Posted by: Allyson | August 6, 2008

Feminist Dress

Holly at Feministe has a great piece of snark about an anti-feminist rant that complains about women wearing jeans.  Yup, feminism ruins femininity because it encourages women to ohnoez wear teh jeanz!!!!111!

Reading the post and comments got me thinking not just about jeans, but the ways in which women dress in a variety of different situations.  I alternate between a casual skirt and jeans on weekends, but in the office, it’s a different scenario.  My workplace is somewhere in between “business casual” and “must wear suits.”  In basic practice, I follow the dress code.  I wear either skirts or nice slacks, depending on what I’m in the mood for that day (for the record, all my skirts are long and loose enough that I can sit in half-lotus pose if I want to; I have very little in terms of constricting clothing).  At some point, I’m going to buy a Utilikilt, because it drives me crazy that none of my skirts have pockets, and the Utilikilt look is office-friendly.  I wear nice shoes.  But other than that, I don’t really follow standard dressing practices.  I don’t style my hair in the morning, because I keep it short, and so all I need to do is brush it in order to make it look neat and tidy.  I don’t wear makeup, because I have better things to do.  Meanwhile, the other women in my office all wear at least a little makeup, although not a lot.  One styles her hair, but I can’t tell if the other two spend time on it or not. 

When I told my mom that I don’t bother with makeup in the mornings, she got noticeably upset.  Apparently, I’m “unprofessional” because I choose not to put on eyeliner and lipstick and foundation.  Of course, I say that professional job performance has nothing to do with the chemicals on my face.  I also explained that even my coworkers who do wear makeup don’t do a full-out face mask.  It’s pretty subtle.  When I told her that, she said “It’s because you only have one man at your company.”

Holly’s Feministe post got me thinking about that statement.  It’s true; we have a staff of 5, with only one man.  We used to be a staff of 6, but even then, we only had one man working with us.  This is largely due to the fact that I’m in a woman-dominated field (education).  In addition, this man doesn’t have a leadership position within our organization.  My mother seems to think that, because there is only one man on staff, and he’s not in a position of power, the women of the office feel free to not put a ton of effort into our appearance.

First off, I have to say that her statement drives me crazy.  Yep, I would totally put on makeup every morning to impress my boss if my boss were a man.  No way.  I admit, I did wear makeup to my job interview, but once I had the job, I felt confident that I didn’t need to wear makeup or have a special hairdo.  It wasn’t because I knew my boss would be a woman; it was because I finally had the self-awareness to realize that wearing makeup wasn’t going to help me in my job.  And looking around my office: two women are single moms who also have careers; one had a career in the military before she came here; our director has a Ph.D. and taught in Europe.  Even though they do wear makeup, it’s minimal; it seems obvious to me that they don’t view eyeliner as something vital for their careers or their outside lives.  And I don’t think that’s because we have only one man on staff; I think it’s because that with Ph.D.s and children and hobbies, we just happen to be a group of women who can’t spend time putting on a full face every day.  Some mascara, maybe, but not much else.

Now, given that this is my first experience in a professional workplace, I don’t know what other work environments are like.  Maybe there are work environments where women feel pressured to do full hair and makeup in order to impress a superior.  I’m sure they do exist, which is sad to think about.  But I’d be interested in hearing from other members of the workforce, no matter what your job.  Have you felt pressured to maintain a certain appearance, even if that appearance had nothing to do with your job description?



  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. I’ve always gotten the same lectures from my (otherwise feminist) mom that yours is giving you – that makeup is just part of professional attire for women. Good job resisting that indoctrination, BTW, it ain’t easy.

    But, yeah – I’ve noticed some sexist dress codes – as a teacher. For example, my much more curvy coworker got reprimanded for her style of dress. It was explained to her that her clothes revealed her figure too much. Her wardrobe was no different from mine, both of us preferred teaching in slacks and scoop-neck sweaters or tops. Nothing ‘sexy’ – she just has boobs. What’s she supposed to do with them?

  3. I think it was fairly easy for me to resist indoctrination because this is my first job after spending my entire life in school. In grad school, I never wore makeup to class or to teach. There was no dress code for TAs when they taught, so I just wore what was comfortable. So when I left school and had to get a “real job,” I wasn’t particularly thrilled that my days of wearing jeans were at an end. But even though I had to dress up, I wasn’t about to start putting on makeup; deep down, I’m a student more concerned with books and papers than with a pretty face.

    I think it will be interesting to see how my sister fares in the workforce when she finishes college. She likes v-neck shirts, but also has some prodigious clevage. It’s not her fault – she just got the DNA for it. She doesn’t wear particularly low-cut shirts, her boobs are just obvious unless she’s wearing a baggy sweatshirt.

  4. I never wear makeup either (unless it’s a really special situation), especially not to work.

    I like to think that looking neat and tidy is the only requirement for the workplace. I’m there to use my brain!!!

    (I also totally love the blog).

  5. I worked as a Spa Director for a long time, and I agree that looking clean and neat is important for such a workplace.

    However, though I felt pressure to style my hair and wear make-up and generally have an appearance that was more “feminine”, I never felt like it was a necessity. My hair and clothes were always clean and pressed, and it didn’t seem to bother my clients.

    In the beauty industry, I just always felt it was important to be as natural as possible.

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