This past week, as the temperatures finally started to climb into something more seasonal for late May, I decided it was probably safe to go ahead and switch out my winter wardrobe for summer clothes. In doing so, I also purged the worn-out, worn-down, never-to-be-worn-again items that I’d held onto optimistically when I packed away my summer wardrobe so many months ago. I’d been clinging to a lot of crap for way too long, mostly bad office-appropriate, business casual type stuff. And that’s when I realized almost everything suitable for warmer weather in my closet was wear-for-summer-fun around town, not wear-for-summer-hours at work.
And as I visited store after store in an effort to remedy that deficit, I began to understand why I developed such a shortage in the first place.
Business casual can be best described as the Worst Dress Code Ever. I would rather be assigned regulation khaki pants and an ill-fitting polo than have to navigate the minefield that is business casual dressing. Formal business wear, ie, full suits, is too over the top for a business casual office. Jeans are banned. Everything between those two ends of the spectrum is everything Americans don’t really want to wear. But for women, it gets especially dicey.
Winter is not so bad. In winter, I can throw on tailored pants and a sweater, pull on some boots, and call it a day. I’ll be warm and well within the dress code bounds. But summer. Summer is when business casual goes from being an irritating requirement to a terrifying tightrope walk.
Shopping for summer business casual clothes is like trying to find a flattering one-piece bathing suit in stores that only sell burkas and string bikinis. And then realizing that there is no such thing as a one-piece bathing suit that is flattering, anyway. Clothing retailers obligate women into one of two categories: ”Hi, I’m Trevor’s mom” or “Look at me, I’m a total Tramp.” And I’m sure that plenty of women are content in the former and plenty of others are willing to do battle with HR in the latter. But the rest of us are looking for summer office clothing that says “While I am respectably employed, my femininity is not entirely asexual in nature.”
Apparently that is too complicated of a statement to translate into affordable women’s ready-to-wear.
So inevitably, white-collar working women in business-casual environments spend the summer being overdressed or under-dressed but always self-consciously dressed. We experience glee when one of our colleagues seems to have gotten it wrong, because it assuages our own perpetual doubts that we’re not getting it right. Our male co-workers leave their sweaters at home and carry-on in their button-downs, oblivious to the angsty female drama playing out around them.
Sometimes I suspect business casual was designed as an obstacle to female achievement. Distract women with the need to adhere to a concept of “appropriate” defined in the vaguest of terms, and the personal resources they might have directed toward excelling in the workplace are instead spent on hours of scouring stores for “appropriate” hemlines and blouses and hours of worrying whether what they’re wearing succeeded in being “appropriate” and still more hours considering co-workers’ success (or lack thereof) in arriving at the office dressed in something ”appropriate.”
It’s a waste of time and energy. And in the end, all of women’s fussing over suitable summer apparel becomes essentially moot — because when the building AC comes on, we are all huddled under sweaters and blankets at our desks anyway.