Since starting work in an office, I've become hyperaware of what "conservative dress" really means. Let me tell you: this is a minefield. "Business casual" seems to mean different things to different people: one person's slutty tank top is another's Thursday morning outfit. The dudes have it easy. All they have to do is throw on a sweater that isn't covered in reindeer, pants that aren't dungarees, and get a half-way decent haircut, and they look professional. Women, on the other hand, have a range of styles to befuddle us. Pants? Skirts? Tights? Bare legs? Cover the shoulders? Are tee shirts okay? Cleavage? Accessories? And what about hairdos? Princess Leia buns, a staple of my civilian hair repertoire, tends to get disapproving looks from my supervisors. What is a girl to do?!
I can't vouch for any of y'all, but I never thought I'd fuck it up so badly. Oh, sure, I jam the photocopier on the regular and make idiotic mistakes with people's files, but I never feel quite as bad as when I get dinged for dressing inappropriately. During my first couple weeks on the job, I was pulled aside and told to bring my look up to a corporate standard; my boss acknowledged that I was fresh out of school and therefore might not have a wealth of office-ready clothes to fall back on, but it made me feel like I had been slapped. Criticisms of clothes, like comments on body or age, feel deeply personal. I felt as though she had dismissed me entirely based on the way I looked, not how I was doing my job or settling into the company.
Since then, I've tried to be more careful. I wear opaque tights and skirts to the knee, flats shoes and shirts than cover the elbow. If there was ever a staff meeting in an Orthodox shul, I could waltz right in and take my place without feeling stupid (I mean, aside from the fact that I've never been inside a synagogue and would, knowing me, knock over the torah or accidentally fall in the mikveh). But I still want to let loose a little. I feel like "business funky" is a look I strive for, like gallery owners and women who run children's clothing shops. Which is ridiculous - it means I'm modeling my style after middle aged gallery owners. Dudes. I am 27 years old. I have a slammin' bod and great hair. There is no reason to hide my light under a pashmina and arty glasses.
But the office mood is one of grave professionalism, so I cover up. My coworkers and I are a pretty bleak bunch; we all gravitate towards gray and black and navy, with nary a sequin in sight. I'm not saying that the business should be conducted in Caribana outfits, but the emphasis on looking professional rather than being professional is a little, well, weird. There is one chica who tries to spice it up, but her bralessness and miniskirts comes off as less "fun!" and more, like, "WTF?" There's a wide gulf between a fun tank top and letting your tatas hang out in the workplace, right? Besides, I'm sure she could work in the nude and still get her job done.
I understand the reason behind office gear: it makes things look clean and nice, even when they're actually harried and hectic. It takes some of the guesswork out of dressing in the a.m. - a suit is almost always appropriate, and women have whole departments dedicated to the art of professional dressing. But when it's used as just one more way to deny employees any sense of fun in the workplace, as another disciplinary measure used to instill a sense of bad-dog shame in the people in the company, then maybe it's time to bust out the protest feathers and sequins and get our work done with some style.