Over the past decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of female executives from all industries, and despite their vast visual and professional diversity, they seek help with one common fashion conundrum: “How in the world do I interpret ‘business casual’?” From female law partners to women in tech, we don’t categorically embrace the casualization of the workplace with the same enthusiasm as men. Or rather, we like it in theory (“More comfortable footwear!”), but when it comes to actually getting dressed in the morning, it’s far from breezy.
The high-powered female executives I work with consistently tell me that Casual Friday, for instance, is completely off their radar. Why? They find the options available to them for those more casual days to be disempowering and more stressful. There are seemingly endless pitfalls and fashion faux pas awaiting even the savviest of professional women in the casual dress landmine, and every office has a horror story of mythical proportions of a misguided interpretation of how to effectively dress casually in the workplace. (Midriff tops and miniskirts, anyone?)
What gives? Why is the business casual code so hard for so many women to successfully crack? Well, to start, we simply have more fashion “stuff” to balance and negotiate. Contemporary gender norms assign sartorial embellishments to women, though this was not always the case — as makeup, skirts and heels were not historically the exclusive territory of the female. It wasn’t until the Great Male Renunciation in the late 18th century that men adopted a more sober appearance, while adornment and beauty were relegated to women. What this means for modern professional women is that, while men are moving swiftly between suits and khakis, women have the nuances of everything from hemlines to heel heights to consider.