Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Nothing to wear

There seems to be a problem with British women finding anything they can wear when they enter the highest echelons of management. One executive had to start designing the clothes herself:

“I hate that asexual look – that middle of the road at Morgan Stanley style. I like a double-platform shoe,” she says, looking down at her Louboutins. “You can run to meetings in them, they’re comfy . . .” At 29, Paterson Smith, a state-school-educated girl who can pitch in three different languages, runs sales and marketing in the UK for hedge-fund products at Rothschild. The more successful she has become, the more flamboyantly she dresses. “I enjoy my clothes now, instead of wearing them as armour,” she says. But it was only when she got together with Starkey that she found the right grey pinstripe to wear with baby blue. “I’d been looking for eight years.”

A Lintner or Starkey design never leaves room for the sort of wardrobe malfunction Paterson Smith suffered on her first day in a new job. She stalked into the office wearing a cream Alexander McQueen suit, with a zip up the back, which undid itself to reveal an embarrassing expanse of executive thigh and caused a riot of internal e-mail banter for days afterwards.

Even though there is room for McQueen – and Pucci, Issa, Dolce & Gabbana and Temperley – in Paterson Smith’s work wardrobe, she says that most seasons, when she browses, her heart sinks. “Smocks? All I thought then was, ‘What the hell am I going to wear?’ That season it was Michael Kors, Celine and Kate,” she says, looking fondly at her saviour



Belle de Ville said...

IMHO there is a direct correlation between a woman's level in management and her ability to wear overtly sexy clothes to the office.
An owner, managing partner or top executive can get away wth it.

Unless a woman is working in a creative or fashion business, a woman in lower or middle management wearing overtly sexy clothes will, unfortunately, be considered to be a sex object rather than a competent executive. It isn't just organizational theory, it is biology.
On the other hand women can wear properply fitted suits and dresses with quality accessories and look feminine and chic without projecting an overly sexual personna. Andrea Jung, the CEO of Avon always looks feminine,smart, capable and chic.

Linda Grant said...

I think that depends on what the business is. Avon is a beauty company. Working for Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs might be a different matter.

L. said...

At my place of work wearing explicitly 'sexy' stuff would be almost subversive I think! It's generally quite dressed-down (for example, although not in any way vorboten it's rare for anyone to wear high heels here) so the challenge is to find clothes which are neither unduly posh, nor entirely casual, and which still somehow convey an air of professionalism (whatever that might entail).

My solutions to this have included suiting up anyway (i.e. I'm at work, so I'm wearing 'work clothes'), wearing clothes which are pretty rather than smart in a Jigsaw-ish kind of a way (i.e. I may not be wearing 'work clothes' but I do know how to dress) or indeed simply coming to work in jeans (which might, I suppose, convey a rugged sort of capability). It's a difficult balance to strike and I find myself spending more money on clothes now - which will presumably continue until I find a way of balancing the various demands of smart-casual.

Toby Wollin said...

My connection with the financial world comes through my sister, who is a manager with an organization that controls trading organizations. I have never seen her wear anything but suits - extremely conservative suits - at any time she has worked for them. Not dresses, not pant suits...I used to work for Equitable Life and it was the same: For a woman to be taken seriously, she needed to be wearing serious clothing which at least from appearance(fabric, cut, tailoring, etc.)had to be at the same level as what was being worn by the men holding the same level of jobs. Our guys (and this was 1975..I don't think this has changed much except for the price tag)were wearing extremely expensive suits, custom made shirts(with their initials embroidered on the cuffs), custom made or expensive English shoes - no jewelry except for a wedding band. I'm amazed it took this long for someone to come up with this idea for executive level women - they have no time to shop and can't find what they want/need when they do go out. Their needs for a work "uniform" are completely different from other women. Any woman working in that industry who showed any skin at all or anything that even hinted at sex would have been shooting herself in the foot in terms of her career - she would not have been considered fit for anything above the level of a secretary.

phyllis said...

Well, here’s another take on this: For several years in one job I bought coffee at the same location of well known coffee retailer here in Boston, and every morning I was served by the same woman. Every single day, she was unfailingly fast, friendly and she never made a mistake on a breakfast order. She was Muslim, and company management wisely let her wear her head scarf to work, even after 9/11, when it was a pretty touchy issue. The rest of her work uniform was a white chef’s coat, and the managers wore blue denim shirts to differentiate themselves form the counter staff.

Eventually she was promoted to manager, and one morning I saw she was wearing a denim shirt – without her headscarf. I discreetly ask her her about this, and she demurred because it was clear she didn’t want to talk about it, but the message was clear; evidently, it was perfectly okay, and sanctioned, to wear a headscarf when a Muslin woman worked in a low level position, but the move to management clearly meant she had a assimilate if she wanted to move up the ranks in the company.

I was appalled at this level of corporate hypocrisy and seriously considered writing a letter to the company, but decided not to because I didn’t want her to be singled out in any way.

Needless to say she left the company soon afterwards.

Deja Pseu said...

As a mid-level executive, I was actually fine with pantsuits throughout the 90's, using more trendy accessories to keep the look fresh. Then they threw "business casual" at us and it can be minefield. Most days now I wear trousers or nice jeans, a knit top of some sort, and jacket (still mostly the ones I bought at Forth & Towne in those few golden months they were open). The whole "baby doll" and smock trend is just anethema to me, and not just because of my age. I've never been comfortable with dressing in an overtly "girly" or sexy way for the office (at least not since I was in my 20's, and trying to catch the eye of that cute guy in Marketing). Even though I have occasionally seen women move up who do dress provocatively, past a certain point they're not taken seriously. Unfortunately, I've also seen that for women there's still a baseline of attractiveness regardless of age that seems to determine how far one will advance.

Gi said...

I work in middle management in the media industry. I am lucky to escape the "suit" framework (although I do wear them on some days) but wearing jeans to work is unthinkable. I am required to "carry" myself a certain way, meaning well-dressed/fashionable. I will be caught dead going to work in frumpy sweaters/faded jeans/sneakers.

Anonymous said...

When I worked in finance in the 80s and 90s I covered up completely. There were so few women at an executive level that finding a role model for dressing was difficult, but it soon became obvious that all the executive women were tall, quite slim (almost boyish) with short dark hair. Some were married but none had children. Mostly, their clothes were dark and forgettable. I was told to darken my red hair and lose my red lipstick, among other things.

INterestingly enough, my father worked at a bank, and one of his top executives was a woman who dressed, well, like a hooker. Yet she was definitely on the fast track. I once asked my father how she got away with it and he just shrugged. (My father was quite sex, colour and race blind). They were both very happily married and even my conservative mother thought she was a breath of fresh air in the staid bank. However without the protection of my father (and his boss), I think she would never have made it as far as she did, which would have been a major loss to the bank.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments; my husband and I were just talking about this topic, and he mentioned that he feels frustrated sometimes by the male "uniform." We both work in academia, in a department that is relatively casual; however, we both try to dress with some style. For him, there isn't as much room for individual expression as there is for me. Because he is a man, he is expected to wear the same basic thing every day. He said that he sometimes wished there was something more interesting to do than to play with shirt/tie patterns. The little bursts of flair that some men resort to--funky socks or (horror of horrors) bowties--are generally regarded as silly. So, while men do not have to contend with the connection between sexuality and clothes, they are curtailed by the very deep cultural expectations about what they can wear to work. And, they police each other fiercely, it seems.

lagatta à Montréal said...

gi, I work freelance in media/arts. I don't wear jeans when working at clients' or meeting them because frankly I have an ample Mediterranean behind and it doesn't look elegant, but I have several clients - including the heads of production companies - who most certainly wear jeans (not too faded). And certainly not frumpy sweaters or white trainers!

Once again, it depends on the milieu.

Gi said...

Hi lagatta (fellow canadian :) i work in Hong Kong now though)

I think working in media industry you are expected to look "good". Even jeans are expected to be well-fitted. For some studios, if you can make a wife beater sexy, you can get away with it. On the same token, if you are in a more corporate-oriented media company, a crappy suit is just as bad as a frumpy sweater. So the focus is more on looking "good", than whether a suit or a racerback 1-piece is appropriate or not.

I am very young for someone who is in middle-management, and I find I have to justify my position-to-age ratio by appearance. So i am very careful with my clothing selection for work, making sure I stay away from wearing pastel colour ensembles or ill-fitted fast-fashion items.

Duchesse said...

I loved a number of the Britt Lintner pieces beyond reason. Felt the thrum of longing.

Then I saw the sizes; according to her guide, UK14=US10. As a US 14-16, I protest!

She 'gets it' about how women would like to look in the boardroom, gets it about clothes that travel well, how about getting it re size?

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