Must We Avoid Looking Too Sexy at Work?

If you are of a certain age, and that age is pretty old, you may have, as you prepared to go out into the world of work for the first time, received as a gift a copy of John Malloy’s 1975 classic Dress for Success. The book is still in print, and indeed is ranked #1 on Amazon in the category Books > Business & Investing > Business Life > Fashion & Image. In it the author warns women against looking too sexy at the office. He advises them not to wear waistcoats for business because they “draw attention to the bust”. He recommends a jacket, one that is “cut fully enough to cover the contours of the bust. It should not be pinched in at the waist to exaggerate the bust” (1980: 50). Sweater are right out: “a cashmere sweater on a woman with even moderate build is one of the greatest seduction garments in existence” (1980: 77).

Fashions have changed in the last forty years. But attitudes are perhaps slower. Look on line at sites that advise people how to dress for work, and they will invariably warn women against looking too sexy. I teach at a university, which means I am looked at by a relatively large number of people for an extended period of time every day. When it comes to clothes, I would describe my look as respectable but unexciting, a balance between my need to get ready in less than five minutes in the morning and my desire not to look like Nick Nolte in that DUI mugshot.  I know that my colleagues, like most people in professional environments, worry about dressing in a way that is appropriate to their position. For my female colleagues, this often translates into concerns about looking too sexy. They worry that if their clothes are too alluring, it will undermine their authority among both their students and their co-workers. And I think this worry is very common among working women.

While this concern about looking too sexy is unquestionably widespread, I wonder if it is well-grounded. First of all, I think we can too easily conflate two separate concerns: one about looking too sexy, and another about looking too slovenly. I agree that clothes do matter, and in any kind of professional environment you can’t look like Nick Nolte – although I know more than a few professors, most of whom started teaching in the sixties, who are willing to try. But dressing like a slob is not the same as dressing sexy. They are in many cases outright opposites. In any case, lots of clothes that are tight-fitting or otherwise revealing would pass muster as sexy while not being sloppy or even casual in any way.

The fact is, the Malloy-endorsed standard for professional men’s fashion already accentuates its wearer’s sexual characteristics. As one blogger eloquently puts it, talking about a revelation she had while watching What Not to Wear:

Then Trinny and Susannah started doing makeovers for men, and I realized that Western men’s fashions already emphasize their sex this way. High collars make necks look wider. The seams of dress shirts (should) fall exactly where they must to make shoulder look their widest. The shoulders of suit jackets are padded to make shoulders even broader and as square as possible. Suit jackets also have to be unbuttoned for sitting because they skim so tightly over stomach and hips that there’s no room for bending.

Men’s clothes de-emphasize curves and emphasize the top-heavy wedge shape that sets men apart from women–on average. They emphasize sex, translating it into gender. Beyond that, the clothes associated with power do this more than the clothes associated with economic and other forms of marginalization.

So there is a double standard. Professional men get to dress sexy and women don’t. You might say, duh. The standard is exactly what we’re worried about. If women are judged based on people’s perceptions, that’s exactly what they have to pay attention to if they want to be taken seriously. But I’d like to suggest that the standard may not be what we think it is. The one that advice manuals impose on us, and that we impose on ourselves, may be based on an inaccurate assessment of how we are judged by other people – it is an empirical hypothesis that may in fact be false. The true double standard may be not the one we apply to men versus the one we apply to women, but rather the one people actually apply to us versus the one we think people apply to us.

There is unfortunately little empirical work on this, so it is impossible to present decisive evidence one way or the other, but I did track down one study (no public link unfortunately) that argues people’s rankings of others’ self-confidence and self-assertiveness are based heavily on clothing cues. And it further concludes that clothing that conceals women’s bodies (high necklines, long pants and sleeves, multiple layers) is associated with low self-esteem and low levels of assertiveness. A certain sort of sexy clothing can be a way of signaling high status, exactly the sort of signal that earns people’s respect rather than undermining it. For what they are worth, my intuitions tell me that is right. I once had a doctor who dressed in clothes that were professional, but tight and relatively revealing. She was sexy. I cannot say my confidence in her medical opinions diminished. Perhaps, irrational creature that I am, the opposite was even true.

There are two points of moral significance here. First, our lack of self-understanding may be putting women at a disadvantage compared to men. By feeling free to look as sexy as they can, men are dressing in a way that expresses their high status, while women are too often cowed, by misplaced concerns about looking too sexy, into misrepresenting themselves as lacking in confidence and assertiveness. If this is true, the cause of gender equality would be better served by a realisation that women can dress however they like, without fear of undermining their own authority. Second, I believe as a general principle that people should feel free to dress how they want. We deplore societies that restrict women’s freedom in this area, and we should foster this form of self-expression as vigorously as we do any other. If a woman sees an outfit she would like to wear, but then says “Naw, too sexy for the office”, her freedom has been restricted as surely as if a religious leader told her God forbids such clothing, and her welfare has therefore been lessened.

I certainly do not mean to go in the opposite direction, and suggest that women should feel they have to dress in tight or revealing clothes, or otherwise maximise their own sex appeal. (There is a controversial book out right now, Honey Money, that makes the case for women using their sex appeal to get ahead. I plan to discuss it in the future, but I think it raises a separate set of issues.) I simply want to argue that choice is good, with clothes as with everything else, and we shouldn’t let the John Malloys of the world take it away from us.

Image: Portrait of Florence Nightingale
Source: Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873.

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  1. Interesting post!
    I make most of my own clothes, usually 40s/50s/60s style dresses, often very fitted and always with a defined waistline. I’ve described my usual style before as ‘equally suitable for the office or a swingers party’ (which is to say not entirely suitable for either, but somewhere in the middle). So my standard office wear is consciously and deliberately sexual. I dress this way knowing that some people might judge me negatively for it, but I’m confident enough both in my professional competence and my (highly sexual) personality that I couldn’t give a damn. Or rather, I actually get a perverse kind of kick out of it when I do sense some disapproval from someone. *However*, fitting with your hypothesis, I actually don’t think that my way of dressing does me any harm whatsoever, career-wise (policy/advocacy work), and I think it helps to project an image of confidence. Perhaps that would change if my version of ‘sexy’ were more of the masses of cleavage and tight stretchy fabrics variety, though. I think classist attitudes probably play into this issue and that only some kinds of sexy can be received well in a professional context…

    Posted January 15, 2012 at 2:16 am | Permalink | Reply
  2. HFM

    I suspect that the men’s clothing is less about sex and more about power – specifically, maximizing one’s physical presence. Male professionals were wearing suits back when their colleagues were all men, and implicitly hetero men at that.

    The wide necks and broad shoulders are signals to the older parts of the brain. If a monkey realizes that another monkey is bigger, he’s going to be submissive and stay out of the way, because doing otherwise might get him killed. It’s hard for the rational mind to shut down that response and treat the situation objectively. (As a very tall female, I also benefit from this. It’s amazing how much crap I don’t get, while my less-imposing colleagues do.)

    Otherwise, I’ve always thought of “proper” work clothes as (1) performing one’s social status and (2) not distracting one’s co-workers. I’m not going to dress like I’m going to a club, and the men I work with return the favor. No matter how much I respect the man in question, it’s easier for me to pay attention to his words if he keeps his shirt buttoned…I’m not offended that it works both ways. Maybe that’s naive; I hope not, though.

    Posted January 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

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