“I’m a non-conformist. I don’t have to play by their rules. I’m going to wear what makes me happy.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard those words, I wouldn’t be looking for a job because I could probably just retire to a beach somewhere and call it quits.
The fact of the matter is, what you wear matters, especially as a woman. There are so many options that screwing it up becomes easy. This makes you easy to reject as a future employee, or as someone up for a job promotion. It’s so much easier for someone to say, “She doesn’t understand how to dress professionally,” than to evaluate you for your skills and knowledge. I know that it’s not fair, that it’s another form of social policing. I GET IT. IT IS THE WORST. But I still put on a skirt for interviews and so should you.
The fact of the matter is, before you can be a non-conformist and change the world, you’re probably going to have to conform enough to get into the system. Most of us don’t get to be “artistic” and play with shapes and colors in our clothing because we’re not on Project Runway. Most of us are on “Project Unemployed” or “Desperately Seeking Paycheck.” And even if you are employed at a fantastic job, you have to match office culture and social codes when you’re meeting clients or customers. I mean, if you worked at McDonald’s you’d have to wear the uniform, right? If you work in business culture, you have to wear the uniform, too. It’s just that the uniform doesn’t include a stupid hat. (Or maybe it does. I don’t know where you work.)
Dressing properly shows not only that you have respect for your place of business and the larger profession, but also that you understand basic social codes underlying human interaction. If that seems like a terribly broad pronouncement, that’s because it is. But its breadth does not make it less true. Knowing how to dress shows you understand how to behave, just as much as knowing how to shake hands properly or how to greet your coworkers in the morning shows you know how to interact with others. Dressing the part shows that you can play well with others.
As a basic rule, professional dress often means darker colors, very subtle prints, clothing tailored to your body that’s not body-hugging, feminine without being sexy, some jewelry as long as it’s not attention-getting or distracting, heels that are not too low or too high and that are never open-toed. If you’re getting the idea that the rules for women’s professional dress are an expression of the Madonna/Whore complex our society seems to cling to, you are not wrong. It is so easy to cross the forbidden line without even knowing you’ve done so.
So I understand the urge to break the rules. It’s all so unfair. But let me give you some advice. Conform now. Get in the door. Wear the “perfect woman” uniform. And then once nobody is watching anymore, wear those giant hoop earrings or that ruffled, overly feminine shirt. In the case of professional dress, breaking the rules in small, subversive ways will go much farther than trying to change everything at once. But at least it’s easier to fight the system from the inside, and there’s a paycheck involved.