Learning to dress “professionally” in a white man’s world

Three women wearing business professional clothing.

(Image source: Women’s Economic Development Agency)

As someone who has recently started their first office job, I’ve found that there is a high learning curve to beginning to dress professionally. All the tweed and the blazers  and the high-necked dresses can often mean buying an entirely new wardrobe to wear in the place you’ll now be spending all your waking hours. And it can also mean confronting a whole new playing field when it comes to gender, race, and class dynamics. 

The politics of clothing is something most women deal with constantly. In this enlightening post, Lisa Wade of Sociological Images explains just how complex it can be to dress yourself as a woman:

Doing femininity doesn’t mean obeying a single, simple rule. Instead, it’s about occupying and traveling within a certain space.  In this case, usually between “proper” and “flirty.”  Women have to constantly figure out where in that space they’re supposed to be.  Too flirty at work means you won’t be taken seriously; too proper at the bar and you’re invisible.

….There is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong.  It’s not just a faux pas.  Once you’re “‘asking for it,” you could be a target. And, once you’re reached “prudish,” you’ve become socially irrelevant.  Both violence and social marginalization are serious consequences.

In a professional setting, dressing “right” involves striking the perfect balance of pretty (but not conceited), feminine (but not too girly), and attractive (but not slutty, and certainly not queer). Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign to become the first woman president of the U.S. is a great example of the tightrope that is dressing professionally as a woman.

While many women in office settings deal with it, the balancing act can be compounded by certain factors. When I asked my Twitter and Facebook communities about their experiences dressing professionally, I was overwhelmed by how many women responded that their body type is hard to dress. “Any skirt/pants I wear needs to be a size larger because apparently my big butt is seen as unprofessional,” tweeted @FministaCansada@JessLivMo felt similarly: “Put white girls in a pencil skirt, it looks crisp, put me in a pencil skirt, it looks sexy.”

A woman's leg, marked with varying degrees of where a skirt could hit, labeled "slutty," "prudish," "asking for it," etc.

(Image credit: Sociological Images)

Dressing for office jobs is also about money and class, which Tressie McMillan Cottom notes in her piece on the investments poor people make in status symbols:

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on.

At minimum, professional dress means no stains, no tears, no lines, bra straps or runs in your tights. But, as Cottom notes, being merely “presentable” is sufficient only for the privileged. Signaling to gatekeepers that you’re “professional” means having new, elegant clothes, and owning enough clothing to properly match everything you wear. It means not wearing “tacky” (code for “lower-priced”) clothing. Considering that professional attire often costs much more than casual clothing, this gets expensive fast.

And I’ve realized that dressing professionally means assimilating into whiteness as the default. Displaying any note of non-whiteness is seen as colorful and exotic at best, flamboyant and distracting at worst. Neutral tones and solid colors are the norm in office culture, and traditionally Western dress is expected. Women with kinky hair learn through trial and error that hair that reminds your interviewer that you are not white will not get you hired.

In addition to being taught to assimilate into white culture, women of color often feel pressure to dress in a way that challenges stereotypes they face. As it is, women of color have to struggle to be taken seriously in positions of power; wearing “distracting” clothing can only make this worse. For many Latinas who are stereotyped as being hypersexual, professional clothing has to be all the looser and more conservative. For other women who face judgements around being tacky, or aggressive, their clothing must do everything possible to counteract those stereotypes.

Women and people of color are still largely underrepresented within corporate culture, and particularly within positions of power. For women who may be one of the few people of their identity in their workplace–and therefore probably face regular micro-agressions–wearing the wrong clothing can compound these feelings of isolation. Even if the problem is not their identity, being one of the few women, or people of color, or queer or disabled people in the office means that you don’t really have the privilege of assuming it’s not about you.

Professionalism is about survival. In order to be hired, promoted, or to get a raise, one has to be perceived as deserving and worthy. Considering that achieving the “perfect professional look” is borderline impossible, it is time we start valuing people for their skills, dedication, and compassion–not for their pant suits.


Juliana was once thought to be wearing a costume by a friend’s parent. It wasn’t a costume.

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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