That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can't say "No" in any of them.
— Dorothy Parker, 1893–1967
I suppose I should say up front, Dear Readers, that as a heterosexual male of a certain age—one with what I suppose are all the common urges, appetites, and cognitive limitations of my like-gendered and -oriented peers—I have always found womens' fashion a complete and utter mystery, in turns baffling, fascinating, and ridiculous. My normal reaction to discussions and images of non-utilitarian womens' clothing is a puzzled shrug and a nervous laugh, the kind one normally gives when one realizes one is in deep water, miles from shore, with shark fins circling in the middle distance. In short, when it comes to fashion I am, like most men, an uninformed, insensitive lout.
I say this now to avoid giving the impression that I intend to offer any sort of advice on fashion qua fashion in this piece. Heaven forfend. Nevertheless, as a non-brain-dead male who retains his power of sight, I count myself an attentive observer of the outfits that women clothe their bodies with, so I do have a point of view. While a lady friend has explained to me that women dress for each other and undress for men (thank you, ladies), we men are at the very least unintended or secondary members of your audience if not, on occasion, your primary intended victims.
So I thought it might be useful, or at least amusing, for the distaff members of my audience to hear what I have to say about the weekend Wall Street Journal article on womens' suit-and-shorts outfits, at least in so far as it pertains to a work environment. For while the brief article limns the appeal of suit jackets and shorts for leisure time and entertaining, at least part of it is directed at wearing such combinations at work, too. While I do this, any men who have made it this far into the text can toddle off to watch sports on TV or click on the accompanying picture above and construct elaborate late-night negotiation fantasies with the lovely models above for their amusement. We will return to this site's regularly scheduled male chauvinism in due course.
Now, I am sure I will say nothing here that many if not most professional working women do not already know in spades. I bear no illusions that I have thought anywhere near as deeply about these issues as they. But there may be a few younger women just starting careers who could use a little advice, and perhaps my remarks here will prevent them from making an unintentional and perhaps career-compromising mistake.
For make no mistake, if any woman who worked for me showed up at the office wearing any of the outfits pictured above, I would send her home immediately to change. There is nothing wrong with those outfits per se: to my untrained eye, they look attractive, professional, and high-quality. The open tops on a couple of them could be a problem for a woman with a more normal-sized chest than the washboard torsos of the runway models, but the real problem is the shorts. Almost all of them show way too much thigh to be remotely professional in my office. Perhaps that is an artifact of their display on the freakishly long and thin legs of the models, and they would fall lower on any genetically normal female, but as pictured they are simply unacceptable.
Of course, I say this in the context of my work environment: the corporate finance and M&A department of an investment bank. But I think few would disagree that similar norms apply in any corporate law firm, accountancy, consulting firm, or indeed any mainstream professional services corporation outside traditionally "creative" industries like publishing or advertising. Why? Because showing all that thigh is just too sexy. Clients of professional service organizations generally do not want the people who work for them to be flashy, extravagant, or prone to calling attention to themselves. They want service. They want reliability. They want sobriety. Calling excess attention to yourself in any way that is not directly related to identifying, analyzing, and solving the client's needs is both offputting and counterproductive.
And face it, girls, naked thighs are sexy. You know this. Show up at a client meeting dressed like this and you will not win the order, solve the problem, or build trust with your client. You will get an invitation to dinner (or worse). And that's only if your client is a receptively inclined man based in a large city in the developed world. If your client is a man from a less sophisticated or tolerant part of the globe, or a woman, you are far more likely to offend them with your brazen presumption and get tossed out on your shapely, underdressed derriere. That type of outfit just doesn't play in Peoria, much less Cairo.
By the same token, it doesn't work at the office among coworkers, either. Shorts can actually be more professional than a short skirt, because they obviate the opportunity for loutish male colleagues to sneak peeks à la Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, but length is critical. Why would you, as a dedicated, serious professional, want to introduce undertones of sexual availability and interest in a work environment, anyway? Especially one, like investment banking, which is already dominated by men. Why would you want to let the Sex Monster out of its cage? Or even rattle the bars?
If you're serious, you would not. And men know this. We may not know fashion, but most of us can recognize the subtle clues that a woman is dressing, not for professional success, but for sexual or romantic conquest. It may be mere millimeters on a skirt, a just-slightly-too-sheer blouse, or heels just a fraction of an inch too high, but we see it, and we register it in our primitive hindbrains. And you automatically risk demotion in our minds from serious professional colleague to unprofessional flirt, borderline floozy, or "fair game." Unless you are in business to catch a boyfriend, lover, or husband, you have just failed the test.
Sexual attraction is an ineluctable fact of human life. It is an elemental, distracting force which does not meekly obey social niceties, workplace strictures, or the best intentions of men or women. In contemporary Western society, women have developed a massive variety of approaches to clothing themselves which convey all kinds of deeply nested, often conflicting messages, sexual availability being one of the most potent. In some respects, fashion and beauty can be deeply at odds with the conduct of business. In my business, for example, human beauty—whether male or female—is usually viewed as evidence of lack of intelligence, and can be a serious disadvantage. If you look really good, no-one takes you seriously. Is this fair? Of course not, but that's the way it is.
Therefore, younger professionals in my business, whether male or female, are best served by dressing well but inconspicuously. Convey an image with your dress that is sober, reliable, and—dare I say it—nondescript. The impression you want to project is one of a competent, intelligent professional who lives but to serve the client's every need, not some über-hot sex bomb whom everyone wants to fuck. (This is even more important on an investment bank trading floor, where the generally stratospheric level of testosterone and even greater scarcity of women makes it questionable whether a burka would be nondescript enough.)
Once you rise in the ranks and attain a position of power, however, you can play much more loosely with these rules. Women Managing Directors can wear flashy Chanel suits, short skirts, and high heels if they want. Men can make themselves ridiculous with loud patterned shirts, bow ties, and braces. Why? Because they have attained a position of power. When you have power, you can dress much flashier, because your dress becomes a marker of your power. The message you convey is: "Yeah, that's right. I can dress however I like, because I'm a Big Swinging Dick. Fuck you." The flashiness, the outrageousness, the sexiness do not disappear, but they become servants to the bigger message of power. Of course the sad fact, at least for most female investment bankers, is that few achieve this license to adorn themselves until they are no longer young.
I never said the rules were fair.
So, pace the Wall Street Journal, I suggest that young ladies who aspire to career success in investment banking eschew skirts and shorts that are too short, unless your idea of success is landing an investment banker husband. Just remember the observation offered not so long ago by the mordant Ms Parker, a woman who knew what it was like to try to make a mark in a man's world:
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
There are other no-nos, too, including plunging necklines, excess cleavage, too-tight fabric, and provocative stockings, which I am sure every woman out there knows and can recognize better than me. Just ask yourself before you put it on: is it "daring," "flirty," "sporty," or—God forbid—"sexy"? If so, save it for dates and leisure time, at least if you work on Wall Street. Your career will thank you for it.
So will your male colleagues. We need that blood in our brains to do our jobs.
Fingernails that Shine Like Justice (May 21, 2007)
© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.