What do you wear to the office? A suit? A tailored dress and heels? Jeans and a smart top? Do you even remember? The last 18 months have fragmented the idea of the workplace. Once on a pedestal as a destination of productivity, the office now stands among several divisive issues born of the pandemic: alongside mask-wearing, vaccination and holidaying abroad.
From watercooler moments to office romance and collective creativity, old-guard businesses resistant to change have waxed on about the benefit of a physical workplace, desperately calling employees back to their open-plan pasts. But the current model of the office is still based on one created and nurtured by majority affluent white men.
Women’s complicated history with the office – from getting their foot in the door to attempting to shatter the glass ceiling and ultimately struggling to balance its unbending culture with motherhood, seeks to benefit from a hybrid future.
Nowhere is women’s complex history with the office more visible than on screen – and in the costumes in which female characters are dressed to project an image of professionalism and progress (and their trim figures).
At the fictional 1960s advertising agency Sterling Cooper in Mad Men, women’s office attire suggests an acceptance of their subservient position. Secretaries slink around in figure-hugging clothes, taking sexual harassment on the chin. With her red hair, red lips and second-skin dresses, office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) harnesses her sexuality, weaponising it to get by.
“I think the women in the office at that time were viewed as ornaments,” says Mad Men costume designer Janie Byrant. “Joan takes command of her femininity in the office – that’s all about bust, waist, hips and shimmying. She was like the office matriarch, so I loved the idea of her being in jewel tones to represent feminine strength. I took inspiration from women at that time who exuded that sexuality – Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Jane Mansfield.”
Just as Joan uses her sexuality to command the attention of her male colleagues, Peggy Olson’s (Elizabeth Moss) schoolgirl clothes are berated. “She’s old fashioned and more earnest,” says Bryant. “Her circle skirts, plaids and gathered skirts create a more innocent, sweet silhouette.” Peggy’s girliness threatens the authority Joan has honed. “You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl,” Joan warns her. Peggy’s ascent from secretary to copywriter sees a style transformation as she starts wearing matching jackets and skirts and eventually a trouser suit.
“I wanted her to be more professional, stronger, willing to illustrate how she was making progress in a man’s world. She climbed the ladder through her smarts, so I wanted her costume to reflect that too,” says Bryant.
When women’s workwear doesn’t adhere to feminine tropes, it’s usually an intentional storyline – think Miranda in Sex and the City and her “I don’t need a man” persona, or Rosalind Russell as ace reporter Hildy Johnson in 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday. Hildy’s boxy pinstripe jackets and tailoring are as razor-sharp as her wit and elevate her to the level of her male editor (and ex-husband), Walter Burns (Cary Grant), but her femaleness, presented through numerous decorative hats and bold red lipstick, keeps her in a position of tending to his every whim.
As women began to stake their claim to a seat around the boardroom table in the 1970s, the question of how they should dress arose. A 1975 book by John T Molloy sought to help them. Women: Dress for Success, the sequel to his best-selling Dress for Success, for men, argued that women would not be taken seriously if they dressed in a girly or sexy manner, or if they attempted to dress like men – which would serve only to emphasise that they weren’t. “A society in which the people in power are intent on keeping women barefoot, pregnant, and as far from the boardroom as possible cannot design clothes for women who have serious executive ambitions,” he wrote.
Molloy raised another issue exposed through women’s office attire: class. When dressing the cast for 1988’s Working Girl, costume designer Ann Roth observed the outfits worn by secretaries on the Staten Island Ferry. Tess’s (Melanie Griffith) big hair and gaudy jewellery stands out against the understated grey suits, pearls and subtle make-up worn by her high-flying boss Katherine (Sigourney Weaver). In the 1980s, power dressing became a sort of sartorial armour for working women looking to break out of the secretarial pool, taking up physical space with shoulder padding and high heels. “People’s impression of me starts with you,” Katherine tells Tess on her first day, “simple, elegant, impeccable.”
Daniel Lawson, costume designer for various professional dramas including Lipstick Jungle, The Good Wife and The Good Fight, emphasises how womenswear on screen is often hammed up to contrast with the limitation of menswear. “When I started Good Wife, women’s workwear was very masculine influenced. But I didn’t want the female leads dressing like a bunch of men. I almost never use a classic dress shirt on a woman because half of my cast is already wearing that.”
After the show aired, the New York Women’s Bar Association reached out to Lawson to host talks on how to dress and break out of the standard uniform they had felt shoehorned into. “They were so excited to see female lawyers on TV dress in a way that was new and powerful and feminine.”
The idea of sex as power in office wear is also presented in legal drama Suits, famously starring Meghan Markle as paralegal Rachel Zane. In the series, Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), head of New York law firm Pearson Specter, reflects her professional standing via her designer wardrobe of architecturally structured dresses, from Dolce & Gabbana to Roksanda Ilincic. Zane also pours her salary into sharp designer gear for the office, with her sex appeal even referenced in the script: “You were too busy ogling me to listen to a word I’ve said.”
But one has to wonder how powerful these female characters can be when they are pandering to the male gaze. Emma McClendon, fashion historian and curator of Power Mode: The Force of Fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, explains how the discrepancies serve as a reminder of who is running the office.
“Ally McBeal’s mini-skirt suits caused a lot of buzz back in the 1990s when the show first aired. They were a prop in the narrative to show how McBeal was a third wave feminist lawyer, who wasn’t afraid to be sexy, but they also served as a prop for male executives to attract viewers.”
This idea isn’t limited to on-screen workplaces, says McClendon. “A perfect example of the schism between male and female office expectations is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his grey hoodie and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her pencil skirts and sheath dresses. They both represent the same company, but dress very differently. This exposes expectations about women and the female body. Ultimately, women are held to higher standards for attire in the workplace.”
We also see a pressure for women to have an office “glow-up” in female-led films. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andy (Anne Hathaway) is immediately dismissed for her unfashionable clothing – “Who is that sad little person?”, asks editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). As Andy gets serious about her position, so does her designer expenditure.
More recent TV shows like The Bold Type have injected a level of individualism into characters’ wardrobes, but polished sexiness remains a key ingredient. Likewise, BBC Three’s Industry sees Yasmin (Marisa Abela) in tight skirts and pussy-bow blouses, contrasting with her superior Daria (Freya Mavor), who has advanced enough to apparently have earnt the right to turn up to work in a trouser suit.
After spending the best part of two years working from home, prioritising comfort and adopting a “groom for Zoom” approach to work, how will this translate into our return to the office, and how women are portrayed on screen?
For Lawson, the idea of casualwear in the office doesn’t appeal and it has been an opportunity to return to glam. “In The Good Fight, we chose to go with the feeling of, ‘I’m going to pull it together because I’ve been in sweats for so long’.” But he is also keen to emphasise the fantasy of life on screen. “In TV and film, every day is a big day and people dress for it. In real life you have days where nothing is going on and you don’t have to be dressed for the nines for that day.”
Francesca Muston is Vice President of Fashion at trend forecaster, WGSN. She explains that the last few years have seen a general casualisation of clothing seep into the office in tandem with shifting fashion trends, but that the pandemic helped to crystallise it. “Designers have worked hard to better understand consumer lifestyle changes and have built improvements like stretch fabrics, elastic panels or sleeves which allow more movement. Ultimately all of these shifts are long-lasting because they represent a gradual and sustained change to the way we dress rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic.”
But, says McClendon, the office is often several steps behind the fashion industry. “We see this in the acceptance of women in trousers, which were a big fashion trend in the 1970s but were not accepted in the office until the 1990s, and more recently in pre-pandemic debates over high heels.”
Over the last year and a half, office culture has been on pause and the daily motions of dressing up for work have halted. As we reconsider what value the office has in our wider lives, we’re recognising the cracks in a system that doesn’t serve everybody and an opportunity to shift the status quo. So, before we slip back into our pencil skirts and apply our blister plasters, perhaps it’s time to take a moment and question exactly whose success we are dressing for.
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