Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Clothes Maketh The (Wo)Man

I've been here ten days and I'm pretty sure I've got the dress code just slightly wrong at work.

To be honest, it's hard to tell what I should be wearing. First we had some unusually sunny, warm weather (I am able to say "unusually" despite my short tenure because Irish summer weather is not really significantly different from British, which is to say: mostly wet, not very warm) and so everyone broke out their summer wardrobes briefly. Second, the real problem is that there are so few women in the building, even though I'm actively looking for them. I'm mostly left trying to parse what the men are wearing, which seems to vary more with age than anything (the common factors: tweed jackets with elbow patches among the older men; scruffy khaki trousers among the younger), and not-too-obviously subject the few women I run across to close scrutiny.

At the moment I'm probably dressing too formally and too... corporate, for want of a better word. That makes sense, because most the days I've worked in the department rather than at home I've resurrected my old work uniform: tailored plain-coloured trousers, a smart top or blouse and a cardigan on days cool enough to need it. The women I've seen are definitely dressing just a step down from where I am right now: more khakis and smart almost-jeans (jeans cut trousers but not in blue denim) than tailored trousers, more knit tops and layering than formal blouses, more knit dresses and shirtwaist dresses than fitted sheath dresses. There are some women who are wearing what I consider to be conservative office wear (knee length pencil skirt, blouse) but they are obviously senior administrative staff, not faculty. Weird how that works in academia, but if you're support staff you're almost certainly better dressed than the academics. However, that said, the female faculty I've met are definitely better dressed, more put together and obviously careful of the image they're presenting with their clothes than the men, which is presumably at least in part the rotten old double standard in operation.

I mainly enjoy the blog Inside Out Style, which is written by an (American) image consultant. It doesn't all work for Europe, but it's not radically out of step, in my opinion. Anyway, she provides a really good pictorial illustration of what I mean in her Polyvore pictures where she defines three levels of business dress. Nothing I've seen suggests I need to get anywhere near Level 1 but I'm pretty sure I've been dressing at Level 2 in a Level 3 environment:

LEVEL 2 BUSINESS DRESS (from Inside Out Style via Polyvore and Pinterest)

LEVEL 3 BUSINESS DRESS (from Inside Out Style via Polyvore and Pinterest)

I kind of think of it as half-smart outfit. Women seem to be either wearing a smart part of trousers or skirt with a soft knit top and layers, or else a pair of khakis or almost-jeans but with a button blouse and a blazer. Or they're wearing a dress, either more casual with a blazer, or more formal but with a cardigan or a denim jacket. It's both interesting to observe -- and I've never spent this much mental energy on this exercise before now -- and frustrating, because I don't have the right mix of clothes with me to match any of this, really. Yesterday I dressed up too much -- tailored navy trousers and a navy buttoned blouse. In addition to the fact that the blouse, which seemed to fit fine at home, turned out to gape at the bust and I spent all day fighting it and feeling self-conscious, it was just too much for the environment. Today though, I think I went the other way. I'm wearing almost-jeans (heavy grey ponte knit trousers from Land's End that I LOVE LOVE LOVE) and a black and white checked knit top that I made and I feel like I dressed too far down. So I'm kind of frustrated. For all my wardrobe planning and shopping and sewing the last 3-4 months, I've still not got the right wardrobe. Some of it is just that I couldn't know until I got here how I needed to dress, but still: frustrated.

One break from my uniform is that I did wear a skirt last Friday. I have... issues, with wearing overtly feminine clothes in work situations that I am determined to get over because I want to have more options in what I wear. So, I wore the turquoise skirt I made with a blue RTW top and a blue RTW cardi. It looked fine, I think, although I really don't have the right shoes for the outfit, and I felt good about right until I walked in the door of the building. Suddenly, I felt like I was wearing a costume, or like I was wearing drag, and I spent the whole day feeling more and more uncomfortable. It wasn't that I felt like people were responding negatively to what I was wearing -- in fact, I bet nobody could have said what I'd been wearing two seconds after I'd left the room -- it was all some kind of internally generated discomfort. I've started to think I should put off my skirt wearing plans more until the autumn/winter, when I can legitimately wear thick tights and boots and feel more covered up and sensible than I did in sheer skin-toned tights and shoes. There's a part of me that wants to keep grinding away at wearing skirts, in a kind of fake-it-til-you-make-it, gritted-teeth-determination approach to life but I honestly don't know if I have the mental energy to deal with my self-esteem problems on top of starting a new job right now.

One thing about that experience is that I decided that I need to make sure I don't make too many skirts. I had three on my list to make this summer: a maxi casual skirt, which I think I will make anyway because it is not meant for work attire and maxis don't seem to set off my alarms the same way; a rip-off of that blue and white Nordstrom skirt, which I am going to hold off on making any decision about for now (helped by the fact that I have literally not even one of the component parts, not even a pattern, in my possession and needed to shop for all of them); and finally a linen skirt in the same fabric as my turquoise linen jacket, which I have definitely scratched.


  1. Sorry to hear this is all so stressful for you. Glad you have found a helpful and reassuring blogger to support your observations. I am sure your wardrobe will settle in soon. Academic posts will surely be more suited to winter wardrobes anyway - we all have difficulty owning clothes in a UK/IR 'summer' so the other females probably have similar wardrobe worries.
    Do remember that you can be the one to set the tone, and not the other women. We are all individuals and as you are the fresh new individual then you get to wear whatever you decide is you. You could be the fashion leader!!

    1. It probably seems WEIRDLY stressful, in the sense that I tend to get very worked up about my clothes at work and so on. However, I had a terrible experience with a hypercritical manager who basically ripped into me all the time for every single thing I wore and how I looked and how I presented myself and it left a mark.

      I don't really aspire to be a fashion leader at all, I feel like the most I can aspire to is that if people notice my clothes it is in a positive rather than negative way. I'm just conditioned to assume, I suppose, that people will start from a base level of thinking about my personal appearance in a negative way and I will need to work frantically to get to where they just don't notice it at all.

    2. Sounds like you have had an awful experience in the past. No wonder this is such a challenge for you. Such a shame that you enjoy clothes so much and yet have been taught that it is not a joy but a source of criticism and judgement.
      I do hope that this new work place environment along with this methodical and studied way of approaching the clothing issue will soon give you that feeling of blending in, and that you will be able to enjoy your clothes everyday that you wear them.
      Do write again about your work wardrobe and let us know how it is improving!