“She wears her clothes as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork”. This is my favourite insult hurled by a character in Jonathan Swift’s 1738 satire Polite Conversation — and also a reasonable description of me on an average day as an academic, slumped over student essays at my desk at home. Though I make more of an effort when venturing out into the world, removing visible coffee stains and ink blots, I also struggle to remember the last time I wore a suit at work.
Academics, admittedly, are a motley crew at the best of times, but their sartorial confusion speaks of a much wider trend. Indeed, office cultures and working conditions have changed so dramatically in the past couple of decades that many of our dress codes now seem utterly perplexing.
As freelancing and outsourcing have spread through the economy and ever more of us “hot desk” or work from home, the once well-established and mutually understood relationships between managers and employees are being recalibrated. Meanwhile, the flourishing landscape of tech start-ups and creative design companies seem to have initiated a tieless revolution.
Seldom is the new uncertainty more apparent than during the summer, which arrived in earnest this week in London to prompt a sudden uptick in half-sleeve shirts and crumpled linen suits. In sweltering temperatures, when we’re stuck at our desks in shoes and socks, tailored dresses and ties, the absurdity of the old office dress code becomes apparent. How could there be one mode fit for all weathers? And glancing down a commuter train carriage on a hot day at the loosened collars, open-toe sandals and (God forfend) shorts, you might well think that formal office wear, even for bankers and lawyers, is on its way out.
Is this increased informality of dress also changing the way we engage with one another? When it comes to the treatment of women in the workplace, you have to hope so. Recently in Japan, actor and writer Yumi Ishikawa launched a petition protesting against the high heels that are apparently compulsory for women in some Japanese offices, amassing 30,000 signatures. Asked to comment on this, the Japanese health and labour minister, Takumi Nemoto, reasoned that heels were “necessary and appropriate”. Who knew that bunions were integral to business? A thousand women waved an angry stiletto in despair.
Ishikawa’s campaign has also generated international attention. Its hashtag #KuToo (a play on the Japanese words for shoe, kutsu, and pain, kutsuu), nicely echoes the #MeToo campaign, and many women, I suspect, feel her pain quite literally. Haven’t we all been there, at some point or another, hastily swapping out functional footwear for something more appropriate for the office?
If you’ve ever seen Mike Nichols’ go-getting 1988 romcom Working Girl, you’ll remember that Melanie Griffith’s character Tess does something similar in the film’s opening sequence. Elbowing for room on the Staten Island Ferry, she hurries into Manhattan along with hundreds of others starting their working day. Once in the office, she peels off her trainers and pulls on a pair of heels. Thirty-one years after Working Girl, it’s depressing to be circling the same old questions about what women are supposed to wear in a workplace.
The question of clothes is so often a double bind for women who might want to be judged on professional attributes rather than mere appearances, but who also know there are unspoken rules that make workplace dress a minefield. (Anyone preparing for the onslaught of office summer parties and considering bare sleeves rather than a blazer will tell you so.) If you love clothes, then it’s harder still, since being seen to care about what you wear can be taken as a sign of superficiality.
Perhaps our recurring debates about dress codes reveal something else: a deeper anxiety about never feeling at ease, either in the clothes we wear or the skin we are in. Dress is one of the ways in which some of our most serious concerns about power, authority and freedom are expressed. There is more to our clothes than meets the eye.
Women in the workplace, especially, know all about self-consciousness. It comes as a consequence of the status of women’s bodies in life more generally: the various ways in which they are observed and evaluated for their appearance, often against their will. At worst, this takes root in us as an unflinching internal supervision. We imagine how we might be watched and we keep ourselves in check. We dress to solicit approbation, desire and respect, but also to keep criticism, rejection and assault at bay.
Behind the question of what women wear is this anxiety, recognisable in those moments when a woman catches herself and thinks twice at the mirror by the front door, tugging at the hem of a skirt or pulling up a low-cut blouse, silently slipping off a formal jacket at a party, or smoothing down a T-shirt in a meeting.
And that sense of anxiety is not always misplaced. In the workplace, we are bodies as well as suits, although we don’t often want to admit it. Dress codes present us as uniform and inoffensive, but we don’t always engage with each other dispassionately and without discrimination. Isn’t this one of the hard-won insights of the #MeToo movement and the sexual reckoning that has come of it? We meet and work in our offices, conferences and boardrooms, in navy suits and polished shoes, reassured by the veneer of respectability — but there’s no guarantee that a code of conduct will keep us safe.
The suit — sturdy, respectable, dignified — has dominated the history of menswear since 1666, when Charles II issued an edict prescribing a uniform of shirt and waistcoat for noblemen. Samuel Pepys even records it in his diary entry of October 8, noting the king’s “resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”
It is a mark of its power that the suit should have endured. A good suit will endure. They can be timeless, and they also impart an authority that will survive any manner of indignity. They promise their wearers that they will emerge from any encounter unscathed. At its most exaggerated, we see this as James Bond gracefully dusts off after his brush with death and saunters into the sunset. Or take Keanu Reeves, miraculously slick-suited in the John Wick films even when splattered in blood and sprinkled with gunshots.
You can get a suit wrong, of course. Think only of the schlubby polyester worn by Ricky Gervais’s cringeworthy David Brent in The Office. The right suit suggests composure, just as the badly fitted one betrays ineptitude beyond matters of clothes.
How does an item of clothing acquire this kind of power? In his 1975 study Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault described the obedient citizen as a “docile body”. This docile body, he asserted, is the product of schools, hospitals, the military and the workplace, a human being marshalled and trained to be useful to a modern capitalist economy. The docile body obeys laws, heeds instructions, never deviates, and so the suit — along with the formal uniforms worn in schools, hospitals and courts of law — is one way in which this disciplinary society makes itself manifest. It seizes the smallest quirk of individuality as a flashing warning, a signal of dissent to be quashed.
But Foucault’s disciplinarian society also works more unobtrusively, cultivating in each subject an internalised sense of self-judgment. We watchfully self-regulate for fear of reproof. The ways that we apparently “choose” to dress can betray that inward vigilance. In the workplace, many of us dress cautiously, wary of digressions from specified regulations and accusations of unprofessionalism. The question at the heart of the disciplined society is that of what exactly we are regulating. What do we fear will surface from beneath the sobriety of the suit?
The modern suit has a certain totality and robustness, an “irritating perfection”, as dress historian Anne Hollander once wrote, noticing in it a completeness at odds with the jagged edges of life. The solidity of the suit sits awkwardly, she writes, when “current millennial impulses tend towards disintegration”. When all around is fragmented and deconstructed, the suit remains, largely, the same. Even the language around it is freighted with power: think of the implicit force in the words buttons, braces, zips, cuffs and ties. Even in its verb forms — the “collaring” and “buttonholing”, for instance, that mean to entrap or corner — the language of the suit suppresses and restrains. Power is a part of the suit like no other item of dress, audible in its language and visible in its form.
The suit emanates power, channelled through managers, bankers, lawyers, the police and politicians, all outwardly imparting their authority. This power can be self-effacing, so ordinary and ubiquitous that it is invisible. But the suit isn’t invisible. It’s a piece of complex geometry and skilled engineering. A tailored jacket consists of 45-50 component parts and its fabrication can require up to 75 separate operations. It is one of those habitable structures — like homes, schools and temples — that we build and in which life takes place.
At our most testing times, at weddings and funerals, job interviews and court hearings, we wear the suit as though it might imbue us with something we seem not to possess without it. This is its greatest illusion — the strength and rectitude it can signal even where there is none. And the moments when the façade of the suit’s impenetrability falls away can be powerfully illuminating: think of shamefaced traders exiting a fallen investment bank, clutching their possessions in cardboard boxes.
For women, of course, the rules are very different. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent designed “Le Smoking”, a trouser suit for his vision of experimental womenswear. Redolent of the Hollywood androgyny of Marlene Dietrich, it chimed, too, with modernity and the increasingly unfixed lines of sexual difference. In Helmut Newton’s photograph for Paris Vogue in 1975, a woman, cool and slender, stands in a night-lit street, cropped hair slicked back and a cigarette in hand. She is her own man, more than a brilliant simulation or a masquerading pretender to the crown. She gamely seizes for herself all their privilege without a flicker of doubt.
In reality, the woman at work in her suit can be subject to derision, parodied and demeaned. But perhaps it is fear that lies behind the often contemptuous attitudes to women in power who are routinely mocked for what they choose to wear in public life: the sneers about Hillary Clinton’s “pantsuits” or the jibes when Theresa May takes to prime minister’s questions in leopard-print heels.
Masculinity does not escape this encounter unscathed either. A woman in a suit reframes what it means to be a man, performing it askew or exposing it as a fantasy. I think of the musician Janelle Monáe in her uniform of choice: tuxedos made glossy in satin, jazzed up with embellished lapels, cool, urbane and beautiful. What is it that women want from the suit? Not necessarily to be a man, entitled to his authority and immunity. Perhaps they want to be more than a man, to prove just how flimsy his power, how carelessly appropriated and easily discarded it can be.
The Japanese furore over high heels is just the latest iteration of an ongoing battle for workplace equality. High heels can be beautiful — is there anything lovelier than the curved finesse of an instep? — but there is no innocence or accident to that fact that free movement is not a prerequisite of women’s shoe design. This is disclosed in the sharpness of the stiletto heel and the badly distributed weight of a wedge heel.
Mobility is central to the language of woman’s emancipation — the glass ceilings through which we can break, the kitchens in which we are no longer expected to stay, the children we leave behind at home, the career ladders we struggle to climb. How women move in shoes matters. Mobility is a feminist question and a metaphor too about where women want to get to and how they are enabled do so.
It’s a curious paradox, then, that as office culture looks more and more relaxed, the codes of conduct by which we seek to ensure equality and freedom from harassment seem to have grown stricter. Some men might be foxed by the question of what is appropriate behaviour in a place of work, but women have always had to consider the question of how they might present themselves and what it means to appear seemly, proper and safe. It’s a mark of our progress that we’re all — women and men — having to reflect on how we comport ourselves at work. We’re remembering that beneath the suits, we are real bodies with a responsibility to engage decently with others.
You might think that the retreat of the physical workplace — all those virtual conferences and kitchen tables masquerading as meeting rooms — would help us sidestep such conflicts. I’m not so sure. In the end, I can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia for offices and the clutter they accumulate: the lopsided coats languishing on the back of chairs, the spare tights stored in the top drawer, the abandoned trainers just peeping out from under the desk. Thankfully, not everything can happen in cloud technology and via online file-sharing. At some point, we all have to dress for work and put our actual best foot forward.
Shahidha Bari is a professor at the London College of Fashion (University of the Arts London). ‘Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes’ is published by Jonathan Cape