Do skirt suits make a better first impression than pantsuits?  I caught a friend’s post on Facebook Today that drew my attention to an article on about appropriate workplace attire for women, particularly in law firms.  The article is worth reading, as is the article that inspired the post on Above the Law titled Summer Associates: Please Don’t Dress Like Fashion Victims.  In this article, stylist Anna Akbari, a professor at New York University and the founder of Closet Catharsis a fashion and image consulting company offered some pretty rigid advice about what is and isn’t okay to wear in the workplace.

And, of course, I now need to add my two cents.

Here are just a few of the rules that were in the Above the Law article and my thoughts on them from my experience of dressing professional women (mainly lawyers) for the past ten years.

I want to start with this one because the skirt suit/pantsuit debate is a big sticking point for me and one that I dealt with years ago.   Unfortunately, what often gets neglected when general advice like this is given is self-perception.  Sure, men may prefer to see a woman in a skirt suit or a dress (as archaic and sexist as that sounds), however, what about the woman herself?  How does she feel?   This is where the whole “dress for success” conversation loses me because the implication is that it doesn’t matter how the person actually wearing the clothing feels about themselves.  Personally, I don’t feel powerful in a skirt suit.  In fact, I feel the opposite and I find that how I perceive myself in a situation drastically affects how I interact and carry myself.   The importance of noting this is great.  How you perceive yourself has a lot to do with how others perceive you.  So, yes, I think that choosing a skirt suit or a pantsuit for an interview may have bearing on whether or not you get the job, but not for the reason in the advice given…but for how you feel about yourself and what you’re giving off during the interview.

I can’t say that I disagree, that cardigans don’t look feminine with pants, however, I wouldn’t say that a cardigan and a pair of pants is the best bet for all situations.  Having the majority of my client base be in law (next is finance, another largely male-dominated industry), I’ve certainly put my share of clients in cardigans with pants and agree the look is feminine.  However, my suggestion on this look for my clients is for more casual days or days where a woman isn’t client interfacing.  In cases where a woman has to assert her power, I think a stronger jacket is a better choice.  But, again, it depends on the individual client and the work environment.  The thing that doesn’t sit well with me about this advice from Akbari is that it seems to imply that a woman always knows her place in a man’s world.    Be strong…but don’t be too strong.  Ugh.

Okay, can we all agree that heels are gorgeous?  And, can we all agree that we all can’t wear them?  Regardless of the fact that Akbari thinks they are the least powerful footwear you can wear, I really hate this advice because it is unrealistic. Funny thing is that the subtitle of Akbari’s is Please Don’t Dress Like Fashion Victims, yet this is the most fashion victim-y bit of advice I’ve ever read.

So makeup is rewarded in the workplace.  I don’t think it is the fact that Akbari encourages women wear at least a little bit of makeup that bugs me, but the fact that she says it is “rewarded in the workplace.”  Well, let me tell you a little story about a client of mine who hired me about eight years ago when she was vying for partner at her law firm where she worked.  When she hired me she told me that she gave herself all of 15 minutes to get ready in the morning and wasn’t looking to increase that time.  My job was to figure out how to make her look good in that time frame.  These precious 15 minutes did not include makeup and she told me that she never wore it.  Well, in addition to teaching her how to get dressed well in under 15 minutes, she also made partner in her law firm…and never put on a drop of makeup.  Granted, she was one of those naturally beautiful women who really didn’t need any, but my point still stands.

I’m not saying that women should never wear makeup.  In fact, I wouldn’t go anywhere without at least a little bit on.  However, to imply that this is a deal-breaker to whether or not you’ll be rewarded for it in the workplace seems a bit extreme.

Now, this is a bit of advice that I agree with.  Let’s put the general nude hosiery “yes or no?” debate aside because it’s a tired argument with no real answer, and talk about loud hosiery, etc..  This is why I agree with Akbari’s advice: regardless of what you feel comfortable in, what makes you feel good about yourself, powerful, hirable or confident, you’re still in the workplace and each workplace does have certain rules or parameters that you have to learn to dress within.  The goal is to find your style, what makes YOU feel good and powerful, all within the boundaries of your work’s dress code.   In some workplace worlds, loud hosiery is completely acceptable.  In others, a more conservative look is what is appropriate.  Debating skirt suit and pantsuit, for example, is one thing because both are acceptable yet, in this case, I believe personal preference should be weighed more heavily.  In these situations, you have to ask yourself, “Is it really that necessary that I wear them?”  In the case of a courtroom, it is important to remember, it’s not about you…at all.  There is someone else you’re representing and how awful would it be if the choice of hosiery had a bearing on whether or not your client’s trial goes well?

I believe the goal of workplace attire has to be about balancing two things: what makes you feel powerful, confident, capable (fill in your own word), and what is acceptable in your work environment.  While I believe the whole “dress for success” rules are often limiting and sexist, women can often become toddlers having a tantrum when they can’t wear what they want.  If an office has a dress code policy, regardless of whether or not you like it, you’ve got to follow it or professionally debate it by talking to whoever is in charge of setting it.