Having had limited time for recent sewing – and time I have had spent making a dress for my sister (so “secrets”), I thought I’d write a different kind of post with some ramblings about dressing for work. I’d be really interested in other people’s views on this.
I listened to a Women’s Hour podcast this week about the uniforms we wear for work – whether prescribed by the business, professional expectation, a wish to conform or our own self-expression. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot during the course of my career, and more so since taking up sewing as a hobby (obsession) about six years ago.
My first job out of school was for a plumbing firm in my gap year between A levels and university – providing secretarial services with one other woman to a team of male surveyors/sales reps. It was a fun place to work, but these were not enlightened times. The expectation was for ‘office wear’ – not specifically a suit, but skirts and blouses were mandatory. Wearing trousers was not allowed for female members of staff, and when I campaigned for a change on this point (as the only person whose desk was based in a draughty reception area), the managing director did agree to accept women in tailored trousers – but only when the big boss wasn’t visiting. When the big boss arrived unexpectedly one day, I was snuck out of a side door and taken home to change.
I spent the next three years doing a creative arts degree, where the uniform was set by a developing (sometimes, in retrospect, cringeworthy) self-expression but also a wish to conform. Finding ways to be different (which was desirable) but still within a safe parameter of choices (which was essential) was the tension. Think lots of prints, dungarees, and Doc Marten boots with ribbons for laces.
I joined the treadmill of working life after graduating, working in a school, in a housing association, freelancing from home when my children were small, then working in higher education and now back in a secondary school environment. Each of those businesses has had their own written and unwritten rules about work uniform, and everyone working in them has also had their own personal rules about what they want to wear and how they want to express themselves. My profession is human resources, so given my interest in this area it’s hard not to draw some conclusions from what I see.
1. Everyone is judging you on your appearance, all the time
We don’t always like this, but it’s true. Whether they do it consciously or not (and few people directly judge someone on the length of their skirt or the colour of their tie), your personal presentation is the first thing that most people notice about you and it makes a lasting impression that the other person will then confirm or deny as they get to know you.
2. Confidence and comfort have a definite correlation
Everyone who sews (and many people who don’t) knows the value of clothes that fit you really well. I can’t count how many outfits I’ve worn over the years where the trousers were too long, the waistband too tight, the shoes painful or the skirt inclined to ride up or twist. It’s not just that these sartorial choices aren’t comfortable – it’s also that someone who feels constricted or concerned about their clothes is distracted by that fact before they contribute in any other way – and it shows.
Some of this is personal choice – I’m sure I’ve worn plenty of trousers for longer than my waistband would have preferred, because I liked the style and was determined that I wouldn’t buy the next size up. For too long, I had a seriously misaligned idea of what suited me. Again, some of it is expectation – if your natural inclination isn’t to wear a pencil skirt or heels, then a professional or social ‘rule’ that you should is going to put you on the back foot from the start.
This is something I really try to bear in mind in my sewing. I choose jersey fabrics whenever I can, because I immediately feel more comfortable in them – the secret pyjamas phenomenon. I’ve certainly discovered that you can trade ponte di roma fabric for many patterns designed for wovens, without having to make much of an adjustment. The Sew Over It Heather dress and the Tilly and the Buttons Etta dresses are in regular rotation in my work wardrobe, and both are really easy to wear – to dress up with a suit jacket and heels, or to dress down with a long cardigan and flats, depending on the people I’m going to see during that work day. It’s a personal preference for sure, but dresses make me feel put together at work in a way that doesn’t demand too much of my brain early in the morning (I leave the house before 7am, so simple is good).
3. Standing out from the crowd is good (within an acceptable boundary)
One of the points in the podcast was that in a sea of grey suits, you have the ability to stand out in your colour choices. Being memorable can be a very positive thing – but there’s always that degree of risk involved in being different – one that we acknowledge in our teenage years (resisting school uniform with all our might, but socially choosing to wear exactly the same thing as our peers at all other times) and sustains to some extent through our later lives. Choosing to stand out from the crowd needs confidence – so comfort again is key (see last point).
In sewing, I’ve definitely explored the colours I feel happiest wearing. I like bold block colours more than patterns (however much I love the patterned fabric when I shop for it, it’s never the one I reach for when I’m making), and jewel shades rather than pastels. When shopping for RTW over the years, I’ve almost always opted for something that’s black or navy – and while I still probably have more in those shades than any others, I rarely choose black or navy to sew with. Sewing is definitely pushing those boundaries for me – and my pink Etta dress is still something that I wear with a bit of trepidation, but it increasingly feels like me.
4. It’s personal
As a woman in my forties, I feel far more confident now about make clothing choices that are about me, not about what the ‘average’ woman might suit or want. I’m not average – and that’s not a humble brag. I’m 5ft 2ins, so shorter than most women, and clothes from the high street (particularly trousers) seem designed for giants when I put them on. My waist is a bigger measurement than it used to be and I don’t really curve in any of the ways I’d choose to – think rectangle rather than hourglass. I never have to do an FBA.
The amazing thing about sewing is that I can reflect all of that in the choices I make in my unachievable quest to be Agent Carter.
The more patterns I follow, the more I understand about adjustments – but also about styles that work for my shape. Somehow in sewing a thing, you get a much more personal response to whether it actually suits you than if you’d bought it. I’m definitely someone who wears what I sew – so if I choose to leave it in the wardrobe, it tells me a lot about the make and I try to understand what my reservations are.
In the workplace, those choices are always personal. The external expectations are commonly quite broad brush, and there’s enormous power in being able to express yourself within it. I’m an HR professional, so setting the written guidelines for this kind of thing often falls to me – and I would usually write (beyond the health and safety requirements of a role) that you should dress to meet the expectations of the people you’ll meet in your working day. On a rare working-from-home day, that might literally mean pyjamas for me. During term time at school I usually wear smart dresses with jackets or tailored cardigans. Often I wear flat shoes – but I always have a pair of heeled shoes under my desk: not because anyone else might require it, but sometimes I appreciate the additional confidence that a few more centimetres of height gives me. Interestingly in school holiday times (I work all year round), most people dress down. I do too, but have quite clear personal boundaries for this. The people I deal with in my role are the same as during term time – I’m not dressing to meet the expectations of pupils really, but of staff. I therefore wouldn’t ever wear shorts or jeans (though colleagues sometimes do), because to my mind it wouldn’t suit my role. As I said, it’s personal choice.
In ‘The Rules of Work‘, a book which is a little cheesy but invaluable for anyone starting their working life, the author Richard Templar argues that you should model your business dress on your manager or their boss. Dress for the job you want next and you’ll subconsciously project yourself as ready for the next level etc. There’s definitely something in this, though I resist the idea that the formula is quite that simple. Certainly over the years I’ve seen promotions awarded to people who have projected confidence and a more business-like manner through their dress – and others who have been judged as overconfident and too focused on the ‘gloss’, so it certainly is never the only factor in these matters.
5. Interview suits
A final thought from me is about dressing for interviews – thinking back across hundreds of interviews that I’ve conducted over the years. This is definitely a time when you should focus on wearing an outfit that is smart and well fitted – as you want everything to be working for you to build your confidence, allow you to relax and to project professionalism.
What you should wear to an interview is absolutely dependent on the organisation that you’re interviewing for, and a bit of research about their corporate style will give you pointers about this, and pitch your outfit as slightly more formal than you think their day to day corporate dress might be. Don’t follow the blind guidance of recruitment agencies who tell you that you must wear a black or blue suit to interviews, and to keep everything else neutral. Think carefully about the person you want to project and what makes you feel good, and build an outfit that reflects that.
One of the organisations that I’ve been proud to have volunteered for over the years (though sadly I rarely get the opportunity now) is Smart Works. This fantastic charity provides women who have a job interview lined up but have been out of work for a while, with a package of new clothes and some interview coaching. The fabulous dressing volunteers work with an Aladdin’s cave of donated suits and business wear, shoes, bags etc to put together an outfit that suits the individual and the kind of organisation they’re interviewing at. The client comes out of their dressing session (and it’s always that way round) to the interview coaching. It’s amazing to witness – they are literally buzzing with it. Having someone who is kind and thoughtful, who understands what will make them look good and feel right, can be transformational. As the interview coach, I’ve had the privilege of being able to build on that and help them take that confidence forwards to good, rounded answers to the questions they’re likely to be asked.
And more than 60% of women who Smart Works help go on to get the job they’re interviewing for.
So, those are my thoughts on dressing for work – do you agree or disagree? What do you wear for work, and how much flexibility do you have in what you choose? Any thoughts on the podcast?