Who are we dressing for? How do colleagues influence wardrobe choices?

When we began this project, we had some expectations about the reasoning behind the wardrobe choices being made each day by women leaders. We asked participants who they were dressing for – we wondered if it was students, parents / communities, or staff, or someone else. We have written a little bit about this in the past, but I was speaking with some people over the last few days about this project and the question came up – ‘so who is telling people to dress a certain way?’ and it has been on my mind.

We have written in the past about some of the theoretical frames / lenses that we’re working with to analyse the data from our survey. For example, we wrote at length about Fred Davis’s work in critical fashion studies that explores the way wardrobes form part of a set of markers of group identity.  We know from his work that there are accepted markers of a certain identity that can be seen through clothing. Dress, fashion, and wardrobes serve an important role in communicating identities and people outside of those groups do generally read those identities markers correctly (e.g., you aren’t wearing a suit to go to work as a lifesaver at a pool).

Davis discussed the way changes in circumstances influence our identities and, in turn, the way we form and communicate these identities and identity shifts through our fashion and wardrobe choices. We heard a lot about this from our participants, and we have written about this in the past too – how changing roles often resulted in a changing appearance or wardrobe.


Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash

We expected that women in our study would tell us that they dressed for their students first – we anticipated a pedagogical aspect to their clothing choices, particularly for leaders in secondary schools. We were somewhat surprised to see that students ranked last in the responses of who people were concerned about – first was staff, then parents / carers and the wider community were close behind, and finally students. We asked for elaboration on these comments and found some common themes. We’ll write about this in the future, we suspect, but I wanted to share some of the themes of responses here. To keep this manageable, I’m focusing on the responses of people who were thinking of staff members when they made their choices. Some of the key points included:

  • Dress codes were seen as helpful here in taking the guesswork out of wardrobe. Less time and energy had to be spent in deciding what was the ‘right’ choice.
  • Again and again, we see people responding that they want to be seen by their colleagues as being ‘professional’. We did ask what ‘professional’ looked like, and have written about this a lot on this blog – check out our tag here. The balance for many of our participants, though, was in hoping to appear both professional and approachable.
  • There are associated value judgments coming through, with people wanting to appear smart, not ‘too old’ or ‘too young’, not too feminine, creative, authentic, stylish, and wanting to be taken seriously.


There were comments throughout about judgments according to wardrobes – both positive and negative, implicit and explicit, and the elusive challenge of the unwritten rules of ‘appropriate’ and ‘professional’ wardrobe choices.

We think this idea of ephemeral rules that aren’t always clear (and maybe you don’t know you’ve made a misstep until after you’ve made it?) is interesting and one that’s worth exploring further.

Have you had this experience? We’d love to hear from you.


great expectations


There was outrage recently about the report of an executive development programme at Ernst and Young. According to the Huff Post, women executives were told to dress and act nicely around their male colleagues. This meant, according the a 55 page document given to the HP reporter, that women were to have a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type”. Executive women were also told “don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”

Now, while this kind of professional development really does sound as if it comes straight from the ark, it did make me think about the benefits of having norms made explicit. When something is put into writing or said out loud, it can be dealt with. What’s said can be rejected, refuted, resisted.

What’s harder however is when these expectations and attitudes don’t disappear but just go underground. They become a kind of hidden curriculum that can be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ only in actions or in patterns of outcomes.

I vividly remember an incident from my last headship. I was talking with one young man about his unacceptable behaviour. At one point he told me that “Everyone would take you more seriously if you wore a suit everyday like Mr (name of the head of a neighbouring school)”. I laughed – I am sure this wasn’t the response he expected. But while this was just another variation on his teenage-challenges-to-school-authority, his comment did make me wonder what kinds of conversations went on between the students about how I and other senior women on the staff dressed. What kind of expectations and norms were hidden from me/us?

Now I am quite sure that I wouldn’t have changed the way I dressed if I knew the answer to this question. But I would have done something to address it.

We are interested in the idea of a gendered hidden curriculum of appearances and behaviour. We see the traces of its existence in our other research in schools, and in some of the answers to our survey.

We know from professional experience and research that any kind of hidden curriculum matters. And it may matter quite a bit in relation to leaders. After all, it may be a hidden curriculum which frames relationships within and without the school rather than any  written code. And a hidden curriculum may also be a serious issue in employment, promotion and performance related judgments.

Surfacing the hidden curriculum of gender and leadership, seeing and hearing it, is a much more difficult task than that faced by the Huff Post reporter who had it all laid out for her in a 55 page text. But equally important.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash