The Woman In The Grey Flannel Suit

Not really. Or I should say, not anymore.

Dressing for work used to be more straightforward. In the early 80’s, the John Malloy skirted suit and blouse, supposedly the women’s equivalent of a man’s “power suit,” was de rigeur. Despite this, I was cutting my corporate teeth in jobs at small media outlets that hardly paid enough to spring for the occasional thrift-store skirt or dress and non-matching jacket, let alone an actual suit. Add to that living in a small town with limited shopping options (how did we ever manage without the internet?!), and I was lucky to have more than two or three barely work-appropriate ensembles. (BTW, I still lust after that black cocktail dress that Melanie Griffith’s character “liberates” from Sigourney Weaver’s closet and is wearing when she slams down some tequila with Harrison Ford.) In the late 80’s, Liz Claiborne helped save us from corporate clone-dom. Her clothing line started infusing the concept of “style” back into working women’s wardrobes. I was able to afford the occasional jacket or pair of pants for work. Looking back now, they probably were a bit dowdy for a 20-something woman, but her clothes were several steps up from the thrift store attire* I’d been sporting.

In the 90’s I started moving up the management ladder, and graduated to pants suits. For several years, getting dressed for work was a snap. Jacket, pants and a blouse, sweater or shell. Pumps or loafers. Fashion was irrelevant to the process. You weren’t expected to look “stylish,” you were expected to look professional. It was boring sure, but uncomplicated.

Then came Business Casual, which has turned into a free-for-all. In the entertainment industry, even the “suits” don’t wear suits anymore, unless they’re Ari Gold.
Those us who have been in a corporate work environment for a more than a few years probably struggle the most with just how casual Business Casual has become. This USA Today article discusses the generational differences in attitudes about what’s appropriate for work.

“Each generation seems to have a different idea of what is acceptable in
the workplace, and in this situation I was highly offended,” says Cohen, who
works at a marketing firm in Philadelphia. “I was actually not allowed to attend
a meeting because my attire was deemed ‘inappropriate.’ People my age are taught
to express themselves, and saying something negative about someone’s fashion is
saying something negative about them.”

The article also goes on to state that many companies are backing away from Business Casual and adopting stricter dress codes,

“The pendulum has swung,” says CEO Jonathan Bloom. “We went through a
too-casual period. … In the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, we tightened things
up a little. When we were very casual, the quality of the work wasn’t as

Others are getting strict. In Auburn, N.Y., the city manager made
headlines in April when he banned most city employees from wearing jeans on
Fridays, a day that had long been reserved for casual attire. His office did not
return calls seeking comment.

but I don’t envision that happening anytime soon at my company. Our people have grown accustomed to casual attire, and I don’t imagine they’ll give it up without a fight. I see more of IBM’s attitude in our business.

Some companies, such as IBM, have thrown out dress codes altogether. Once
known as a traditional company of button-down shirts, cuff links and
suits, today it’s a much more anything-goes approach.

“As society has changed, so has IBM,” says Donna Riley, a human resources
vice president at IBM. “We do have a Birkenstock crowd in some of our locations.
Many years ago, it was a suit and tie for men and skirt, dress and stockings for
women. (Today’s policy) says we trust our employees to use good judgment.”

In an IBM research lab in San Jose, Calif., Dan Gruhl, 35, a researcher who
works in text analytics, typically shows up in flip-flops and shorts. He owns
only two button-down shirts.
“Having a relaxed environment encourages you to think more openly,” Gruhl says. “Dress is part of a much larger culture.
It really encourages camaraderie.”

Most of our staff are in their 20’s and 30’s, and most expect to be able to dress casually in the workplace. We don’t work face-to-face with clients or meet the public, and most of the rest of the workers in our building are engineering and production types who more often than not come to work looking like they just rolled out of bed (cargo shorts, t-shirt, rubber flip-flops). We tried to revamp the dress code a few years ago to accommodate a more casual standard, but eventually had to abandon it altogether. We do however, have lines that are sometimes crossed, and we’ve occasionally had to ask people to go home and change. (I had to explain to one young woman why a tight tank top with the word “BOOTYLICIOUS” emblazoned across the chest in glitter script was not appropriate office attire.)

Our HR folks have even encouraged Management to dress down a bit in order to project a more”approachable” image to the staff. So I’ve dialed it down from pants suits through the “coordinated separates” and now often wear jeans (but nice jeans) on days other than Fridays.

But I remain dependent on The Jacket. Even jeans and a plain t-shirt will look pulled-together with a good jacket. I probably splurge a bit more on jackets now than any other article of clothing**, because of the power they have to make or break an outfit. Now with the weather too warm for all but the lightest jackets, I’m often feeling sartorially incomplete, and have on occasion resorted to wearing a blouse jacket-style over a t-shirt or shell. There’s only so far into the casual ocean this femme will wade at the office.

*not to say that I didn’t find some fabulous fun, quirky, unique items in my thrift store heyday. But a vintage bowling shirt didn’t meet the benchmarks for “business attire” back then.

**except for handbags and shoes, of course. A great pair of shoes and a dynamite bag will make whatever your wearing look more stylish.

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  1. July 27, 2007 / 5:57 am

    I COMPLETELY agree about the jacket. I can’t live without one, with or without jeans. Without a jacket I think jeans look too casual, even on weekends ^_^

  2. gemdiva
    July 28, 2007 / 6:22 pm

    I loved this post. What really fries my clams about “casual” office attire are the employees who do show up in cargo shorts and flip flops and then can’t imagine why they aren’t being promoted to CEO. Of course they assume they are working for a rotten company that does not respect or appreciate them. Perhaps the problem is that, based on their choice of attire, it does not appear as if they respect or appreciate the company or the work that they do. In addition, it is difficult to take orders from someone who looks like a refugee from the MTV beach house so promotion past a certain level is just not in their future. It may not seem fair, but that’s probably why you aren’t getting paid the “big bucks”.

  3. Lilly
    July 28, 2007 / 5:45 pm

    I absolutely love formal office wear. Men in suits and women in stilettos are the epitome of sexy to me. I honestly can’t wait until I get a yuppie job so I can splurge on Chanel suits for work 🙂

  4. July 31, 2007 / 4:37 am

    Interestingly, Molloy is a big opponent of Casual Fridays. He says it’s just another way the fashion industry bleeds you for money, because now you’ve got to have a whole OTHER wardrobe, and it’s far riskier, as you’ve seen.

    There are waaaay too many people who look like Jimmy Buffett or chubbier Pussycat Dolls on their way to the office. I agree that casual jobs are properly performed in casual attire, but if what you’ve got is a career, you’ve got a certain standard to meet.

    Beachwear is appropriate on a beach. Clubwear is appropriate in a club. There are lots of options for work that don’t involve the word “Juicy” anywhere.

    And I say that as a professional blogger. I taught a blogging course on Saturday, and I dressed like a teacher, because the function I was performing was teaching.

  5. Ninjarina
    July 31, 2007 / 5:26 am

    I have a casual workplace but there are just things I don’t do:

    1) Short shorts/mini skirts – inappropriate
    2) Shirts that are:
    – are more than 10% MIA
    – have text on them (general style rule of mine)
    3) Open-toed shoes when I was in service industry (safety issue)
    4) Over accessorizing
    5) Pants w/ ragged hems or ones that are dragging on the floor.

    There are a lot of things you can get away with in a casual workplace which most people will understand (i.e. wrinkled or slightly stained shirts, pant lengths that are less than full, flip flops, ugly trainers, etc.) but honestly, it’s NOT that hard. I live in the Silicon Valley. I know a whole bunch of people that work at Cisco and Google (one on the blogger team actually) and I beg people not to abuse the casual workplace rule. Do we really want to go back to spending a small fortune on work clothes?

  6. July 31, 2007 / 12:45 pm

    To me, there’s also a mental component. Even if the elements of what I’m wearing are more casual, taking the time to put together a jacket, shoes, accessories on workdays is a way to help get my head in the game.

  7. Anonymous
    August 2, 2007 / 9:23 pm

    It totally depends what industry you are in, and what you look like. I work in the legal field, and you betcha I wear skirted suits, in greys, navys and blacks, every day. I would argue it isn’t that expensive over the long haul, I actually borrowed money from my folks my first job to buy four good suits and some blouses, but I did wear those suits almost ten years. It may be a boring way to dress, but my clients listen to me and take my advice, which is the goal. And no matter how my day goes, a skirted suit is ALWAYS appropriate – nice when a last minute lunch or briefing gets scheduled.

  8. August 5, 2007 / 12:54 am

    Cool blog.

    I agree that perspectives vary according to generations. I’m 32 and work in media. I used to dress well for work (suits … then business casual and whatnot), but lately I’ve been indulging my strong desire to wear whatever I feel like: jeans and tank tops, my Vans, etc. I work with a lot of people who think old school and dress the part. The status quo. Everything in its right place. Suits are a mask for them to project an image of power and authority, but really, no one knows what the hell is going on and they no longer hold the reigns. Sure we can get our tasks done each day like good little workers but the hierarchy and old notions of work and life as separate things is disappearing before our eyes. The wacky work fashion world reflects that.

  9. August 5, 2007 / 1:08 am


    You said, “…old notions of work and life as separate things is disappearing before our eyes.”

    That’s a really interesting comment, and jibes with some of what we’re hearing about Gen Y workers. They don’t see sharp divisions between work and the rest of their lives, they want balance between both, and how they wish to dress reflects that.

  10. Anonymous
    August 10, 2007 / 11:13 pm

    I work in media, and frankly, I would look terribly out of place if I were to wear a grey or navy suit. For me to appear professional and good at my job requires me to look relatively hip, stylish and up-to-date. You can’t judge all “work clothes” by the same yardstick.

  11. Duchesse
    January 8, 2008 / 5:26 pm

    The outer woman is a reflection of the inner. A wise woman once told me, “My dress says things about me… so I don’t have to use so many words.” I think about what I want to say to the world when I dress, for work or not.

  12. October 11, 2009 / 9:01 am

    Could it be that parents and teachers don’t teach the young ones anymore ?? I wonder…. Young people look around to find role models and the first are their parents and their teachers. If parents and teachers alike look sloppy and not groomed at all, if teachers come to school dressed in whatever they found next on the shelf, if mothers never talk to daughters about elegance, beauty,charm,politeness a.s.o.,if faters don’t teach thir sons to be gentlemen and look like one , than how could young people, no matter how educated and professional they might be ,figure it out for themselves ?! But of course, that would mean that both parents and teachers consider they DO have some responsability ( other than breathing 24h/24). Which they don’t.

  13. Rita
    May 21, 2011 / 3:35 pm

    “Men in suits and women in stilettos” – why should women have to wear anything that is damaging to their feet and backs in order to look businesslike? Actually, stilettos are f*ck-me pumps, and go perfectly with the hooker look. I have been noticing lately, only about 1 woman in 10 is able to walk properly in very high heels, the others totter around looking silly.

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