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The Way We Dress

sexy cat pose

This is only tangentially related to romance books. Oh, what am I saying? This is not at all related to romance books by even the most strained reading but it is an issue that has been on my mind for sometime.

Earlier this year, there was an article about Katie Couric and her somewhat provocative magazine shoot in Harper’s Bazaar. I didn’t find this particularly provocative but the Washington Post article suggested that Couric as a sex symbol was challenging the norms of what a woman can look like and still be taken seriously.

But the most striking aspects of the glossy feature are the images by photographer Francois Dischinger. They are an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.

There’s nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner — Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels — to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.

The problem that I saw with the Couric piece is that she could not dress like that on camera and still be taken seriously. In other words, her dress was for magazine article about Katie Couric and her fashion taste, what she thinks about botox, and her desire to remarry.

Following that was this summary of the Chicago Bar Association’s “What Not to Wear” presentation at Above the Law about how young female associates should dress at Big Law (big law are the big law firms around the country, but mostly in NY where first year associates earn six figures and work 80 hours per week).

"Looking sexy in a law firm is disrespectful" – Mary Nicolau. Absolutely. No one should be able to see your cleavage and your skirt or dress should be knee-length and not too tight. The partner you're working for is someone's husband/father/boyfriend. Show some respect.

"ladies, have some respect for yourselves. There are a lot of married men at law firms and you do not want to tempt them." Or, as the Honorable Benjamin Goldgar said, do not reveal your form in court because male judges will be distracted and female judges will be resentful. And, finally, if I need to interview for a new job because I wore red shoes, a side pony, a scoop neck dress and no hose, then I will be sure to bring my belongings in a paper bag and ask for spare change on my way out of the interview. Thank you Chicago Bar Association for reforming a former sleazy girl lawyer.

Recently a banker sued her former employer claiming she was fired because she was too attractive. Apparently her sexiness was too distracting for the male bankers she worked with. She was told to refrain from wearing turtle necks, pencil skirts, three inch heels (my entire shoe wardrobe), fitted suits.

Then the managers gave her a list of clothing items she would not be allowed to wear: turtlenecks, pencil skirts, and fitted suits. And three-inch heels. “As a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure,” her suit says, Lorenzana was told “she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.”

This is, of course, just the claims the female banker is making and there is no evidence but it is also consistent with what the folks on the CBA panel on appropriate office attire were saying. It is consistent with the dress policy at the Big Law firm of Weil wherein women must wear a garment with sleeves when representing the firm or meeting with clients. Because elbows and shoulders are simply too sexy?

I contemplated this and ranted about with my girlfriends. When I first started practicing, there had been an anonymous survey circulated amongst the jurists about appropriate dress. Appropriate dress for women was dark suits, hose, low heeled shoes, modest jewelry. No pantsuits were allowed. Fast forward a decade and pantsuits are allowed but open toed shoes would probably make the men in the black robes pass out in dismay.

Women can either look too pretty or not pretty enough. A v neck shirt is too provocative. Naked arms are too provocative. High heels are too provocative. On the other side, we can’t look to frumpy or disheveled because that shows we don’t really care about ourselves.

Ironically, many women think a man in a well tailored suit is very sexy. There is an entire romance line devoted to the hot sexily suited man (Harlequin Presents) yet I can NEVER imagine a man being taken aside saying “your suit is distracting the staff here. Please tone it down.”

As a the DailyKos columnist blogged on Monday, it is hard for men to look sexually provocative in their clothes. They don’t have a lot of clothing choice. But even if a man were to wear a tight fitting jeans at work and a t shirt that showed off his pecs and pipes, would anyone ever think of complaining that his clothes were too distracting? Or that they aren’t able to take him seriously because his body was too provocatively displayed?

For me, whether the banker’s suit is true or false isn’t the issue. For me, the issue is that we have to have this discussion at all about whether a woman’s work clothes can be too sexy, so sexy that it prevents the men around her from performing their jobs. I know that there is such a thing as appropriate and inappropriate dress (i.e., black lace camisole with a pair of pants wouldn’t be appropriate for the office but a v neck? Sleeveless? Heels too high?)

Have we come very far in terms of judging a woman based on her work? Is it fair that a woman can be deemed to be dressing too provocatively? Should we have to downplay our sexuality? Is that appropriate or inappropriate? Are we women responsible for inciting the lusts of men around us or should they be expected to be able to put that aside and just do their work?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


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    Jun 08, 2010 @ 04:37:09

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  2. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 05:55:18

    When I got out of college in the Dark Ages I interviewed for an insurance job, where one of the responsibilities included testifying in court. I managed to make it through two interviews, a business lunch in the executive dining room and a math test until I met the “ultimate authority,” a very tall, handsome man who told me I was “too blonde, too pretty and too young” to be taken seriously, in court or out. Now mind you, this was the Dark Ages, when I WAS a cute young thing and before comments like that were actionable. I didn’t know if I should be flattered or pissed, but I did not get the job—which of course worked out for the ultimate good in the end.

    I keep thinking of Melanie Griffith’s transformation in “Working Girl.” The movie may be over 20 years old, but not much has changed, apparently. “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.”

  3. Jane
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 06:02:16

    @Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe I’m sure we all could trade war stories. My favorite interview story is when I interviewed for the JAG. I was on my third round of interviews and I felt comfortable asking, at that point, about my concerns regarding the rumored disparity in treatment toward women. The officer who was interviewing me told me that I needn’t worry about being a woman, that I would have lots of men to date but that I shouldn’t date enlisted men – that was a no no. The non response told me everything I needed to know about working for the JAG.

  4. Mireya
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 06:13:54

    Personally, I never had that issue (I was born with the “right” looks it seems). However, having seen the stuff going around in my former job (yes, a LARGE lawfirm) all I can say is that it may or may not have anything to do with the way the dress but rather the degree of “youth and prettiness”. *shrugs* Many marriages broken, many inappropriate looks (a temp we had once lasted all of one day because she just couldn’t take the leering from certain attorneys), etc.

    As to that banker, all of the burden of proof is on her, and suffice it to say, she hasn’t proven to be the most brilliant of the lot by making all those interviews (her new employer, Chase, told her to zip it already).

  5. Gennita Low
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 06:39:19

    What about the other way around? When I was totally starving, I went for an “interview” at the then new and popular sportsbar with the capital H in its name. I was told to put on the company tee and be sure to knot it tight, and then to stand in a lineup with these tall, leggy, beautiful young blonde women.

    Um, I didn’t get the job. I was told to my face my boobs didn’t fill in the tight teeshirt. My girlfriend, whom I affectionately called Ding-Dong and still do, got the job, though.

    The manager wasn’t sympathetic when I told him starvation took away my mammaries. Ah well. :)

  6. SarahT
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 07:10:36

    How amusing! I always assumed that the US was less strict on professional dress codes than in Europe, but I guess it depends on the profession.

    Anywhere I’ve ever worked has always had a dress code. No low-cut tops, no jeans, no bare belly, no showing tattoos or body piercings, etc. How formal my attire had to be depended on the job, but it had to be on the conservative side no matter what.

  7. LVLM
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 08:04:36

    I get so sick of the burden of men’s inability to think straight and keep their dicks in their pants being a woman’s fault.

    Are men really that stupid and out of control?

    Turtle necks? What is so provocative about turtlenecks? I can see not showing cleavage. Even as a woman I find it distracting when other women have most of their boobs hanging out. But how most women dress for the office should be fine, including showing some bare arm. Jeez.

    I saw that woman that got fired from the bank. Yeah, she was stacked and curvy and I can see why people would look at her, but to be so distracted that you can’t function?

    If it’s true, then if I were the manager of the bank I would have fired all those guys who seem to be so undisciplined that they cannot stop thinking with their dicks for a couple of hours a day to do some work. Really? Are we talking about 15 year old’s?

  8. Tiffany Clare
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 08:14:16

    Interesting topic. I never thought much of it before my current job. I worked in a private career college for many years (makeup artistry) and the dress code was to dress nice. And yes, there were many a low cut tops. No bellies or anything. Mind you, this was a mostly female and gay field. FULL of ARTISTS.

    When I switched career fields (real estate–where there are also a lot of once upon a time lawyers) there were a lot of things I realized. Men and women do not like the underlings to look sexy in the least or wear anything slightly revealing or tight. I think they’d be happiest if we all wore paperbags to cover us from head to toe, they like their drones to all act and do the same thing. I still wear my deep vee shirts, because they suit my body type. And I’m not exactly large breasted but the vee totally lies and makes me happy about my body, and me being happy about myself means I’m happy to work, me not happy means get the hell out of my face people. I get looks and I get comments from my female coworkers mostly telling me to pull up my shirt or a whoa, you’re daring when they see me in the morning. I really don’t see what the big deal is.

  9. Sharron McClellan
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 08:24:49

    I'm always surprised to hear that dress (short of what we've discussed as inappropriate) is an issue anymore. Granted, ten years I worked in a smaller office once where open-toe was an issue but now I work for a HUGE corp. and wear whatever I want-‘jeans, v-neck shirts, open toed shoes 4 inch heels, camisole with jacket, etc. . Of course, I work with 98% male engineers and I think they could care less. Oddly enough, what makes them sit-up up and take notice of me is when I wear classic red lipstick.

    Men are weird.

  10. Patricia
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 08:47:46

    I have been practising law at NY law firms (e.g. Big Law) for over 25 years and there are times that I want to grab the female attorneys and shout GROW UP!!! So please GROW UP!!!

    I am not saying that there are no kernals of truth in your rant: when I first started practicing law, women had to dress in suits that were patterned on men’s suits. Over the years, what is acceptable for women has evolved greatly so women can wear suits, pant suits, dresses, and separates. They can wear pencil skirts and sleeveless dresses. What they can not do, and be taken seriously, is wear provocative clothes: the too short skirts, the too tight clothes, too much cleavage. Attorneys are paid for their good judgment, not just for their legal knowledge, and a woman who dresses to seduce rather than counsel has just shown that she has no judgment to speak of. It has nothing to do with inciting lust in her co-workers and everything to do with showing that she would rather flaunt her body than her judgment and legal skill.

    I have had to deal with a lot of prejudice against women in my long years of practice and it just drives me nuts when women associates sabotage themselves by dressing in a non-professional manner.

    Despite what you think, if a man showed up in the office in provocative clothes, he would not be taken seriously either. However, men don’t show up in offices wearing too tight clothing: either it’s suits or, if the dress code is casual, it’s jeans and t-shirts or polos. I have never seen a man show up in an office dressed in a manner that was designed to exhibit his sexuality rather then his ability to do the job. I have seen men who look slovenly even when wearing a suit, and they are criticized just as much as a woman who dresses in a skirt that barely covers the essential bits.

    Men have no real choices about what to wear to look professional. They only have to wear a suit, shirt and tie and most go for conservative choices so that they do not have to think about what matches or what is appropriate.

    Woman have numerous choices in the image the they project. There are numerous styles of suits or dresses and, in the office, it is the image that clients first see. That image matters and it matters whether the attorney is a woman or a man.

  11. FD
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 08:54:53

    I’ve heard a lot of distressingly misogynistic comment about this story, even from over here across the pond.

    Speaking purely as a HR manager, without any feminist angle at all, the company appears to have put dress restrictions above and beyond the dress code, (if any) upon her, and her only. That’s automatically going to get you into trouble, and I can’t tell wtf they were thinking.
    If that is what they have done, regardless of her work quality, or any other issues, they are likely to have trouble defending it, given that they don’t seem to have accused her of breaching any kind of internal dress code. It’s inherently unfair, quite apart from any potential sex discrimination present in the reasons given for the restrictions.

    Speaking more personally, if you’re female, there is pretty much no way not to get stuck on the horns of this particular dilemma. It goes along with all the other ridiculous impossible ideal bollocks.

  12. Courtney Milan
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 08:57:04

    Haters gotta hate.

    The most successful female lawyer that I’ve ever met told me to wear red because it was one of the few things women could do in a business setting that men couldn’t.

    Her favorite suit was cherry-red. And nobody ever, EVER gave her guff for it–not that she would have taken it in any event. She was strong as steel and five times as pretty. I remember her giving someone advice on wearing a nose ring, which went like this: Act like it belongs, and it will.

    Not sure the advice works for someone who is a peon, but then, she wouldn’t have understood that. She was never a peon–not even when she was at the very bottom of the food chain.

  13. TKF
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:16:25

    The thing that really bugged me about the “hot” female banker, was that they were making special rules for her. Is that even legal? My understanding (at least here in CA) is that dress codes must be uniform to be enforceable. It’s not as if the office dress code forbade those items for everyone (can you imagine most professional offices banning turtlenecks and pencil skirts?). And I can't stop laughing about calling a woman who's 5'5” “tall”. Even in three-inch heels I'm still taller than her.

  14. katiebabs
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:19:29

    I used to work in a male dominated production company and our receptionist was very attractive. She always looked very professional and took pride with her looks and clothes.

    Because of that ,the powers that be assumed she wasn’t that bright and formed opinions about her and refused to move her up in the company. Before I left for another job, the owner admitted to me the reason they wouldn’t promote her was because of her model like looks.

    So very, very wrong.

  15. Kati
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:26:38

    When working for a non-profit, I often supervised between 4-6 fresh out of college ladies who worked as Admin. Assistants. I spent a lot of time giving guidance to them on professional demeanor (literally how to answer the phone professionally; no, it’s NOT OK to call in hungover on Monday morning, etc).

    One of the things I routinely had to cover was appropriate dress at work. What astounded me was that very often they truly were completely unaware of appropriate professional dress.

    I had to say things like, “I should not know what color your thong is or whether or not you have a tattoo on your lower back. If you’re going to wear low cut pants, you need to wear a shirt long enough to tuck into your pants when you are seated” or “I should never know what jewel you have in your belly button.” And this was in an office where the dress was business casual. And for me, no, it wasn’t because I was worried about whether it would distract the men, it was because it’s just not appropriate to have your panties hanging out of the back of your pants.

    What flabbergasted me was that these girls honestly didn’t know that.

  16. LoriK
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:28:59

    “Looking sexy in a law firm is disrespectful” – Mary Nicolau. Absolutely. No one should be able to see your cleavage and your skirt or dress should be knee-length and not too tight. The partner you're working for is someone's husband/father/boyfriend. Show some respect..

    Wow, there are so many layers of FAIL in this it’s hard to know where to begin.

    The partner you’re working for needs to control is own urges and not expect his underlings to do it for him. Failing to do that is using the same logic the Taliban uses to make women wear burkas. Also, it is not part of my job to look out for the private relationships of people that I work with.

    What decade is that law firm in? Are none of the partners female or gay?

    The reason to dress professionally rather than provocatively at work is because it’s work. The focus is supposed to be on your skills, not you “endowments”.

    I’m going to stop there because I think I feel an eye twitch starting.

  17. Mary Lamb
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:31:01

    “Are men really that stupid and out of control?”

    Yes, I think they are. :)

    It all comes down to this. Men can get an erection just looking at women in a tight turtle neck. Women (or at least I have never) in general, don’t react that obviously to men in provacative clothing. In other words, I have never gotten a “wet-on” looking at a man in a suit. Just hasn’t happened. Sure, I’ve stared a time or two -but my body just has never reacted as sexually as a man’s does to a good looking women. Men are more susceptible to visual stimulation than woman when it comes (LOL) to sexual attraction. Basic biology. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t EVER excuse boorish behavior in a work situation. But it must be acknowledged….some women like to take advantage of this male reaction -but its a two-edged sword (har) for obvious reasons.

    As far as the chick who was fired for looking too sexy (uh-huh -know several men who upon looking at her posed pictures have drily stated they would be able to work with her without distraction)she is obviously gunning for a reality show and this lawsuit is not to be take seriously. She got what she wanted out of it -lots and lots of free publicity. Can a “Real Bank Tellers of New York City” show be far behind?

  18. Jane
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:39:16

    @Mary Lamb Therein lies the problem for me. I don’t believe that men can’t control themselves. They may have been allowed to think so or we may say that biology reduces their ability to work around a woman in stiletto shoes showing off her knees and elbows but I certainly believe that men can control themselves AND I don’t believe that women should dress in such a manner as to prevent men from being able to control themselves.

  19. Mireya
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 09:58:47

    As a P.S. to my previous comment regarding the banker: the branch she used to work at is actually the branch I used for my own banking. I saw female tellers showing cleavage, and I do mean CLEAVAGE. This is something I recall having heard her mention in one of her earliest interviews in the local media, and she was not lying as to that respect. I do think that she did go overboard with all the media attention she attempted to draw to herself.

  20. Natasha R
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 10:04:01

    This post reminded me of a conversation I had with my male friend a while back. He’s a muslim and I was talking to him about the different customs that they follow. When I asked him why the women had to wear a burqa ( his response was that the women wear that so they don’t distract the men. Those were not his exact words. But that was the general idea. I’m not sure if this is fact or his assumption. But I remember thinking that was the most ridiculous concept!

    My workplace has a very relaxed environment. Most days I wear jeans and a T-shirt. I dress like a tomboy anyway. So dress code has not been a problem for me….yet

  21. LVLM
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 10:14:02

    @Mary Lamb:

    It all comes down to this. Men can get an erection just looking at women in a tight turtle neck

    You know, I get it if a woman is walking around with her most of her boobs hanging out, or if she’s wearing a tight skirt.

    But women can’t help it if they are nice looking or are well endowed or fit the modern idea of sexually appealing.

    What are women supposed to do then, tie up their boobs, wear army tents and try and look ugly?

    I think that’s unfair to women in general and perpetuates women only being judged based on her sexual appeal for good or bad.

    Yes, I get that men are more visual, but they aren’t animals and are perfectly capable of understanding what situations are appropriate or not to allow their own sexuality to cloud their ability to function.

  22. May
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 10:14:05

    ” The reason to dress professionally rather than provocatively at work is because it's work. The focus is supposed to be on your skills, not you “endowments”. ”

    If women want to be taken seriously a double standard shouldn’t exist at all.
    I see “professional” women all the time wearing suits cut to flatter, beautiful jewelry, blouses, heels… I always think how awesome and kick ass they look. That said, when I see a woman in a painted on skirt, with her wonder-bra clad breasts thrust out into my face I really don’t think she wants to be valued for her mind and work. Nor do I want to stare down a valley of boob to get my bank loan (or whatever).
    There’s that old saying about a time and a place for everything – and I think that some common sense and keeping in mind what is appropriate for your line of work is key. If an outfit would double as a date or club outfit probably isn’t a great choice for court or taking over the business world, ya know?

  23. Lori
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 10:18:53

    I know a young, gay man who was requested by his boss to wear looser clothing because he was distracting the other gay employees. Without a union he’s up a creek so he’s seeking another job.

    If men can’t control their urges then why do we let them control our politics, our banks, our children’s educations? Human adults should be capable to act like human adults.

    I find it frustrating that we can be in 2010 and women are still being blamed for being women.

  24. Ros
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 10:26:51

    If men can't control their urges then why do we let them control our politics, our banks, our children's educations? Human adults should be capable to act like human adults.

    @Lori: THIS. A hundred times this.

    Seriously. Have these guys all secretly been reading HQ Presents and thinking that is how they are supposed to behave whenever a woman appears in their office? Turtle necks?! Business suits! Shoes with heels! Goodness me, how can any man be expected to resist such blatant dressing for sex. Give me strength.

  25. dick
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 10:38:28

    In most public situations, at least from 10% to 50% of the body is covered by clothing. So, everybody is, in some way, judged by their manner of dress, whether they be male or female. Seems to me common sense says dress appropriately for the situation, no matter what the situation is and in nearly all situations, moderation is best.

  26. Heather
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 11:15:05

    I think it’s really interesting that on the same day Jane posted this, Yahoo posted this article about “cute summer work clothes.”

  27. katt
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 11:25:32

    Lord save us from Lawyers walking around with hard-ons from an elbow… give me a break.

    What about the men who work in other places? How do the men at the H bars and other such places work day and night?

    REal men, don’t seem to have the same single track problems as people in those big towers do. Teachers, Doctors, Athletes, Policemen, hell, ever taken a look around a shopping mall? Lots of distractions there but does it render men incapable of walking and talking and heaven forbid thinking?

  28. Nicole
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 11:34:42

    I think the approach used by the Chicago Bar Association was incredibly inappropriate, however, the underlying point is still relevant to female lawyers. If you want to be taken seriously as a lawyer, especially when you first start out, it is better to dress a little more on the conservative side so that the first impression you give to the clients and partners (male and female) is a good one. This is not as much about men not being able to control themselves, because if they can’t then they have a problem. However, the partners who will make the decisions about your future at the firm will not take you seriously if you show up with extra revealing clothing.

    I am amazed at what I see some women wear to court especially when you should dress even more conservatively in court than at the office. Judges have been known to refuse to hear lawyers if they are wearing brown shoes instead of black (guys) so taking that risk that your client’s matter is affected by your attire is a huge one. I actually appreciate having to wear robes for some of my court appearances so that makes the decision easier and all the lawyers end up looking about the same.

    As Patricia said, clients are looking for a lawyer with good judgment and if you cannot even demonstrate that when you are deciding what clothes to wear for work, how can they expect you to make the best decisions relating to their case.

    Despite all the brouhaha, I can’t say that I run into that many instances of female lawyers dressing too provocatively. There are many options out there that encompass more than a navy blue suit and yet can still be appropriate.

  29. Dinah
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 12:08:51

    When I was in high school, 20 years ago, there was an article in the paper about women in the army being required to wear bras no matter how hot the weather because unconfined boobs were “too distracting” for the men. I had quite a chat with the recruiters when they came to my school about being asked to join an organization that would treat me that way.

  30. Julia Rachel Barrett
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 12:54:57

    I saw the woman in question interviewed. She is beautiful, she looks gorgeous in her clothes and yes, not only would she distract her male colleagues, she would distract customers – men and women. Her dress is provocative – she looks like a model. Sorry, her dress is distracting. I’m not saying I think she should be fired for it…what I am saying is that when it comes to being a professional, whether we like it or not, people expect us to look the part.
    I’m an RN. I can get away with a lot because I do my work in patients’ homes. I am not required to wear scrubs. I can wear street clothes. But would my patients and their families take me seriously if I wore flip-flops, which are my preferred footwear? Of course not – that would be disrespectful to them. How would the family of a dying patient feel if I wore a cleavage baring top as I bent over their loved one? Disrespected – even if it was a super stylish, super expensive, well-fitting cleavage baring top.
    My husband is a physician. Would he like to wear his worn jeans and favorite faded tee shirt to work? Of course. Does he? Never. In order for his patients to actually attend to his words, he must dress the part and that means tailored slacks, a neat button down shirt, tie and a lab coat.
    Sorry – life ain’t perfect and it works both ways.
    If I worked for some new internet start-up where the standard of dress is jeans and tees and flip-flops, that would be heaven, but…you can’t always get what you want – the Rolling Stones.

  31. Danielle C.
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 13:22:25

    I’ll be happy to switch to trousers and full-coverage blouses the moment male colleagues start wearing dresses and skirts. After all, to me nothing is sexier on a man than a well-tailored suit and elegant tie. I’ve yet to be turned on by cleavage. Then we can all be happy and non-aroused and able to focus on what mature adults do at the office: work.

    Reminds me of something I read a long time ago. During a rash of night-time assaults on women in Israel the idea was floated by politicians to impose a curfew on women. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir dryly pointed out that in civilized society the idea is to restrain the delinquents.

    To bow to dress codes that don’t intimidate weak men – or women afraid to rock the boat – helps perpetuate a society where values are dictated by tradition, not worth, and equality remains elusive.

  32. Lizzy
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 13:46:51

    Jane, how can you say this subject’s not related to romance novels? EVERY Julie James attorney-heroine wears 4-inch heels … :)

  33. L.A.
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 13:48:14

    I’m going to come at this a little backwards. Appearance and attitude matter and it can be positive or negative. Right, wrong or indifferent.

    My clothes are bright and quirky. They aren’t risque but I tend to stand out. I have moderately large industrial bars in both ears, tattoos that span both forearms and large tattoos under my collarbones.

    When interviewing to work in the conservative office I work in now people said that all of the above plus having a very youthful and sweet appearance on top of being an African-American woman was going to work against me.

    On a day to day basis most of my body modifications are visible. I would feel uncomfortable if I changed my “look”.

    At work, even from the higher-ups which kind of surprises me, I’ve had a positive response. Co-workers like my clothes which are professional but not conventional. People who probably wear suits just to go to the supermarket have complimented my tattoos. I regularly hear stories about that one time they almost got a tattoo and how they wish they had gone through with it and do I think they’re too old to get one. I’ve had higher-ups ask me about my ears and how much it hurt and one called them “cool”.

    Mostly people ask if I get taken seriously. Yes, I do. I express myself in a respectful, professional and tactful manner no matter who I’m speaking with. How I look doesn’t change that. Yes, I get asked out but I think people realize it’s because of who I am and not because my arms are showing.

    I don’t flaunt my tattoos or make a big deal about my clothes. I appreciate the positive feedback. I give positivity back and let my personality shine through. Even more than they comment on my appearance people are more appreciative of my positive attitude.

    In my experience, which may be an anomaly, the appearance plays second fiddle to the attitude.

    Side note: When people ask if they’re too old for tattoos or bright clothing I say no. You’re never too old to do something that will make you happy.

  34. Jayne
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 14:08:38


    I had to say things like, “I should not know what color your thong is… And for me, no, it wasn't because I was worried about whether it would distract the men, it was because it's just not appropriate to have your panties hanging out of the back of your pants.

    What flabbergasted me was that these girls honestly didn't know that

    Unless your aim is to have dollar bills tucked in your thong, you shouldn’t let it show at work. Color me astounded too.

  35. MaryK
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 14:14:50

    @LVLM: No kidding!!

    I have a curvy body type. Short of tent dresses, it’s kind of hard to hide that fact. I figure if somebody has a problem with it they need to take it up with God. No way am I going to wear a disguise because somebody might take offense at my basic body shape.

    No, women shouldn’t dress provocatively for work. But they shouldn’t be required to look more like men, either.

    You know if you get a bunch of businessmen together, they’re going to look like a fairly homogeneous group. If you get a bunch of businesswomen together, they’re going to look like a bunch of individuals. If you mix the groups, you’ll get a bunch of individuals breaking up the uniformity. Food for thought, maybe.

  36. Mary Lamb
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 15:06:59


    For the record, I do not believe men (99% of them anyway) are animals. But biology is biology. The biological reaction (i.e the “hard-on”) cannot be controlled. It just happens. Its the the ability to react rationally to the biology that makes us human.

    All I am saying is that men are not always guilty and women are not always innocent in this. Women do know this and some women often dress in ways that are designed to attract sexual attention at work. And sometimes it works out for them. So there is another facet here to this conversation. Some women consider dressing in a provacative manner to be empowering and maybe it does empower them.

    Ok to really get things atarted, I am thinking of the insanely provactive way the women on Fox News dress. Can’t see its hurt their careers any. Or the ratings. :) So maybe dressing a certain way, in certain situations really is a plus.

  37. Susan/DC
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 15:35:59

    Deborah Tannen has written about men and women at work, and while she focuses on language she also discusses dress as a form of communication. According to her, because women have so many choices, we are “marked” by those choices in that people make assumptions (rightly or wrongly) based on our clothing. Men have far fewer choices and so aren’t open to such judgement unless they go totally beyond the norm (Hawaiian shirts probably don’t fly in a white shoe law firm).

    The comments about attractiveness as a negative are interesting. A New York Times article a week or so ago that said the opposite — a number of studies have shown that attractive people get more positive attention, more promotions, and earn more. Can’t say how scientifically valid these studies are, but it’s interesting in light of the lawyer’s comments that she was too attractive.

  38. LizA
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 16:36:14

    My husband is a physician. Would he like to wear his worn jeans and favorite faded tee shirt to work? Of course. Does he? Never. In order for his patients to actually attend to his words, he must dress the part and that means tailored slacks, a neat button down shirt, tie and a lab coat.
    (end of quote)

    I find this really interesting as it shows how much our perception of what is appropriate is coloured by our cultural experience. I am the daughter of a doctor who went to work in jeans and t-shirts all his life. Here in Western Austria, pretty much no doctor wears a tie. When my brother (also a doctor) went to work in the uk, he was quite shocked that he had to wear one every day! When he worked in Germany, he was expected to wear white polo t-shirts…. (speaking of doctors and ties, my brother told me that ties tend to be the most unhygenic things ever – apparently doctor’s ties get very germ infected! )

    I do think that apporopriate professional dress is the ticket, the problem is to find out what is appropriate. I guess everyone can agree that a skirt that does not cover your behind is not appropriate, but there is a grey area – is a shirt that ends just above the knee okay? (here in Austria, yes). What is tight? sprayed on is easy, but how lose does a skirt really have to be? And so forth…..

  39. Michelle
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 18:43:30

    Even with all the attention this news story is getting, I think women are much likelier to be discriminated against for being unattractive or overweight. I’ve always heard that the one person least likely to make partner at a big law firm was an overweight/obese woman – no matter how good her work is. If she can’t control her weight, she can’t control her work or something like that.

    I’ve lost 30-35 pounds in the last year or so, and people treat me very differently (better) and even seem to respect my work more – though I’m not sure how the weight could change it. (Unless it’s just that I feel more confident.)

  40. DS
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 19:55:44

    Definitely regional. We’re really casual in the office. Jeans and t-shirts for all. Outside a little less but suits are for cold weather when you need them. I can remember a time when I wouldn’t have been caught dead without pantyhose– I must have been crazy.

    I also think the more experienced and confident a professional person is in this area, the less likely she or he is to dress up. Someone was griping to me a short time ago how it was unfair only judges wore robes in a US courtroom because they (our circuit judges) all wore jeans and athletic shoes under them.

  41. CourtneyLee
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 20:23:45

    I think one of the problems is that no one can define “provocative” to everyone’s satisfaction. Skintight, revealing clothing and skirts that don’t cover your butt when you sit down are easy to label provocative. Blatant cleavage, spaghetti straps, and a bared belly? Sure. Form-fitting and flattering? You’re getting into a gray area.

    But you will never be able to convince me that attire that works *with* the fact that I have breasts, a waist, and hips is automatically considered provocative. Women have curves. It’s just how it is. I don’t think that a woman should have to hide her body in order to be considered professional. She shouldn’t deliberately draw attention to her figure, of course, but simply acknowledging that she has a figure isn’t (or rather, shoudln’t be) inappropriate.

    I, personally, find men in suits very sexy. How often is a man’s body described as having “wide shoulders that tapered to narrow hips” in romance novels? And what shape are men’s suits typically cut to emphasize? Wide shoulders and narrow hips. SEXY. I would definitely be distracted by a fine specimen of masculinity in a well-cut suit, but it would be inappropriate and disrespectful of me to ask an attractive person to obscure his natural form in order to focus on my work. If I’m that easily distracted, I’m probably not qualified to work with people.

  42. Robin
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 20:32:56

    @dick: The problem, though (or one of them), is that in many professions, women are expected to dress a certain way, whereas men have no such expectations. In law, for example, there is a (sometimes overtly written) code that indicates women need to wear loose cut black or gray suits, closed toe pumps, and stockings/hose. If they wear a suit that is form-fitting, it is seen as “provocative” or “inappropriate.”

    And what’s bitterly ironic is that dressing in such a way does not actually facilitate women being treated “equally” to men in the profession; instead, there is often a judgment from other women that women who dress “appropriately” for the profession are inappropriately trying to be like men or it merely highlights how unequally women are treated and how much harder they have to work for often lower salaries and fewer benefits.

    If we had a standard of “moderation” or “appropriate” dress that did not aim to disguise women’s bodies or mark them as sexual objects, it would be a wholly different issue, IMO. But as long as women are viewed primarily through our gender (and as sexual objects), that conversation is fundamentally burdened with inequalities and inequitable expectations.


    I don't believe that men can't control themselves.

    Precisely. You and I have talked about this many times, so I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the way in which women are hypersexualized even in the ritual of supposedly “desexualizing” us is nothing less than a reaffirmation of patriarchy as the dominant institutional culture.

    And when women perpetuate this logic, we are giving credibility to such a ridiculous notion — that men can’t control themselves — as to be completely logically antithetical to the control they ARE exerting by insisting we accept these ridiculous norms or face threat of termination/lack of promotion. It’s insulting to both men AND women to think this way, and a reflection of how patriarchy restrains both genders from deviating too far from certain restrictive and inequitable social norms (like how men often feel they cannot take family leave time for fear of being perceived as lazy or weak).

  43. SylviaSybil
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 21:22:32

    I personally don’t prefer to wear skirts. They’re not comfortable for me. I have a long stride and I sit with my knees spread, which means that skirts are also impractical and immodest on me. So when I went to a summer school/camp whose dress code required women to wear skirts, I felt justifiably irritated. I showed up in the men’s dress code of polo shirt, dress slacks and business shoes. When called on it, I responded that I was in fact dressed according to dress code. I got a lot of dirty looks and rolled eyes, and several comments on “ladylike behavior”, but no one ever tried to tell me to change my clothes. However, I’m sure I was labeled a “troublemaker” or even worse, a “feminist”, when all I wanted to was sit comfortably in clothes that didn’t distract me. Interestingly enough, the women with short skirts, low cut blouses and six inch stilettos, despite the dress code specifying professional and modest clothing, were not called out on their attire.

  44. Suze
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 21:31:29

    I despise dress codes with every fibre of my being. What they boil down to is that I have to spend MY money on clothes that I don’t particularly want to wear, to suit somebody else’s sense of style of of what’s appropriate. And they’re often wrong.

    My current office had a dress code implemented by a previous manager who had a cowboy aesthetic. Big belt buckles and hats were okay, but pants had to conform to a certain fibre content and seam stitch. Backless sandals were okay, clogs were not for some undefined reason. Thick soles apparently being unprofessional. For fuck sake. If she hadn’t quit, I was going to.

    Yes, young people do often need lessons in the difference between clubwear and workwear, but you don’t need to give middle-aged women fibre-content guidelines for their freaking pants to prevent the 20 year old new hire wearing miniskirts to work.

    And speaking of men and erections, a health penis will have four erections per day that have NOTHING to do with any stimulus whatsoever. It’s just the body maintaining the plumbing. So it really doesn’t matter if anybody’s wearing a turtleneck or not (really? a turtleneck? since when are they sexy?), erections are going to occur. They’re not that big a deal, and they’re not necessarily about you.

    Grr, Snort. This whole topic makes me cranky.

  45. MikiS
    Jun 08, 2010 @ 23:32:21

    I’ve worked in the banking industry for more than 25 years. Banks are notoriously stuffy (like those law firms!)

    I agree with the previous posters who point out that at least a part of this issue is the myriad choice women have to dress and “look nice” compared to men.

    I have blue-collar roots. When I started working in an office, all I knew was, I was expected to wear dresses, skirts, or suits. I really did not understand the difference between a casual dress, a party dress, a work/professional dress, and a Sunday-go-to-church dress. I had to learn by watching (and comparing what I saw to what I was wearing!)

    Today, I work in an office that doesn’t have a lot of customer contact. So we have approved “business casual” dress codes. But if we were to have auditors or customers in, we are expected to revert to business dress. And that would include suit coats for both men and woman.

    I’ve known men written up for wearing shirts with no collars. For not wearing a shirt tucked into their slacks. I’ve never known a man stupid enough to show up for work in a tank top. I also know men who complain bitterly that there’s such a thing as “dress sandals” for women, but not for men. :-)

    I also know women who get ticked off when they aren’t treated seriously, but come into work wearing tank tops and skirts cut all the way up to their panty line.

    And we all pretty much look askance at the people at work with visible tattoos, unusual piercings, elaborate hairstyles.

    And, I do know one tall, beautiful, stylish woman who was asked to change her dress because it considered better suited for “clubbing” – even though everything was always covered. Despite the fact that she regularly looked 200% better than some of the “approved” clothes worn by co-workers (baggy khaki’s and wrinkled polos, for example).

    It’s changing slowly, because as business casual becomes more normal, we do grow accustomed to the more relaxed styles. But there’s still a lot of stuffiness in banking.

  46. Anon76
    Jun 09, 2010 @ 00:17:10


    This subject brings back memories that still chap my a$$. Memories that influence the way I dress today…and have dressed for a number of years since.

    Will post my experiences later when I’ve had some sleep. Some are doozies.

  47. JessicaP
    Jun 09, 2010 @ 00:48:08

    I remember going to a TRO hearing in federal district court on a government contract case. There was a gaggle of attorneys, including partners, from a power DC law firm. All were dressed in black/charcoal suits. I don’t even think anyone was so bold as to break out in a navy. The higher up the food chain meant maybe a more flamboyant solid color tie. There was one woman partner there, I believe she’d previously been the general counsel for a military service, and she was in black with some sort of pattern in black/white for the skirt. They could have been a flock of well-tailored similarly-colored boring birds. The assistant US attorney was a young African American woman, very nice looking, and she was in a gorgeous sunshine yellow suit. Very professional, very flattering, and a statement of complete confidence as far as I was concerned. She was accompanied by my civilian attorney colleague who always came to work in a suit, but this was a summer weight lighter color of some kind. I had on my JAG uniform and I was sitting in the gallery (Jane – I had a wonderful time as an AF JAG, learned lots, had very challenging work, worked with terrific people, traveled, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing – however, it’s a big law firm and you get good bosses and bad bosses, like anywhere else. The uniform meant I didn’t have to worry about what was appropriate to wear to the office). Our AUSA was smart, professional, prepared, and looked amazing in that suit. She went on to be a board of contract appeals judge not long after that. There’s no real point to this story, other than that I’ve been in a lot of courtroom/hearing room settings, and that one has stuck in my mind for years. We won, they lost, what our AUSA wore enhanced, rather than detracted or distracted from her presence in the courtroom as far as I could see.

  48. dick
    Jun 09, 2010 @ 09:57:30

    @ Robin:
    But what does equality between the genders have to do with it? Assessing the situation and dressing in accord with it is a personal decision that one should make regardless whether male or female.

    And you know, even though most men can control what they do because of their bodies’ reactions, they cannot always control the reactions. Sometimes, attempts to do so make the reactions more intense. Women know this, don’t they?
    Why then, would they choose to dress in such a fashion as to provoke the reaction–and I think it’s more than likely that some women do. Why would they not take into account that, even though most men can control the actions that follow the reaction, some men seem unable to?

    I don’t know, but it seems to me common sense goes out the window when these sorts of things are discussed.

  49. XandraG
    Jun 09, 2010 @ 10:15:11

    The lady has a point in pursuing the suit, and making as much hay about it as she can possibly do–it underscores the old boys’ club that still exists in industries like law and banking.

    This isn’t about whether or not the men can control themselves around her, it’s about them having to control themselves at all. In the old boys’ club, the women are servants and objects, and it’s the men who do all the controlling and all the decision-making, no respect for the opposite sex required. They’ve been forced more and more to open the doors of their exclusive clubs to not only women, but people of color, too, and this isn’t a new issue. Years ago, there was a debate that raged through the women in business organization I belonged to discussing whether or not cornrows or dredlocks could be worn professionally, while on the opposite end, there were reports of harassment over choosing not to straighten one’s hair. Then as now, it wasn’t the point that there were several gentlemen and ladies able to wear very professional-looking hairstyles in rows, dreds, natural, or straight–it was about the Old White Dudes having to look at and treat people of color and women as professional equals.

    Also–I’m sorry, but that woman’s list of “do not wears” read like a “dear penthouse” letter to a women’s dress fetish mag. It’s not very hard to imagine this group of apparently uncontrollable bankers sporting semi-wood over the list of all the things this lady should not wear. If these bozos can’t control themselves around a woman in a turtleneck, then a.) I sure as hell don’t want them controlling my money, and b.) I guess I know exactly what to wear if I should ever want to rob said bank. “It was a very sophisticated operation. We were powerless to resist. They wore…turtlenecks! And-and they had boobs!”

    The biggest boobs in this case are the bankers.

  50. Mireya
    Jun 09, 2010 @ 11:01:07

    PS PS: The problem with going to the media, like she did (I am still talking about the banker woman) are things like this, which the media love to dig out:

    No matter what her attorney says, she better be ready to present VERY STRONG proof and witnesses. If I were Citi, I’d refuse to settle out of court. Sorry, I just find this particular case amusing, particularly since I know some of the people in that branch, have seen the news, and the someone keeps opening her big trap more and more, only enforcing my perception that she wants 15 minutes of fame and a reality show …

  51. Anon76
    Jun 09, 2010 @ 12:13:53

    Robin said:

    “And what's bitterly ironic is that dressing in such a way does not actually facilitate women being treated “equally” to men in the profession; instead, there is often a judgment from other women that women who dress “appropriately” for the profession are inappropriately trying to be like men or it merely highlights how unequally women are treated and how much harder they have to work for often lower salaries and fewer benefits.”

    This! I was a Quality Engineer at a forge factory and often had to move throughout the plant to do my job. (To write procedures and work instructions I had to know the processes involved in every area of the building.)

    My office attire was professional, but not flashy-feminine but not sexy. No suit type atmosphere required of anyone. I’d wear slacks and a nice cleavage covering top.

    And you know what? It didn’t make a difference. The mere fact that I was a female in a formerly all male environment caused a heck of a stir. I finally resorted to dressing in the standard work uniforms issued to the floor workers just to lower the buzz. My male colleagues never had to do that.

    While that eased pressure on the one side, it then left me to deal with extra pressure from other women…be they strictly office personel or girlfriends and wives of the workers. It was bad enough when I was a “decent” looking woman wearing office attire, let alone when I “dressed like a guy to get in tight with their men.” WTF?

    True facts from that job:

    1) I interviewed five times for that job. Three of them in a bar with others in my department to see if I could, in my prospective boss’s own words “fit in with his guys. Being a woman and all.”
    2) Had my boss (a big guy) hunker down in the front seat of my Pontiac Grand Am every time we went to a meeting at our other plant out of town. He’d do this until we reached our town’s limits because, “he didn’t want any scuttle-but about him cheating on his wife.” He did this for almost three months before finally getting a clue.
    3) When I switched departments, I was invited to an informal Christmas party at my new boss’s house. His wife was so insecure about the fact that he and I had to make overnight trips to suppliers on occassion, that…she actually plopped her butt down on my hubby’s lap with her arm around his neck in front of everyone. Stayed there for about an hour, too. AND…she’d never met him before in her life!

    Yes, I live in redneck country. Can you tell?

  52. JenD
    Jun 11, 2010 @ 03:05:52

    I think the banker’s clothes were not appropriate for finance. Her skirts were so tight you could see the underside of her behind. Whether or not they treated her unfairly, to me, is a separate matter. I don’t think they were applying their rules fairly and with purposeful thought. A scary idea from people who handle my money.

    Lawyers, bankers and others in ‘Old World’ industries/careers- my hat is off to you. You all put up with more in five minutes than I will in a year.

    As far as attire- I think that there is a very fine line to walk. This is nothing new for women, yet frustrating just the same.

    Dress well enough to show you take care of yourself, yet not so much as you would give the impression that you put more stock in your looks rather than your capabilities.

    Men can, and do, control themselves. Most men I know aren’t walking hard-ons, grunting out their biological mandate to ‘tap that’.

    This is such a complicated issue. Good or bad, I prefer my bankers, definitely my lawyer, to be conservatively dressed and conservative in nature. Whether that makes me a betrayer to my gender.. I honestly don’t know. I do know I wouldn’t want my male lawyer to wear an open leather vest or tight pants that showed off his assets. It’s just not what I’m shopping for in someone representing my interests in court.

    Damn. Now I have an image of The Village People as lawyers.

  53. nicole
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 22:13:54

    she actually plopped her butt down on my hubby's lap with her arm around his neck in front of everyone. Stayed there for about an hour, too. AND…she'd never met him before in her life!

    i would have been unemployed and possibly in jail after that night

  54. ami
    Jun 14, 2010 @ 14:02:00

    doesn’t this totally destroy the julie james attorney books ? Especially in the courthouse scene where she’s wearing those nice high heels and clothes ? (not sure if they were too tight, poor quality or the clothing just couldn’t stand up to the pressure)

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