Michelle Phillips: Redefining business casual

Tuesday, September 12, 2017 - 3:13pm

When school is finally out and summer arrives, I often find myself browsing the latest trends. However, this summer I got a “real world” office job and, instead of looking for high-waisted shorts and tanks, I found myself looking for blazers and dress pants. After spending a small fortune on clothes that made me feel uncomfortable and look like a box, I thought it would be worth it. I had to look professional, right?

As women, we are sent many mixed signals on what it means to look professional. I remember standing in the bathroom between meetings at the beginning of my internship, disgusted by the middle-aged woman I looked like I had become. I had never worn anything of this nature in my life, and this sudden change made me uncomfortable.

Through my experience as a young woman in a professional workplace, I found that having a lot of options regarding ways to dress myself can serve as a positive opportunity for personal expression. But upon further analysis I have come to realize all the ways this freedom puts unnecessary burdens on women in the workplace.

On my first day, I quickly noticed that men did not go through the same stress of getting dressed for work as women do. Growing up, boys are dressed by their parents in button-downs and khakis from the age of 3. By the time they enter the workplace, they know exactly how to present themselves to the professional world. They have been dressing the same way their entire lives. The same attire they wear to a wedding or celebration could be worn to the office as well.

As a woman, I have found liberation in my outfit choices, but I also have encountered mixed signals when deciding what is appropriate to wear to a certain gathering. When reading the words “business casual” in an email from a potential employer, my mind floods with outfit possibilities. Should I wear a blazer and pants? Dress pants or casual jeans? Flats or heels? Will they think I'm a tramp if my heels are too high? What about the length of my skirt? Will they be offended if I show my shoulders?

I guarantee my boyfriend does not ask himself that many questions when he gets ready for an interview. The fashion industry makes a fortune off marketing each season’s “hot new look” to the female consumer, so they provide her with endless options. Thank you, Macy’s, I really do appreciate it, but the pressure I feel to “dress my best” cannot be eliminated by shopping at your semi-annual sale.

Women must constantly decide what outfit will best suit the situation. The way women are traditionally represented in fashion advertisements is often what one would expect to see in the bedroom, not the cubicle. Despite the stereotypes and implications women have in society, many women strive for equality between the sexes in the workplace.

In the ’70s, fashion designers recognized what these women were missing, and thus, the pantsuit rose to popularity. Pantsuits allowed women to dress just like their male counterparts in a demand for equal respect in the workplace. For centuries, it was frowned upon for women to wear pants, let alone a masculine-looking suit. The pantsuit led the way for women to dress in a professional style that was similar to men’s, and it made headway in the fight for equal rights. However, as time went on and fashion evolved after the pantsuit hit stores, women were bombarded with mixed signals about what it meant to dress “business casual.” Blazers and skirts became a smashing combo for the office, and loafers became acceptable for women to wear to work.

I have found that, depending on the office environment, the norms for what women wear can be vastly different. Working at a tech startup versus working for the government calls for women to dress in vastly different ways. However, no matter the office environment, most of what men wear remains the same. Formal or casual, he will most likely to be pressured to wear a shirt with a collar.

I have found that one’s comfort should not be compromised by what one might be pressured into wearing to work. Out of all the boxy clothes I bought for my summer job, I ended up wearing dark pants and a white blouse nearly every day. It became my summer uniform.

Strangely, I found freedom in not having to think about what to wear to work every day. That is probably the way men feel, too. I could go to work focused on what I needed to accomplish that day, rather than worrying if my necklace matched my shoes.

As women, we have more freedom than men in deciding what to wear. The ever-evolving fashion industry leaves it up to us to choose which pieces best fit our style and the occasion. This summer, without intending to, I ended up taking comfort in wearing basically the same outfit to work every day, and it was strangely liberating. Perhaps all the choices women encounter in selecting just the right outfit, while fun, ignore the fact that we are also in the office to work.

Michelle Phillips can be reached at mphi@umich.edu.