We’ve written before about the challenges women leaders have described regarding finding the ‘right’ clothes and about habitual clothing. Data from our project has reflected the time and energy that women invest in cultivating their wardrobe – and every single morning as they make daily choices about what to wear, and getting ready for work. We think those choices serve as a constant building and rebuilding of leadership image and identity for women in our study.
I’m reminded of Naomi Wolf’s comments about women spending so much energy on all of this stuff; energy that we could otherwise be using in our careers, in pursuits of happiness, and so much more. I then return to the idea of aesthetic labour. How much time, energy, and money is spent on getting the right look, or the right hair and cosmetics? Those aspects of aesthetic labour are reinforced by careers and image literature that emphasises the various forms of labour involved in cultivating the ‘right’ image (see, for example: Cutts, Hooley, and Yates 2015).
A few years ago, I stumbled across an article written about a woman who had a work uniform with the intent of removing that element of her life – she, like so many of the ‘great leaders’ we hear about, wore the same thing every day, freeing up her mind to be focused on other things (though Unlike Zuckerberg or Jobs, it didn’t involve hoodies or jeans and sneakers…). I was inspired by this when I moved to Melbourne and felt like I needed to mark the next chapter of my career – and my move from Queensland to Melbourne, where everyone told me I needed to wear black to fit in. Away went my signature floral dresses and out came pantsuits and matching shirts in different colours. It did save me time in the morning, and the lack of choice made things incredibly easy – until I got bored and broke out my ‘real’ wardrobe again.
Our participants had a collective uniform, with only a few exceptions. They wear blazers, ‘smart’ clothes, ‘professional’ clothes, suits, dresses, and trousers. High heels. Carefully maintained hair and carefully chosen accessories. Though only a few people spoke about a uniform in the same sense as described above, there seemed to be a limit to the types of clothing that was regarded as being professional and smart. Dark colours, tailored clothes (often from expensive brands), clothes that were seen as “safe and repetitive”, in the words of one participant.
Participants spoke about resenting feeling the pressure to buy these clothes – generally expensive, generally not worn outside of their working lives, and generally not remotely close to their weekend style which seemed to veer in the opposite direction – jeans and sneakers, flowing dresses, and comfort.
We wonder: do you have a work uniform? Do you feel limited in the types of clothing you can choose from to wear to work? What guides your decisions when buying new clothes for your work wardrobe?
We’d love to hear your thoughts in our survey … where we only need 9 more people to make it to 400 participants! Please feel free to send it on to any women you know who are aspiring, current, or former school leaders.
Cutts, B., Hooley, T. and Yates, J. (2015). Graduate dress code: How undergraduates are planning to use hair, clothes and make-up to smooth their transition to the workplace. Industry and Higher Education, 29 (4):271-282.
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