When you think of a standard professional work outfit for women, what comes to mind? Straight leg dress pants, a structured, neutral blazer, maybe a blouse? Flats or high heels? And on casual Fridays, a tried-and-true pair of jeans (no rips or stains, of course) and—in a more casual setting—crisp, clean sneakers. Even with work from home, and the casualization of “professional” clothes, there’s still a certain aesthetic that is inherently expected in most organizations: athleisure, matching sweatsuits, cashmere sweaters, that "no makeup" makeup look, perfectly coiffed hair…
“The idea of professional work attire is still loosely based around this archetype of the power suit,” says Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm. “And we know what that person looks like, too. They’re white, heterosexual, male and non-disabled.” Even though it’s become more socially acceptable to log onto a Zoom call wearing sweatpants, these standards of dress, especially for women and nonbinary folks, are extremely exclusive and often coded in racist, sexist, ableist, sizeist and classist ideologies.
“For someone who is disabled, something as simple as a business jacket can be so restrictive because you have to use your shoulders to lift it up, you have to be able to put it on—and that could take hours for someone,” explains Stephanie Thomas, a disability styling expert and founder of disability fashion brand Cur8able®. As a congenital amputee, Thomas knows first hand how important it is to find clothing that is made for all bodies—no matter how hard it is. “I don’t look at the fashion industry like they’re the enemy. It’s like unrequited love. I love them but they don’t always see us.”
Accessibility is one of the biggest barriers when it comes to professional clothing. “The system isn’t set up to work with us,” says Thomas. There are brands that exist, like IZ Adaptive and FFORA, but oftentimes, Thomas’ clients want to wear clothing from more mainstream brands. They want to be able to walk into a Zara or an H&M and know they can find something that works for their body, which doesn’t need a million alterations and won’t be a hazard for them to wear. That’s where Thomas’ work comes in. “My styling system is the bridge between where the fashion industry is and where it must go to be more accessible—period,” she says.
KT Venti, the director of people, analytics and insights at Feminuity, has felt ostracized by office dress codes, too. “Being held within this binary is a huge challenge,” they explain. “I’m happiest in a button-down, with a jacket—but as a short, fat human, it is incredibly difficult to find clothing that fits and feels good. For years, I put on a dress, because it was easier, codified as more appropriate and more professional by others. It was uncomfortable, but it meant getting the praise and approval of my peers and those in positions of power and authority. The discomfort goes beyond a resistance to wearing feminine-coded clothing; it meant literally covering my skin in a way that made me more palatable to others.”
"I cannot show up super casual in the same way my male counterparts can. I just do not have that luxury."
If this is the case, then should office dress codes be canceled for good? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For example, people with disabilities are not granted the same luxury when it comes to wearing whatever they want. “Someone who is able-bodied can sit in that meeting and be totally casual and people would still lend them the credibility that their work deserves,” says Thomas. “Should work clothing change? Should it be more flexible? Absolutely, unequivocally. But we’re not there yet. I cannot show up super casual in the same way my male counterparts can. I just do not have that luxury.”
Guidelines do need to be in place in some capacity (to avoid things like someone showing up to work in a t-shirt with an offensive slogan), according to Saska, but they need a serious overhaul. Oftentimes, team members will follow standards of professionalism out of fear for their job security, explains Venti. “People who don’t conform to norms risk emotional, mental and physical safety, as well.” Adds Saska: “Humans are not uniform yet you have uniforms for humans—it just doesn’t work. It feels wrong. How can we design ways of dressing that meet people where they are?”
The answer? Get the whole team to pitch in about what they feel most comfortable wearing, Saska advises. That way, no one feels left out and everyone’s needs are met—because at the end of the day, choice is the most radical and empowering thing.
“My desire for professional dress has nothing to do with dress codes and everything to do with just seeing people design clothing for humans that are adaptive for different body types,” says Thomas. “I want the fashion industry to continue to be amazing, to continue to be everything that they are—I just want them to include us. I want them to see us. That’s what I want.”