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Women, Workwear, and the Workplace — PhotoBook Magazine

Jun 05, 2023

Gordon B Hinckley, the 15th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known for the infamous saying, a woman is what makes a house a home. In some contorted way, he is correct. There is nothing in this world as ingenious and exceptional as the female touch. I don’t know how valid the insights from an old man are on the topic of feminine essence. However, I do know that throughout history women have demonstrated time and time again their ability to practice activism and female liberation through various forms of creative expression.

Personal touches to things as simple as the art of dress in both a casual and professional setting demonstrates female salvation and a cultural shift in regard to what is appropriate to wear to work. Professional wear has taken a complete 180 turn. From shift dresses and dress suits to corporate goth, women's professional wear goes beyond a simple dress code.

The onset of World War II brought on massive change; men are overseas, women are in factories, and a shortage of fabric. Clothing items such as denim are expected in factory settings, but denim jumpsuits are strictly workwear. Not the cute, easy to throw on over a plain white tee with some tennis sneakers overalls, but protective wear.

Image Credit: The Women’s Network San Diego State

Headwraps and scarves known as Jacamar propaganda scarves were worn multi purposefully. To protect the hair, but also to add a subtle yet feminine touch to the plain denim overalls expected in factories.

Women’s Jacamar propaganda scarves depicted fanatical phrases of American patriotism intended to encourage American women to support the country at the time that didn't support them. Phrases such as “salvage your rubber,” were commonly used on headscarves constructed of linen and sometimes even rayon. Silk wasn’t available to the working class at the time due to war rationing.

Image Credit: World War II Effort Poster

This trend of utility for women in factories became a furor of high fashion when the industry began producing quality scarves of silk and linen for women to wrap around their hair for an aesthetic purpose rather than a purposeful one. Popularized by early 1930s Hollywood actresses such as Audrey Hepburn and models like Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Chanel took off with this trend. Elevating a simple purposeful look created by women to help them feel feminine and protected in the workplace, to an elegant staple for ladies.

The 1950s facilitated the invasion of a new widespread silhouette for women thanks to Dior, and women are not happy. The “New Look”, featuring a snatched waist, prominent rounded shoulders, and a full skirt, is embraced in the workplace (for the very few women who don’t just work in the house). The constricting silhouette was protested by many who viewed the return to the hourglass figure as a step back in progressivism towards women.

Image Credit: 1953 Fall Tweed Day Suit – Harvey Berin by Karen Stark Glamour Daze

The 1950s designers such Claire McCardell initiated a counterculture against the snatched silhouette encouraged and required by dress codes in the workplace by producing affordable garments with no bodice or shaping. McCardell pieces offered the wearer freedom, out of question at the time, by providing a belt to allow the wearer to comfortably decide where to snatch the dress onto the waist. For some of the first-time clothing is made with thought and practicality, quite literally and figuratively McCardell's garments are freeing.

Image Credit: Claire McCardell design-Museum of Natural History Archives

The 1960s and 70s brought about an impression of democracy on the dress standard for women in the workplace. Hemlines are shorter, dresses are shiftier, and hair is bigger and sexier. In the 1980s and 90s, women took bigger positions, think, CEO’s, VP’s and Presidents. Unfortunately, in order to be remotely taken seriously as a woman, it's best to drown out any feminine quality you have with drab clothing. Suits and dress suits in the 80s and 90s had shoulder padding that you feel bigger to match that big promotion you so doubtlessly earned.

Walking off the A or C express train I take almost every day to get to work, I noticed the demeanor of the women around me and the clothes they wore. This routine, a quick glance and almost instant judgment of this woman and her story is a shared experience I think almost every woman can empathize with. Most of these judgments are instant assumptions about that girl based on nothing but shallow and depthless factors. Unfortunately, most of these instant judgements are not friendly.

Above: Photography by John French, 1960s women’s typical work outfits

Upon thinking about this theory and what it allows me to guess about a woman I noticed, I generally make assumptions about what a woman is wearing and correlate it to what type of work she might do. For example, it’s approximately 8:00 am on Monday, and I take the downtown E train toward the World Trade Center and Euclid Ave. The commuters most likely are headed towards Phi-Di for work. I spotted a girl: her hair is loosely pulled back into a frizzy ponytail because she has 2A curls but she has absolutely no idea how to take care of them and refuses to spend more than 5 minutes doing her hair. She is wearing high waisted wrinkled gray slacks that practically cry to be hemmed. An ill-fitted white blouse hangs from her body. It is plausible she took it from her mother’s closet, when she started her new, big girl job she didn’t have the money or didn’t care to buy “appropriate” work wear clothes. She had no clue what modern business casual looks like. No time to put on any accessories, her work bag was a north face that her adoring father probably gifted to her when she perhaps received her big promotion and now it stores her four chargers for her phone, iPad, MacBook, and smart watch. She is wearing new balances, not bad, but in her bag is her change of shoes for the office, a scary pair of beat-up black ballet flats. She heard ballet flats were back in, right?

Before you call me crazy, just stop and think about the last time you assumed about someone based on what they were wearing. We all do it. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Phi-di-financial girl, she is making way more money than all of us, and she is happy and comfortable. This is what clothes should do.

The production and film girls are content in their baggy Carhartt cargos, Hanes cropped white tank tops and Doc Martens. The studio art girls look prodigious in their paint-stained Gangnam, oversized button up and slip skirts. The same goes for the doctors and nurses in their scrubs and pristine white lab coats. The fashion girls are an effortless spot. Who else feels the need to be decked out in an all-black low rise maxi skirt, pleated sheer black sleeveless turtleneck, oversized Chloe sunglasses, and vintage Stuart Weitzman knee boots. Don’t forget the oversized designer black tote bag. Am I getting too specific here?

Nevertheless, there is no standard uniformed dress code for the female professional anymore. It is nearly impossible to categorize women’s professional attire, as it was 50, 60 years ago. This in and of itself is liberating, however, the predetermined notions of sexuality that have been transcribed into women’s clothing for decades have propelled society into establishing a “no dress code-dress code” for women, or an unspoken set of rules which can be much more mind boggling than a real dress code.

Although most people feel comfortable showing up to work in sneakers nowaday, as a woman there is a pressure to upkeep a particular physical appearance in order to be taken seriously in a professional setting that is particularly male-dominated. Society in general has come to terms with general changes in fashion like short shorts, miniskirts, sleeveless tops, tattoos, and piercings. A work establishment maybe wouldn’t outright say that they don’t approve of your pink hair, however the blatant disregard of your contribution at that staff meeting or passing up of that promotion says it all.

There are no written rules anymore for women, but misogynistic undertones and inconspicuous sexism in the form of subtle remarks and actions, say a lot. Women, with particular emphasis on young women in the workplace are still observed as sexual beings with no other purpose than that in the eyes of the professional World.

Despite the limitations and boundaries through which women are oftentimes forced to navigate in the workforce, they always do so in a swank and contemporary manner that allows us to further push the boundaries of feminism and break the cycle of sexism in the workplace. There is nothing in this world like the female touch. Even if it’s as subtle as a pop of color in your jewelry in an environment where no body piercings are allowed, or opting for a comfy, cute sneaker at work instead of your $800 black boots. Women always find a way to rift people’s confines of comfortability of female existence.

Article by Emily Simon, Contributor, PhotoBook MagazineTearsheets by Alexa Dyer, Graphic Designer, PhotoBook Magazine