Leadership Uniforms – Taking some of the (guess)work out of it?

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.



habitual clothing


We can think of school leaders’ wardrobes as ‘habitual clothing’. This is a term we have taken from Sophie Woodward. She says that wearing habitual clothing allows women not to have to think about their sartorial self. (136)

Habitual clothing generally consists of a core set of items that are worn regularly. A wardrobe of habitual clothing is convenient because it requires little thought or planning. You get up and get dressed without agonising about your choice. This is important if, like a school leader, you have to get to work early and leave late and have a hefty workload – you don’t want to spend precious time thinking about what to wear.

Habitual clothing is also an expression of what is expected – what is seen as ‘right’ for the role. School leaders look like ‘this’. Choosing the habitual leader wardrobe can be understood as an expression of a cultural competence – leaders in different places and sectors look somewhat different. And cultural competence is learnt – what is acceptable is learnt through a kind of inexplicit apprenticeship. Habitual wardrobe learning can be seen as both embodied and practised.

However, a habitual wardrobe can leave women feeling a little dull. Despite the mix and match capacities of the habitual wardrobe, women, according to Woodward, often want to find a way to express some modicum of individuality.

We can probably all think of times when we have found ways to express a sense of self, even within our habituated leader clothing. And we can think of other women leaders who do this via jewellery, shoes, colour matching and so on. Finding the balance between expectations and safe experimentation is also a learnt skill.

My own default habitual school leader clothing was black – black tops, skirts and pants. When I was required to be more leader-like I threw on a coloured jacket and high heels. But I always wore a lot of quite distinctive jewellery which marked me out, just a little.

This kind of norm-plus-a-bit-of-me wardrobe is not atypical it seems. Woodward found that most women are generally able to combine some form of personal expression and professional expectations into their work wardrobes.

Woodward suggests that it would appear logical then, that at home, women would relish the opportunity to wear whatever they want. However, her research showed that women largely wore a habitual wardrobe at home too – a uniform of track pants or jeans, trainers, T-shirts, sweaters and hoodies. The photo above indicates this kind of weekend wardrobe, different from the workday week. Like the working wardrobe, this weekend wardrobe requires little planning.

Woodward’s research suggests to me that women in her research probably saved their very individualised and non-conforming clothing for special occasions. And this is interesting, as it suggests that expectations and norms may be what is most at stake in leader wardrobe choices, not dullness or any particular style. Perhaps not even the expression of individual identity.

But what of comfort? What do you think?

Our survey about women leaders’ wardrobes is still open. We have over 300 responses but would love to have more. if you are a serving, retired or aspiring woman school leader, our survey will take only twenty minutes of your time.

Photo by Heather Schwartz on Unsplash