So You Want to Look Like a Professional?

As part of their professionalization training, Chicago-area law students were invited to attend and participate in the What Not to Wear Fashion Show organized by the Chicago Bar Association. This free event (on Wednesday, April 7) “feature[d] a runway walk with law students in professional attire selected from their own wardrobes. Guest judges and fashion industry experts critique[d] the student’s selections. . . After the Show, panelists provide[d] attendees with ‘Fashion Dos and Don’ts,’ including correct suit fit for men.” There were also “informative handouts summarizing important pitfalls in dressing for the legal setting.” For example, one handout capaciously warns:

This is not the time for self-expression, flamboyance, or eccentricity.

While professionalization events are common elements of graduate schools and professional association conferences, the sartorial sniping that passes for professional mentoring often consolidates and codes under the neutral-sounding terms “professional” and “respectable” normative ideas about gender presentation, homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism.  If the nickname of the event – “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students” (so named by an embedded blogger called Attractive Nuisance) – is any indication of the “professional” culture the Chicago Bar Association is hoping to foment then this runway show is one such example of how “professionalization” is a technology, in Judith Butler’s words in Undoing Gender, for “constrain[ing] the sociality of the body in acceptable ways.” At this Bar Association event, the production of normative middle-class gender formations is achieved through sartorial-sexual disciplining. (Notice how the comment about the “Express ensemble” and the “tramp stamp” in the first “rule” for women attorneys does double duty as class- and slut-shaming.) Some of the advice included:

  • Ditch your Express ensembles: “Maybe you bought your suit at Express or somewhere… and you bent over to get a Danish and I can see your tramp stamp.” (There’s a tattoo post in Minh-Ha’s future but for now read Katy’s recent post on Jezebel called, “Painted Ladies: On Tats and Trashiness”).
  • Microsuede is never okay.
  • If you’re wearing a skirt, you have to wear tights or pantyhose. Get over it.
  • Make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes, do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish.
  • Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).
  • Never wear boots, never show your arms, NEVER wear pink.

The fashion rules for male attorneys were not as far-ranging and did not require men to consider their (sexualized) bodies, their body art, their emotions, or the bodies, body art, and emotions of other men.

  • Wear a suit. No questions.
  • Get your suit tailored. There is nothing worse than pants or jackets that are too long/short.
  • Polish your shoes
  • Microsuede is never okay
  • If you’re wearing a dark suit, don’t wear a dark shirt. Pick a nice tie. Your shirt and tie shouldn’t compete, they should compliment [sic].

Minh-Ha’s written about the ideological operations of “professional” sartorial advice before, specifically in relation to academia. The similarities between the style guidance offered by the members of the Chicago Bar Association and “Ms. Mentor” (academia’s answer to Dear Abby) reflects the expanding corporatization of universities. Ms. Mentor’s advice that academic women wear “geeky glasses and frumpy clothes to appear older and more serious” is in line with the Chicago Bar Association’s implicit point that professional authority can only be approximated by women who dress in ways that play down their “distracting” femininity. The style rules endorsed by the Chicago Bar Association and Ms. Mentor (who’s authorized by the Chronicle of Higher Education) recall 1980s’ ideologies of “power-dressing” which demanded that career women maintain their femininity (skirts and pantyhose) at the same time that they contain their sexuality (frumpy jackets that concealed breasts).  Joanne Entwistle rightly points out that the sartorial imperatives for career women  “[imply] that sexual harassment is something that women can have some control over if they dress appropriately.” To read Minh-Ha’s original post on this topic, click here.

The most obvious problem with the professionalizing tutorial is the direct activity of disciplining “unprofessional” bodies and subjects via vectors of normality and deviance. Especially in those tutorials that feature a “representative” body to demonstrate both norms and deviations from it –such as the Chicago Bar Association’s event– we see how the body is disciplined via ideas about fitness (with particular regard to the popular equation of fatness with sloth), morality (the aforementioned slut-shaming of tattooed women), class (the suit bought at the mall reveals a poverty in both economic terms but also as the absence of “drive”), and capacity (in which the failure to “look” professional becomes an indictment of a person’s capacity to “be” professional, with all the evaluations of skills or aptitude this entails), which intersect with the usual suspects — vectors of class, race, gender, able-bodiedness, and sexuality, among them.

As we see from the Chicago Bar Association’s advice, “self-expression” is closely policed as undisciplined and self-indulgent. Professionalizing tutorials thus offer tactics for mediating self-expression. (Of course, as Mimi asks elsewhere, before we champion something as tangled as the concept of “self-expression,” perhaps we should query: “For whom is ‘self-expression’ through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable?”) Yet we are meant to believe that by incorporating these style rules we actually reveal our “true” professional selves – not only to ourselves but to our potential employers who may now see us for the truly attractive workers we are. So in a twist of makeover logic, our chosen “flamboyant” and “eccentric” clothes are understood as hiding or distracting from our true professional self which is, let’s face it, the more “valuable” self from the perspective of employers and colleagues.

Thus in most “professional style” tutorials, self-expression is a subtly, sometimes overtly, policed practice of mirroring back a preapproved and unthreatening self. Most notorious are those institutional and informal efforts to discipline black women’s hair via race discourses that consign non-straightened hair to the realm of unruliness, gender disorder, political radicalism, even uncontrollable sexuality. But also troubling are the implications for those who are gender non-normative, and whose presentation is subjected to microtechnologies of sartorial-corporeal policing. (See Mimi’s post that begins with Krista Benson’s discomfort with professional style blogs that assume a cisgendered feminine presentation.) For instance, “How to Be a Business Butch” (from the wonderful blog How to Be Butch) is not a tutorial at all, but a reflection upon the genre. In this piece, the anonymous author navigates some of the  grammars through which others regulate us, and we learn to regulate ourselves. Especially for persons who might stray from a norm, details really are everything.

By non-challenging, I mean that I accept that for many people, butch women are threatening. And I’ve already got butch happening in the basic fabric of who I am. I think butch runs through my personality and the way I speak, not just the clothes I put on. And in addition to that, my body is butch. I’ll probably write a more in depth article regarding what I mean by that statement, but for now, let me just say that I believe that I look butch. My hair is short, my shoulders are broad, and my arms look like piledrivers (well, I’m exaggerating.). But I’m definitely a solid looking woman. So I feel the need to mute my natural presence and energy by not wearing overtly masculine clothes to work.

Business casual for men and women is not that different; at least, not in the way that an average layperson would notice. It’s just collared shirts and slacks, right? For me, it’s the details that kill. In the morning I get up, throw a purse over my shoulder and walk out the door wearing pumps. I think you understand how that is particularly detrimental to someone who identifies as butch.

I compromise with myself by avoiding some things. I never wear skirts or make-up (I dread that in this meeting tomorrow they will say there is no excuse to not wear make-up everyday. I’m not going to spend $50 on that crap.), and I put my purse in a gym bag that I carry to work every day. I wear men’s deodorant. I also let casual Fridays be something of a “free day”, usually putting on my motorcycle boots – I love my motorcycle boots, you might have noticed – and trying to wear a collared shirt. But I would never bind or comb my hair back with a side part, like I normally do on the weekends. I know that many people would say “Go for it!” and “Be who you are – never compromise!” – and many people have said these things to me, but this is the way that I work, and this works for me.

Explicit in the professionalizing tutorial is the not-so-gentle imperative to follow directions; to do otherwise is to fail to “optimize” one’s professional self as a desirable laborer. And we know that failure to follow such directions or to make such compromises does have real-world consequences for access to rights and resources. We are not arguing against professionalizing or tutorials that offer a “how to;” indeed, we understand that these are survival strategies in a neoliberal age that holds out the expectation that each of us be “entrepreneurs of ourselves.” We only observe here that the tutorial can become one symptom of the violence of normalization, when your life may very well depend on your labor –and it is work– to look like a professional. Such sartorial-corporeal labor is both expected to be invisible and at the same time subject to continuous surveillance; and compensation for such labor (employment or promotion, for instance) is more partial and provisional for some than others.




13 responses to “So You Want to Look Like a Professional?

  1. jen

    cant even wait to get a break and read this all,
    and a Butler application too!??

  2. I have nothing much to add, other than that I really liked this. I read some of Legally Fabulous’ comments somewhere else (Jezebel, maybe) and was pretty steamed at the gross, patronizing shit she was saying and the way people in the comments were patting her on the back for it (“the bigger the hoops, the bigger the ho” OH BOY SLUT-SHAMING IS HILARIOUS LOLZ).

    And I can’t wait for this tattoo post. Boy, I could tell you some stories about being heavily tattooed and thus assumed to be available for invasive questioning and uninvited touching 24/7. Also, have y’all ever read any of Marisa Kakoulas’ stuff? She’s a heavily tattooed lawyer who writes a lot about tattoos as fine art/high fashion. While I do kind of get where she’s coming from (good tattoos do require a lot of artistic skill, which I don’t think people always realize), I feel like a lot of her stuff ends up sounding like “we’re not like THOSE tattooed people.” It seems like a lot of the time she’s making an effort to actively disavow any of tattooing’s working-class/”trashy” connotations in order to make people respect tattooed folks more, when the problem for me is more that the term “trashy” (with its problematic class/sexuality implications) is an insult in the first place. (Kakoulas’ post on Michelle McGee is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about, I think. I’m no McGee fan, of course, but the “tattooed ladies, don’t dress so skanky” advice therein kind of grates.)

    • I’m familiar w/ Kakoulas’ stuff and I couldn’t agree with you more! She absolutely sets up this high/low divide between authentic tattooed ladies and inauthentic (trashy) ladies. McGee is gross but her tats are the least of it (i.e., more gross than her swastika tat is her desire for one).

      I’ll have to get on that tattoo post soon – i’ve ALSO experienced the uninvited touching and questioning (a guy at a bar actually kissed one of my tats – a shoulder one – startled the HELL out of me because i didn’t see him until that happened. never met him, didn’t know him. he thought i’d be flattered. yeah.) ah . .. so much to say about this!

    • Oh my god, someone actually said “the bigger the hoops, the bigger the ho”?! That is so fucked up.

  3. I always rely on your blog to help me recognize ways in which my own thinking has been limited, and this post does not disappoint! My friends and I have been working through some of these same issues over on our blog, so it was great to see in my blogreader today that you were addressing the topic!

    Another thing I find upsetting about these “fashion rules” is that they’re clearly written with an intent to “entertain.” Their tone indicates (in my opinion, at least) that we should not only feel responsible for following these “rules,” but we should also laugh heartily at the expense of those who do not.

    • Liz, I agree! There is often a particular tone accompanying the assumption that these rules are commonsensical and “normal,” and the failure to follow them is also the failure to comprehend their “rightness,” which is a failure of reason or aptitude.

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  7. Maura

    “Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).”

    WHAAAAAT?!? Is this a joke?

    If I wasn’t laughing so hard, I’d be screaming. Are all female interviewers, whom I assume are in a position of some authority, really so petty, insecure, and lacking in emotional control that they would fly into a jealous rage at the sight of a piece of jewelry? Why aren’t we warned that the sight of a large engagement ring might enrage a male interviewer, because it signals that the interviewee in question is less available for MadMenesque office trysts and regular sexual harassment? Why aren’t male candidates warned that interviewers may fly into a rage if they don’t leave their Tiger Beat haircuts, overblown egos, and general jackassery at home? Are gigantic, in-your-face-sized engagement rings such an epidemic that they merit mention at all?

    Note to self: at my next law firm interview (ha), be sure to wear baby pink peplum jacket and bow skirt, platform peep toes, and six carats.

  8. Lederhosen

    “Do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).”

    Something tells me this is a bullshit cover up for the real reason not to wear a “loud” engagement ring, which I suspect has more to do with what’s implied by the engagement ring than the ring itself.

    An engagement ring implies you are soon to be married. And what is the assumed purpose for women in marriage? Making babies and raisin’ chirrens. Which, of course, means you will be more costly to insure, and will not be as focused/dedicated at your job as men in the same position (because, you know, you’re a woman, and therefore incapable of balancing more than one responsibility at a time. You know how it is, a woman has a baby, and all her brains fall out.)

    And, honestly, if your soon-to-be-hubby can afford a rock like that, there’s no reason for you to be working outside of the house.

  9. nonesuch

    YES!! This is so very extremely true and almost NEVER discussed in academia – and yet we all pride ourselves on being able to deconstruct this blather rather than swallowing it whole and swearing by it. Thanks.

  10. Pingback: “You Can’t Bully Me Out of My Skinny Jeans” « threadbared

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