dress gives people a certain impression of us; it’s a way that we communicate nonverbally. For many, there’s that idea of the professional “uniform” that gives them the proper identity. Some of us target a look that is “professional but fashion forward” (my usual self-description). Much like you wouldn’t expect an artist to show up in a skirt suit with a very traditional blouse, we don’t expect someone interviewing for a surgery residency to show up in a skirt and blouse reminiscent of Stevie Nicks in the 1970s.. Quite simply, there are fashion norms for all professions, and in order to have professional credibility, you find that you need to stay within them.
While the above is simply a reality, the one catch lies in the fact that women are often held to a somewhat more exacting standard than the men who are their colleagues. Example, compliments of my own experience: I was at a professional meeting in a pair of nice wool pants with a complementary jacket. I was wearing brown suede Dansko Mary Janes that color coordinated with the rest of my outfit. I was critiqued about my “shoe fashion sense” by a senior male colleague. Now, those who know my lifelong shoe addiction well are assuming there’s a bit more to this story, which there is- I was nursing a broken metatarsal and simply couldn’t wear any other shoes except for running shoes (which seemed a bigger faux pas at the time, but perhaps not).
Dear male readers, be honest: How many of you have been publicly chastised for your shoe choice at a professional event by someone trying to mentor you? I suspect it won’t be more than a handful, if that many. But, somewhat ironically, the bandwidth of shoes that are considered “professional” for men is far, far more narrow than it is for women.
Lest you think I’m turning anecdote into data, think again. Obese women suffer in terms of roles available to them and how much they are paid, but their male counterparts don’t. Then there is the message in academia that “unless women dress modestly and conservatively, they look out of place in academia…they don’t have the right bodies to be academic authorities.” This image preference for masculine styling for women to be credible isn’t a uniquely academic phenomenon, either.
So, what’s a girl to do if she wants to be taken seriously but doesn’t want to be a cookie-cutter of everyone else around her?
Personally, I have a stylist who knows that I’m a bit bound by a Very Traditional Career, but who also recognizes that I have no qualms about labeling things, “Boring!” She does an amazing job finding things I consider smart- both in terms of their fashionability and because they navigate that narrow space I’ve got to work in. That enables me to put together things like this, which are within the “rules” but quite the opposite of boring:
And, not surprisingly, I have a shoe “dealer.” So that I can find functional but fun things like this:
As Don Henley said, I will not go quietly.