It’s official. I live in business casual land now. Gone are the days when my “work clothes” included rubber boots and a bright red “I’m not a deer don’t shoot me!” down jacket. That outfit made sense at a rural land-based school because I could start the day teaching and end it up to my knees in compost. (Also it rained. A lot.)
But now I work in an office at an Ivy League university.
I knew when I took this job that that would mean some wardrobe changes, so before I started I asked my supervisor if I was correct in assuming that the dress code in the office was business casual. She suggested I pay attention to what others around me were wearing. At the time I was hoping for a clearer answer, but I quickly realized she was right on: some my coworkers wear jeans and flip flops, and others wear suits. And it’s all about interaction: those who work primarily within the office seem to lean towards the casual, and those who interact across the university, or who are in leadership positions, often dress up.
Unfortunately (or, really, fortunately) for me, I’m in more of an interacting-across-the-university position. Which I thought would be fine… I’ve secretly always liked clothing and shopping, even if poverty has inspired a fair amount of frugality.
Wow was I in for a rude awakening! The global price of cotton has gone way up, and the result is that everything seems thinner and disposable, even in nicer stores. And apparently the style these days is for things to be see-through, be-jeweled, deconstructed, or covered in way too many ruffles.
The whole process has made me conscious of my Quaker sensibilities, and how they seem to fundamentally alienate me from the rest of society: I want my clothes to be simple, nice looking, low maintenance, versatile, durable, and reasonably priced. Mostly I want to be comfortable and feel appropriately dressed without having to think about it too much.
And… like most women, my clothes are also closely tied to presentation and body image and there’s a lot of contradiction. I’m petite and young looking – I regularly get mistaken for being younger than I am (it’s a short lady thing, trust me) – so I want work clothes that feel “grown up”…. but not too grown up. I don’t want to look like a kid in my mom’s suit. Or like a tool in my alternative neighborhood. I want my clothes to be simple… but also to have a subtle arty vibe… to communicate that there’s more to me than the sensible shoes and middle class salary….really.
And then there’s this other thing: I’m keenly aware that basically everything I could buy new, unless it’s from that trendy store with the vaguely exploitative ads, is made in sweatshops. And that sweatshop workers are 90% women and young girls. Some other young woman suffered in a bad work situation so I could by a cheap shirt from a mall store.
I caught an NPR show earlier this summer about women and the career wardrobe phenomenon (I think it was Tell Me More, can’t find it now). The conclusion was that while men can often get away with very similar outfits everyday, women often spend gobs of money to stay current. It’s not just career clothing. Ever notice that vastly more retail space is dedicated to women’s clothing, like, everywhere? American women buy a lot of clothing (and stuff) in general. We have a lot of economic power. Imagine what else we could do with that economic power besides go shopping at the mall?
So here’s my thinking: the fashion industry oppresses women. It oppresses them in the working conditions used to produce garments and in the mass market trends needed to keep things flying off the shelves. It oppresses them through body image and conventional, hetero-normative, and racist ideas of pretty.
I don’t want to participate – and I kind of hate myself for whining about this uniquely first world problem – but I don’t have a lot of good solutions at this point.
I still need to get dressed in the morning, and I’m not quite ready to go the Little Brown Dress (or for that matter, the Quaker plain) route. Thrifting is good, but it takes, you know, time. And thrift stores don’t necessarily have your size or what you are looking for.
I think the best solution might be to channel my grandmothers and great aunties and their depression-era smarts: make careful selections for fabulousness and quality, hassle retailers for good products, mend and alter instead of replacing…. and share with your sisters whenever possible.
Anyone want to borrow a suit?