If I weren’t such a nerd about workplace stuff, I’d be wondering where the heck this idea came from that says that one’s professionalism is 99.38% made up of what you wear, with the other fraction of a percentage point being eaten up by tattoos, facial hair, the presence or lack thereof of piercings, and so on.
Now before you tar and suit-and-tie me, I’m not saying I have a problem with people dressing up for work, or even with organizations requiring their employees to dress up for work. It really doesn’t matter all that much to me. I think it’s been blown up into this huge deal. Want to wear nice jeans and a shirt? Fine. Feel like you work better in slacks and a tie? Go for it. Do your best work in a speedo? Find somewhere else to work.
What’s begun to irk me is this notion that professionalism (doing big air quotes when I say “professionalism”) rests entirely or even mostly on the fabric content of someone’s outfit. I mean, if I wanted to get all fancypants about it, I think an argument could be made that the wearing-a-tie-and-looking-just-so thing is a social construct that could potentially (notice I didn’t say will) encourage further social stratification since that’s how all this noise got started in the first place, but the nerd in me digresses.
OK, fine. You twisted my arm. I’ll digress. Since way, way back, clothing has been used in many different ways, including the aforementioned social stratification. You could go almost as far back in history as you want, and you don’t have to limit your search to workplaces. You can look there, but don’t forget to look in the religious realm and society at large as well.
In ancient Greece, for example, they forbade women to wear gold jewelry and embroidered robes, unless of course they were known to be an out-in-the-open prostitute. Over time, the lady of the night dress code evolved, but was still surprisingly specific in many cultures, down to patterns and colors of fabrics. I’m sure there’s a working girl/workplace joke here; I just don’t know what it is.
In ancient Rome, only men who had reached a certain level of power and influence were allowed to wear a particular type of toga (think power suit meets toga party). Starting to see the potential workplace parallels yet?
Now a quick note here: Again, I’m not saying that anyone who dresses up or thinks folks should dress up is engaging in social stratiwhatevertheheck. Not at all. Heck, I’m wearing dress slacks and a tie as I’m writing this, and was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie the day before that. Nor do I think that everyone who wears a tailored suit thinks they’re better than everyone else.
In medieval Europe, dress codes were used to differentiate societal levels, yes? Nobility wore thus-and-such, while commoners were required to wear this-and-that. The dress code was in place to differentiate them from other classes. It was a symbolic sign of power, prosperity, wealth, and status. After all, we can’t have folks dressing above their station, now can we?
Think it was just those snobby Europeans (I say this tongue in cheek of course)? Think again. At our very own heavily religious Massachusetts Bay Colony, eventually people were not allowed to wear gold, silver, or lace unless they had reached a certain level of wealth.
So how about this–someone’s professionalism could be based at least largely on their ability to perform well within their profession and operate appropriately within their particular context.
I’ll give that a minute.
What if professionalism was defined more as possessing a certain workplace savvy than it was possessing a wardrobe of a specific kind. I’d place a much higher premium on someone who could navigate the various dynamics within a given organization, understand what was appropriate (in regards to wardrobe and whatever else) in given situations, and perform at a high level than I would on someone who could alternate between Four-in-Hand, Pratt-Shelby, Grantchester, Windsor, and Half-Windsor tie knots with ease.
I’m not advocating for apparel anarchy. Again–and I’m trying desperately to avoid the So you just think people should show up to work wearing whatever they want and looking sloppy and unkempt and with sixty-two piercings and a t-shirt that has profanity on it and spiked green hair and sagged pants comment–I’ve got no issue with organizations having appearance guidelines. In fact, you about have to. I just cringe when we start looking at someone and labeling them as “professional” or “unprofessional” based on little or nothing having to do with their actual profession.