It’s summer, and it’s hot, so women are now plunged into the murky waters of dressing appropriately for work, while not wearing so much clothing they’ll get heat stroke. Some, like a reporter who was thrown out of a courtroom for having bare shoulders, will cross a vague line and get penalized. When women dress themselves for a professional setting, from prominent politicians to eager interns, they’re trying to conform to an unspoken set of rules that were crafted with men in mind in the first place.
The gender policing of clothes was even stricter before it was widely acceptable to have women in the workplace at all. In 1960, Lois Rabinowitz, a secretary who went to a courthouse to pay her boss’s speeding ticket, was ejected for wearing slacks and a blouse. As Gail Collins relates in When Everything Changed, women were arrested for walking around in slacks on the street at night. For any women who did work, the professional dress code was “stockings, heels, gloves, and hats.” But really, women weren’t supposed to have careers, and they weren’t supposed to wear pants: the lines were very clear.
Women can now wear pants without fear of retribution, and women who work have become the norm. But clothes are still a tricky issue. In the 1970s, when women started making more inroads into the workforce, they had to figure out how to adapt men’s business attire, namely suits, to their bodies. At first they wore big bows in place of ties. Women in the ’80s donned suits with enormous shoulder padding. This was the age of the power suit: “a suit that exaggerated a woman’s shoulders, giving her a more aggressive and masculine silhouette,” as defined by Vogue. Office attire was meant to make women look more like men in suits, rather than to find a kind of dress that was both professional and feminine.
Today, clothing companies seem to have figured out how to design suits and work clothes for women’s bodies. But women’s choices still come fraught with tripwires they might not even know are there. Is your clothing too brightly colored? Do you leave the collar of your shirt out of the suit jacket or tucked in? Skirt or pants? You should wear heels, but not stilettos. You shouldn’t look frumpy, but don’t dare show cleavage. Don’t “dress like a mortician,” but also avoid your “party outfit.” Wear a nice suit, but not always an Armani one.
Not to mention the invisible line separating dowdy and slutty. Hillary Clinton, whose fashion choices never cease to fascinate us, is a living example of how difficult it is to chart these waters: for so long chastised for dressing in sexless turtlenecks, she got an entire article written up the one day she showed a very small amount of cleavage.