Academically Brunette - What to Wear at Work?

It is often said that appearance and performance don’t matter; it’s what’s inside that counts. Shakespeare said it in Hamlet: “I have that within that passeth show / These but the trappings and the suits of woe”. Shortly afterwards, Mary Wroth expressed the same idea a little less judgementally in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus: “Alas, think I, your plenty shows your want, / For where most feeling is, words are more scant, / Yet pardon me, live, and your pleasure take”. Anyone with a job knows, that whether you say it angrily like Hamlet, or with a laissez faire flourish like Pamphilia, it’s a dirty, great lie! At a job interview, or in a presentation, your appearance and performance matter almost as much as the quality of your work. Without the correct packaging, no one is going to get to the wonders inside. Your hair, and how you’ve cut and styled it; your skin and what you’ve done with it, tattoos, scars, and piercings; your choice of clothes and your shoes; and your gender, all go ahead of that within which passeth show. It’s unfortunate but it’s true. In the past I had always brushed off comments about my youthful appearance meaning I might not be taken seriously at interview, especially since I’m nurturing a couple to a crop of fine grey hairs, but recently, packing for a conference, I was suddenly at a loss. What should I wear to be “taken seriously”? The dress code for men at academic conferences seems to be largely agreed (give or take a little snobbery about the “newness” of a jacket”, but for women the question remains wide open. From talking to friends, I know that I’m by no means alone in this quandary.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

If you’re a woman in Shakespeare and you want to get a job done, you need to dress as a man. Rosalind, Portia, and Viola are among our favourite of Shakespeare’s heroines. They’re fun the watch on stage and enjoyable to perform. I can remember my chagrin at being cast as Olivia and not Viola in a school play. Who wants to stand about as a dignified lady in a (totally fabulous) dress when you could play the heroine in disguise who gets to roam freely across the play? I was certainly miffed, but it was back in Primary School, so I have moved on! These characters all enjoy more freedoms than their farthingale-festooned sisters when they dress as men and are allowed to drive the plot forward on their own. Whilst Olivia is stuck in her house, Viola, as a man, can traverse Illyria, from the Duke’s household to Olivia’s, and has every opportunity to get in trouble and get knotted up in subplots in between. Portia, by donning a pair of hose and pretending to be “accomplished of that which [she] lack[s]” (i.e. a penis, and supposedly a masculine intellect) is able to prevent Antonio’s death, perform a bit of vindictive anti-Semitism, and teach her husband who’s boss. I’m not saying those are good things, but if she’d had to stay in Belmont we’d certainly be one female audition speech the poorer (“The quality of mercy…”). Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede can roam freely about the forest and it is her schemes and tricks that get everyone hitched to the right person. Poor Celia / Aliena has to waft about the forest whinging and has no fun at all. She has to wait for a man to turn up, then for that man to have a personality transplant as a result of almost being mauled by a lion in a French forest, and then to happen to wander into her garden and find her utterly charming on first meeting in order to have any fun at all. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t like those odds.

The question is, if you’re a woman in the work place today and you want to get a job done, do you need to dress like a man? We may think this question was relegated to the bottom of the closet with all the eighties shoulder pads, but time and again it rears its ugly head. One recent furore about high heels at work was caused when a CEO took a picture of a conference guests’ heels and tweeted them with the caption:
WTF? #brainsnotrequired
When met with accusations of sexism, the CEO defended his actions by claiming that he sees high heels as dangerous and stupid, but that he was not attacking women. However, the debate was sparked: does wearing overtly feminine clothing make women look as if their minds are not on the job? Friends in various lines of work tell me that they are urged by more established female colleagues to avoid feminine dressing, looking “pretty”, bright colours, high heels, anything flamboyant, and a-line skirts. So what’s the answer? If looking too close to a traditional idea of the feminine in the work place will stop us being taken seriously, should we dress “like men”?
Unfortunately, that answer would be far, far too easy. A friend whose style is very androgynous (as Elle might put it) tells me that her wardrobe is perceived as subversive. She’s a natty dresser, who sports shiny brogues, a smart suit, shirt, and tie, with cropped hair. The overall effect is very neat and stylish and looks stunning on her slim, athletic build. Although effectively following the same dress code as her male colleagues to the letter, she says her look is not well received by everyone at work. “They see it as an act of aggression,” she reports. “People ask me why I dress like a man. I’d like to see any of them fit in this suit!” she jokes of her male colleagues (she’s very petite). I can’t say that her story surprises me. So women, if they wish to appease the masses, shouldn’t choose workwear that’s too feminine, but they should also take care to avoid anything too masculine. It seems that when dressing for work women must walk a perilous tightrope of gendered dressing. Perhaps women are left with the requirement that in the work place they musn’t look too… well… anything.

When Viola disguises herself in men’s clothing she is perceived as not quite a man. To Olivia, Malvolio describes Caesario (Viola in disguise):
Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a
cooling when 'tis almost an apple: 'tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man. (Twelfth Night I.3)
Viola has chosen to dress as a man because she feels she will be too vulnerable as a woman, yet her disguise is not one of full masculinity. Instead Viola as Caesario performs an in-between gender between boy and man. I say in-between gender rather than in-between age, because in some senses boyhood was considered similar to woman-hood in the early modern imagination (for example in As You Like It III.2 Rosalind argues for the interchangeability of boys and women). Orsino describes Caesario’s unmanliness as an advantage, because he won’t be too threatening. “She will attend it better in thy youth / Than in a nuncio's of more grave aspect.” While grave implies older and more serious, it also implies authority, power, and respect. As a full man, Viola would be too powerful, as a full woman, she is too vulnerable, so she plays Caesario, caught somewhere between a squash and a peascod. Is this what women are being asked to dress as in the workplace? Not too masculine, not too feminine? Are women expected to go to work dressed as unobtrusively as possible? A third, genderless state, not expressive of anything much? Are we really willing to accept this Shakespearean identification between femininity and vulnerability? Can't pretty be powerful?

In an ideal world dress would not be categorised as masculine or feminine, but be expressive of the individual in question. Yet that is not yet the world we live in, and while I’m sure many men struggle with the pitfalls of office wear, especially those who refuse to conform to gender norms, it is far more rarely that men are told: “your outfit is just too overtly masculine!” “Try to reign it in, that suit and tie combo is just so damn phallic!” “Perhaps you can dress like that when you’re successful, but for now, try not to look as if you’re thinking too hard about your appearance!” and other such chestnuts. Men in the work place are not criticised for good grooming, or urged to stand-out less. Why are we asking women to be less visible in the work place? It’s enough to make me go out and buy a bright pink tweed suit and some irregular choice shoes for interviews, Legally Blonde style! I'd rather perform bold femininity with all the things I enjoy (bright colours, patterns, My Little Pony hair) than perform insipidity. So pass the Hollywood lashes; let’s call it Academically Brunette.


  1. Do it! And by performing femininity through clothing in those environments we might start to reclaim it as intellectual, thoughtful, argumentative, strong.


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