In Defence of Codes

Did the latest Paris Fashion Show suggest that ‘power dressing’ for women suffers from a lack of variety, as Robin Givhan suggested in her Washington Post article (see my previous blog entry), or an excess of variety, as Vanessa Friedman argues in her recent NYT piece?

Both arguments seem to agree on the absence of a generally acceptable sartorial code through which to express the social, political or institutional power of women. But while Givhan suggest that this has yet to be fully developed, Friedman’s seems to describe, indeed celebrate, the current demise of such a code.

What does female power dressing look like today? … The struggle to provide an answer formed the subtext of the recent fashion season, which ended last week in Paris. Many proposals were made, but few conclusions reached.

As the main driving force behind this development she identifies the still increasing individualisation (and atomisation) of late modern society.

We are in a convulsive moment of change, one in which the old order and the new coexist in uneasy alliance; one in which received notions of presentation are increasingly being rejected in favor of individual identity. A person’s experience and history are worn as badges of pride, not disguised so as to better blend in.

Consequently, the disappearance of professional and institutional dress codes, Friedman suggests, is to be welcomed, and we should celebrate a

loosening of bounds, … an expression of the reality that diversity of all kinds (thought, aesthetic, opinion) is on the rise, and that the uniform is no longer an object of desire. An acknowledgment that there are many different kinds of power and ways to design for them.

And so we are encouraged to slip the surly bonds of dress codes and to assert our freedom of choice, to dress creatively and expressively, when we shall have ‘to decide what all of this means for [ourselves]. Because right now, there are so very many, many possibilities’.

But we already know where this ends. Because ‘individual style’ is actually an oxymoron – all style refers to a socially recognised (if sometimes implicitly) code, and individuality is only possible in contrast with, and as a playful engagement with, the code – this ‘liberation’ will end in sartorial anomie. To refer to Andrew Hill’s caustic argument one more time, if we can all dress as we like, we’ll all end up looking the same. In the absence of a code for power dressing, no sense of power and identity can be discerned. The same colleague who defiantly proclaims that she does not want to waste too much thought on the way she dresses also complains to me that she regularly gets mistaken for a postgraduate student in our department.

To relax the power dress code simply means to hide power. Universities, political institutions and private companies are no less hierarchical for letting their staff and employees ‘dress down’. In fact, as a recent article in, interestingly enough, the Business section of the Washington Post demonstrates, the recent decision of Goldman Sachs to relax their professional dress code only benefits men, and puts female employees under additional pressure. While ‘all the men are psyched’, for women the question now becomes again how to dress for respect. The enforcement of a general corporate dress code gave them a clear reference point to express professional status via sartorial performance. The relaxation of this code once again makes this difficult as men do not depend on their sartorial skills as much as women to be taken seriously and considered successful professionals.

Women at work who feel pressure to prove they deserve to be in the room might be wary of ditching their blazers and pumps.

“We’ve just achieved the parity of the pantsuit, and suddenly we’re told the standard pantsuit is no longer standard workforce attire,” Scafidi said. “Women will need to find another way to achieve parity in attire at business casual or some other lower level of formality.”

While dressing down might carry the danger of being once again disregarded, insisting on proper dress code might now insinuate that female employees are uptight and stiff. Moreover, while men have a fairly wide range of ‘casualwear’ such as polos and khakis, ‘women don’t have a business casual uniform in the same way’.

So the ‘liberation’ from the ‘power dress code’ is anything but. It re-confirms gendered power structures and only facilitates personal choices for men. For women, it simply redefines sartorial imperatives, now less clearly established and more ambiguous than before. The solution to the role of codes of professional and power dressing is therefore not to ignore or dismantle them. Rather, it is to hold men to the same sartorial standards as women, and judge their professional status in similar terms.

And I am not all that opposed to bringing back the academic gown for academic staff…

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2 thoughts on “In Defence of Codes

  1. I’m not sure I buy the argument that women have a more limited range of casual wear. Only that women’s business casual is less well defined. But there is a wide range between uptight and inappropriate. Totally agree though that sartorial codes are real and useful. You might not be interested in fashion, but what you wear helps define you.

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