Do we need to have conversations about appropriate office dress?

Over the past few weeks the subject of appropriate office dress has popped up in conversation on a number of occasions. In fact relative to other topics of conversation it’s frequency has been significant so I thought I should broach it here.

Let’s be clear. We are not talking about judging a woman by the clothes she wears. I think my views on that subject are clear. The topic is focused on what is and isn’t ok to wear to work. And that may largely depend on the industry you are in. Or does it?

The general assumption is that the professions require a more professional look and that for the more creative industries anything goes.

I met with the director of a PR agency this morning and she lamented that she has had to pull a couple of the younger girls in her office into line this week.

“They don’t seem to have any idea about what is appropriate to wear in front of clients,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to cover their bits.”

Shoes of Prey cofounder Jodie Fox shared her office dress rule with me a few weeks ago: “if you can see down, up or through then don’t wear it to work”.

A former publishing colleague had to suggest to an intern recently that dresses that barely skimmed her bottom shouldn’t be worn to work. But the intern was perplexed by this and said she didn’t own longer skirts. This presented a dilemma as interns are not generally paid for the work they do, so can they be expected to invest in clothing they may otherwise never wear?

Are we being prudish with our views on work wear? It wasn’t so long ago that we were encouraging women working in the professions to lose the pinstripe suits and other traditionally masculine styling. I’ll admit I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made in this area. When I was researching the concept for Women’s Agenda last year I noted the female accountants that I talked to were immaculately groomed in dresses. The concept of dressing like a man to get ahead would never have crossed their minds.

Appropriate office wear can be a sensitive subject if not handled correctly. It has become politically incorrect to mention it and in some cases could land you in HR hot water if the intent is misconstrued.

I take the view that there needs to be a business reason why a person, man or woman, should be asked to dress differently. This shouldn’t have anything to do with religion, age, gender or your personal views on how people should dress or what constitutes style. A day in the office shouldn’t be a fashion parade unless you work in fashion and it is a clear requirement of the job and stipulated at the outset.

The problem is that appropriateness is a relative term and difficult to articulate. Perhaps that’s why the discussion on this topic is still so controversial.

Do you agree? Should we expect people to dress appropriately for the office or shouldn’t we care what others wear?

Marina Go is the publisher of Women’s Agenda, The Power Index and Crikey, as well as a director of Netball Australia. Women’s Agenda is Private Media’s new site for professional women. To check out the site and sign up for the FREE daily newsletter, click here.


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