Rethinking Gender and Fashion in the Workplace
Male bosses still make 35 percent more than their female counterparts, but does that mean women should dress like men? And do the clothes make the man (rich)?
Throughout history, gendered dress has been fluid, not fixed. Fashion loves to push boundaries, particularly when it comes to gender. Think of Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Diane Keaton. They all have a strong mix of feminine and masculine style sensibilities. Even if you identify as more feminine, there’s no need for that choice to be absolute. The office is a perfect place to mix genders — not in a costumey way, but with nuanced sophistication. Tailoring, trousers, herringbone: You don’t need to be a tomboy to appreciate and adopt these aesthetic details.
But what does it even mean to “dress like a man” or “like a woman”? Who decides what’s “masculine” or “girly”? Fashion is not designed and worn in a vacuum. Rather, the gendering of clothing is a product of larger cultural norms and trends. Here’s a look at the evolution of feminine and masculine style, as well as some tips for those who refuse to choose between the two.
Outside of drag queens and theatrical performers, we tend to think of makeup as the domain of women, though that has not always been the case — nor will it likely be the trend forever. The first use of cosmetics was gender-neutral and is believed to link back to ancient Egypt. Both women and men used a kohl mixture to line their eyes, and Cleopatra is believed to have used carmine beetles to stain her lips.
Throughout its history, makeup has had a close relationship with sexuality: A BBC video argues that we create “bedroom eyes” (by darkening the upper lid) because it mimics the way we look just before the point of orgasm, and we wear lipstick in an attempt to replicate the fuller, redder look of aroused lips. This racy connection explains why figures like Queen Victoria I saw makeup as the vulgar and impolite realm of prostitutes and male drag actors. But in the early 20th century, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, the beauty industry pioneers, changed everything. The founders of the $150 billion beauty industry (and bitter rivals), Arden and Rubinstein transformed the perception of makeup and shifted it from scandalous to glamorous.
Regardless of its origins, makeup is now more than mere vanity. Studies show it can make you appear competent, younger and more “socially cooperative.” Even just imagining yourself in makeup can make you act and feel more confident. So it’s no wonder men are getting in on the action (it’s amazing what a little gender-specific packaging can do in marketing to the opposite sex). Perhaps you’ll soon be sharing concealer with your male partners.
Mix it up: Gender neutral makeup is on the rise. Brands like Enter Pronoun are leading the unisex cosmetics category with their selection of concealers, bronzers and eye liners. And while CK One was the product that made unisex scents sexy when it launched in 1994, other scents strike a similarly gender neutral note, like Bvlgari White Tea.
Pants and Skirts
Pants and skirts alike are ancient garments historically embraced by both men and women. Eventually, practicality largely gave way for many men as the industrial revolution necessitated pants for protection. Bloomers emerged for women in the mid-19th Century, particularly for bicycle riding, and around the turn of the 20th Century it became acceptable for women to wear trousers while doing industrial work.
The hyper-masculinization of pants and hyper-feminization of skirts has largely skewed Western, however. Many men in cultures with warmer climates still wear draped, skirt-like garments, while the only non-taboo form of male skirt in the West today is the kilt. Though its form is the same as any other skirt that a woman might wear, we revere it as a masculine garment.
And while we normally associate skirts with sexiness, it’s women in pants that have historically put us most ill at ease. As pants became a staple in the Western male wardrobe, women were restricted from doing the same to preserve “modesty”: pants hug a woman’s curves, accentuating her shape, making long, full skirts the more modest decision -- reminding us that interpreting fashion is a cultural act and its meaning is not inherent in the garment’s form.
Mix it up: Mixing and balancing masculine and feminine elements is the new power look. It takes sophistication, nuance and is harder to pull off (if it were easy, it wouldn’t be powerful). Pair a structured blazer with a full skirt, or wear tailored trousers with a silk blouse and heels. Pants can look feminine and skirts can still claim authority when expertly paired.
The modern business suit began in England in an attempt to demonstrate and preserve upper class status. Well-cut, tailored garments — particularly items that changed slightly each year — cost money to fit and update. The tailors began to mix elements of evening and day wear with military uniforms and other specialty civilian clothes to switch things up and encourage constant consumption.
The Great Male Renunciation of the 18th Century ushered in a time of greater differentiation between male and female fashion. Embellishment and adornment now belonged to women, while utility and function anchored menswear. This is also when the current form of the men’s uniform of the suit reached its current incarnation — a far cry from the hosiery, wigs and codpieces of yore. The man’s form was no longer on display, but rather shrouded via the enveloping nature of the suit. This became the idealized male look that neither reveals nor overtly accentuates the body.
The suit quickly became a status symbol of the polished, upwardly mobile citizen and has remained a business wear staple. In the 20th Century, women started to suit up too. In the 1930s and ‘40s, movie stars like Marlene Dietrich were photographed wearing suits, and when designer Elsa Schiaparelli created the shoulder-pad suit, it became apparent that the suit could embody both femininity and masculinity. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent released Le Smoking, a long women’s tuxedo which pioneered the rise of the minimalist, androgynous suit. As women became more ambitious and independent their fashion shifted to reflect their new mindset: boxy silhouettes, wide legged trousers, vibrant fabrics, and of course, “power suits.”
Mix it up: Perhaps more than any other garment, suits can feel masculine on the female form. Soften them with a high-waisted trouser paired with a wide belt, and don’t be afraid to cuff the sleeve or follow Nancy Pelosi’s lead and pop your collar. Layer with metallic chains and consider adding an embellished collar for some feminine flair.
Women’s feet have been fetishized sexual objects for centuries. From a thousand years of Chinese foot binding to platforms in the Middle Ages to today’s stilettos, foot torture is not a new phenomenon. But it hasn’t always been the realm of women.
Men, in fact, wore heels before women in the West. Like foot-binding, heels symbolized that one was not expected to work. They were the footwear of choice of aristocratic men — King Louis XIV forbid anyone but the noble classes from wearing red heels. Eventually women adopted heels and other formerly masculine stylings, like hosiery and makeup — a sort of sartorial borrowing of power — and men abandoned them. And, as is the case with all fashion, heels began to trickle down amongst the masses while the upper classes continued to strive for new ways to distinguish themselves, be it through higher heels or pointier toes.
Despite the potential discomfort, the “power” that many feel in heels is due in part to the way our bodies engage with them. Shoes transform our gait and posture, the sway of our hips and the curve of our spines. We animate the clothes we wear, but they also change our bodies in motion.
Mix it up: Experiment with heel heights and the clothing that accompanies. Menswear-inspired brogues are more sophisticated than a ballet flat and look smart with long full skirts and pants alike. And if you do wear heels, you can now get the best of both worlds: high heels that convert to flats. The lining of Nael Coce pumps slip out into a slipper-like flat to wear whenever your feet need a rest. They’re also made from eco-friendly, antibacterial materials and are at a nice price-point considering their two-for-one design.
Between 600-700 million people wear a tie everyday, and Americans spend over $1 billion on ties each year. The necktie is anything but a fleeting trend: it got its start in B.C. China and continued to spread to Italy, Croatia and England. These marks of distinction have military roots, though the knots and their symbolism has evolved. Our current masculine necktie came into being in 17th Century in France, culminating in its current form in the U.S. in the 1920s.
Regardless of its vicissitudes in pattern and width, there is a formality to ties and the occasions on which it is worn. Not only relegated to offices, restaurants often require many servers — both men and women — to wear ties. As do many private school uniforms. Gossip Girl infamously popularized the sexualization of the loosely worn necktie with the short skirt on women – the combination of which was more titillating than either worn separately.
Diane Keaton’s role in “Annie Hall” in 1977 popularized the necktie for casualwear for women, and around the same time, floppy bow blouses became popular. Women began to make headway in previously male dominated fields and adopted masculine dress in those contexts (because, when in Rome…). It was their version of the male tie, and while women have developed their own professional aesthetic, we once again see this look on many blouses.
Mix it up: You don’t have to go full Annie Hall to incorporate the necktie. Retain the overall military influence by pairing modern tuxedo pants with a silky, floppy tie blouse. Or look for a dress with a small bowtie at the neckline for a subtle, non-fussy necktie interpretation.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.