Dress for Success: Wear a Burka

My husband got an email from his boss the other morning. It said that the university where he teaches had implemented a new dress code: “No jeans. For men, ties; For women, dress demurely.”


Needless to say, the new code inspired a spate of very funny (and some outraged) emails. “Demurely?” wrote in one female colleague who’d just joined the faculty. “Isn’t that a tad 19th century?” Another (male) colleague found the new policy worryingly sexist: “I should be allowed to wear a demure dress too if I want!” The best comment, however, came from a professor who, in the interest of fairness, asked whether the school could address the “appalling” level of student dress as well. “Perhaps they could issue combs at registration?” he queried cynically.

Fortunately, before all the female professors ran out and bought their new burkas, it came to light that this had all been an April Fool’s prank. And a good one at that. It certainly had me going.

But I think  it does touch on a very sensitive issue vis one’s career: how do you dress appropriately for work, particularly in this era of business casual? What’s too casual?

I remember my first job – also at a University – where I looked like I was about 12 years old giving a lecture to 150 25-year olds each week. So every day I would don my “costume” – which was invariably some version of pants suit, heels and silk scarf – the latter tossed in to add 5 years to my youthful visage (or the equivalent in gravitas). Didn’t work very well.

I always thought it was particularly hard for women to figure this whole sartorial thing out, as we tend to both judge and be judged more harshly for what we wear. When I was teaching, for example, someone wrote on one of my course reviews that I needed “a new pair of shoes.”

“Hello? Is that really important?” I thought indignantly. “Aren’t you listening to anything I say?” Apparently not. And, upon reflection, I guess those lectures on bureaucratic reorganization were really boring…

But then I read this post by a VP at Google fretting over which footwear – Uggs or Eccos – was most appropriate for his company (Oh to be a VP at Google!) And I do remember a friend in graduate school who got a course review from one student which read: “Mike needs to lose the black socks and Docksiders.” Ouch.

Penelope Trunk, master of all things work/life related, solved the problem by hiring a stylist to help her shop. Which is one solution, if you can afford it.

I can’t. Which is why I’m happy to have finally landed a career where I wear some version of my pajamas every day and no one but the mailman ever sees me. So if we’re really meant to “dress for the job we want,” I think I’m doing really well: at my last job, I once accidentally wore my slippers to the office.


A great website for finding affordable/attractive office wear is The Working Closet.

Image: Woman in Pink Dress Sitting in Chair Holding Roses via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Reply Ariel Kalil

    April 3, 2009, 11:28 pm

    Dels — congrats on the blog! I’m pleased to be an “early adopter.” :) In this post you refer to Penelope Trunk as the “master of all things work/life related” and because several of your other posts also mentioned her I took a look. Great blog, too. But I was surprised, given your description of her, to find out that she is recently divorced and that (as she describes it) the divorce was precipitated in large part by the incompatibility between the growing demands of her career and the family arrangement that she and her husband had settled on to accommodate those demands (namely, that he become a stay at home dad). Post-divorce, she now has a full-time “house manager” as well as a full time nanny. Given this, I’m wondering exactly what you meant by “master of all things work/life related.”

  • Reply delialloyd

    April 4, 2009, 6:47 am

    thanks, ariel. always best to be at the forefront of a new movement (!)
    re: penelope trunk. she has blogged a lot about her personal life and the work/life strains therein. perhaps, with hindsight, I should have just said “mast of all things work” related (though she has lots of good advice on other areas of work/life balance unconnected to marriage per se). Thanks for being such a close reader!

  • Reply judy

    April 4, 2009, 4:34 pm

    I love this post! And actually struggle with this question, as one who is fashion challenged. I wonder what my clothes say about me. or more accurately, are they saying the same thing to everyone else that they are saying to me. (I’ve been advocating that converse tennies are both sexy AND professional, but I’m not sure I’m winning anyone over.)

    No time to click your links right now. I’ll be back!

  • Reply Leah

    April 4, 2009, 9:01 pm

    I’ve always had the opposite problem! As a young, female chemist, not many years out of college, I was told at an interview that I would need to learn to dress down. Apparently a suit and pumps was too much for them.

    When I left the sciences to work on the business side of the aisle, I continued to get (usually gentle) ribbing for my refusal to wear jeans, even on “casual” Fridays. Now I’m the only stay-at-home mom at preschool drop-off who wears heels. But I wear with them jeans! Usually.

  • Reply Paul

    April 4, 2009, 10:16 pm

    Hey Delia (or should that be Dels) – I struggle with the whole sartorial thang, so could relate in my own way to your latest blog… which is sharp and witty just like the penholder. I often receive comments about not wearing a suit and tie or for having an earring, which indicates for me similar levels of enlightenment to Mr. Berlusconi with his take on tanning. Picking up on a point which, I believe, Wilde made, why start your day by wrapping something tightly round your neck. There is a degree to which I try to fit in, but I think the important things about me come out of my mouth and not my wardrobe. Hey ho.

  • Reply delialloyd

    April 5, 2009, 9:49 am

    Intrigued by Leah’s description of the science world. I guess to be taken seriously in a lab one must wear “flats.” Paul–sounds like you’d fit in perfectly as a VP at Google. Perhaps your next career move?!?!? I’ll try to find you some Uggs to go with your earring.

  • Reply wendy

    April 6, 2009, 11:00 am

    In response to Paul’s question: The reason men wear ties is because they are, in essence, pointers. And they are pointing to your male appendage. Ties are only a way in which the male members of the species can let the entire world know that they do, in fact, have d*cks. In case anyone forgot…

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