Dressed to Impress: Women Leave their Shoulder-pads at Home in Women’s Business Fashion

 Graphics by Esther Lee

Graphics by Esther Lee

Millennials are entering the workforce, tech-related jobs are at a peak, and the standard for business dress is changing—it is more casual than ever. The shift makes for new sets of rules across the American workplace, especially for women.

 

“The reason is clear,” says Lisa Bredtke, plant manager of Hanon System’s San Lorenzo manufacturing facility as she adjusts her square-rimmed glasses and smooths her black suit jacket on a Skype call. “In the past, as women, you looked at — how do I best fit in?”

When a woman dressed herself for a professional setting in the past, she attempted to conform to an unspoken set of rules. Reporters were thrown out of courtrooms for showing their shoulders. Ivanka Trump’s exposed bra strap at Congress in Feb. sparked a widespread online debate. Even Hillary Clinton was criticized for showing a little cleavage.

Taking a look at history, a “working woman” back in the mid 1900s was expected to wear traditional office attire that included a suit jacket, long skirt with stockings and closed toed shoes. In the 1970’s, women’s work clothing trends started to emphasize angular shapes, adding shoulder pads and bell-bottom pant suits.

“You looked at suits at the store and men wearing those suits,” Brendtke says. “So professional [attire] meant suits. When you did that, you were given more credibility and were accepted in the office. When people are dressing alike, there is this feeling of being on the same team.”

Work attire needed to be undistracting and similar to those in authority—men. Until the twenty-first century, women worked as teachers and nurses, according to the United States Department of Labor.

Professional dress attire for women has become vague. What is the line between too sexy and fitted? What is conservative but not frumpy? If women are not sure what to wear, how can they be expected to follow the rules? From history, it is clear that a “professional” dress code for women was never concretely defined.

“Because of my position, I actually stay away from pant suits,” Brendtke says. “The perception is that people are going to see you in very masculine dress and think that you are trying to imitate one of the guys on the [manufacturing] floor. Therefore, I try to do the opposite. I do this so that people see that you can be a woman and still do this job.”

Brendtke manages over 18,000 employees and has held an executive managerial position for over 10 years. As a 60-year-old woman, she balances her femininity without compromising authority. Even outside of work, Brendtke maintains a professional, yet feminine persona. An avid equestrian, who rides and owns her own horses, she doesn’t even arrive at the barn without a full face of makeup, earrings, and her hair done.

 

“People need to remember that always in the end, your performance will overcome anything.”

 

Brendtke’s determination to be distinct was not the view in the late 1900’s. Female executives dressed androgynously in boxy business suits—thus, the “power suit” was born. By the end of 1985, due to various factors, shifts in traditional sex roles were rapidly sweeping across America. Women began to slowly crowd into sectors of the workforce traditionally occupied by men. As the workforce continued to expand, clothing styles shifted. The competition between men and women for the same jobs became a reality. The traditional “power suit” signaled equality in the office.

Brendtke deliberately chooses to flair her femininity in a masculine line of work. She is one of only two women in the world who are plant managers within the international Hanon Systems Corporation. Each week, she makes 5 a.m. conference calls with plant managers from England, Canada, Korea and China. When she is not in her private office, she spends her time on the manufacturing floor.

 
 

“I’ll still wear a dress, a skirt with a suit, nylons, heels—the whole thing,” Brendtke says. “But, because I do spend a portion of my day on the floor, and it is required that your wear safety shoes, I dress them up a bit and put bright pink laces of on them. The bright pink laces draw attention. It’s heck of a fashion statement with a skirt or dress.”

Brendtke also wears a be-dazzled construction hat on the manufacturing floor.

She dresses like a woman with femininity, but with emphasis on dignity and not sexuality. Brendtke believes in dressing well and respecting herself as well as those she works with. For example, the facility she manages is located in Mexico. Because the majority of the workers speak Spanish, she speaks this language on the floor.

“I work with all different types of people on all international levels,” she said. “It is only respectful to know at least a little bit of another nation’s language. We cannot expect everyone to learn English to be convenient for [Americans].”

But in the end, Brendtke believes performance is what matters,“People need to remember that always in the end, your performance will overcome anything,” Brendtke said.

 

The definition of business-casual for women is now becoming non-existent. Michelle Obama wore sleeveless dresses and mainstream, non-designer attire throughout her time as First Lady. Shannon Meglio, Innovation Manager and lead analyst at Procter and Gamble, an American multinational consumer goods corporation wears nice jeans, well-accessorized sweaters and pink lipstick to business meetings.

“I am always busy,” Meglio says with a laugh. “People used to have their work closet and their leisure closest. I mean, who does that anymore? The things I wear to work I would usually wear out, too.“

Married with three younger children, she prefers to wear clothes that fit her quasi-hectic lifestyle as a working mom. She is both a professional and a mother. In the past, women had to make a choice between having a family and having a powerful job.

Statistics show women are making gains in the workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the range of occupations women workers hold has expanded with women making notable gains in professional and managerial occupations. According to these same statistics, while women still make 77 cents to every white man’s dollar, there are now 74.6 million women in the civilian workforce, having grown nearly 25 percent.

According the last report by the National Women’s Business Council, women-owned businesses are a crucial and growing part of the U.S. economy. They account for over one-third of privately-held businesses in the United States. In addition, while the number of women-owned businesses grew 114 percent from 1997 to 2017, firms owned by women of color grew more than four times that rate at 467 percent. It is important to note that the 5.4 million businesses owned by minority women make up nearly half of all women-owned firms at 46 percent. More women in the workplace means more flexible attire.

“I hear stories of when Proctor and Gamble had just started,” says Meglio, sweeping her blonde hair over her shoulder, and slightly breathless from just corralling her children into a back bedroom. “They hired their first women in the mid-1790s and they have pictures of these women in suits with bowties and they just look so uncomfortable.”

Guidelines are still unclear. Googling how to dress professionally for women yields innumerable responses.

“I view it as a great benefit that guidelines for attire for women are more vague than they used to be,” Meglio says.   Dressing standards are more loosely defined, and many view this as the first step towards changing women’s workplace attire for the better.

“[This culture shift] is driven by females when they say ‘no, I’m not gonna try to look like a man at work and wear a suit everyday,’” Meglio says. “I want to be able to express my sense of individually and fashion sense that is still professional but [says] a little more about who I am.”  

The suit is no longer the catchall for ladies in command. In this new creative paradigm, women are using their clothes to make a statement. Instead of blending in, focusing on performance is the key to success.

“There is no reason you should not be able to show up at work, whether with [a] customer or not, in jeans as long as that is the norm,” Meglio says. “But, the norm does have to be created.”

 
 

“There is a social culture shift overall—more individual choice. It’s more touchy to say you have to wear [certain clothes] and do certain things.”

 

This growing diverse and casual atmosphere is working to make the term “business casual” nearly obsolete—and many think it's due, in part, to the growing influence of millennials. Millennials will comprise over one of three adult Americans by 2020 and 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, according to an article in Forbes. The distinctive and widely-shared attitudes and beliefs of this generation will reshape corporations and the entire workforce.  According to the Los Angeles Times, millennials tend to prefer casual dress.

“Today there is more sensitivity in being told what you can and can’t do in general, including the average workplace,” says Morgan Seymore, the Global Sales Content Specialist at Indeed.com. “There is a social culture shift overall—more individual choice. It’s more touchy to say you have to wear [certain clothes] and do certain things.”

Seymore is classified as a millennial, at 25-years-old, she creates content for sales teams at the American worldwide employment-related search engine for job listings. Her workplace is relaxed.

“I usually wear jeans and little boots. Everything is more casual, even business interactions,” says Seymore, jumping up from her bed covered in pink and white pillows where she is reclining for the interview. Shifting through her closest, bursting with colorful clothing, she pulls out several outfits including a large white faux fur jacket, a sundress and black heels. A young Hispanic woman originally from Texas, her wardrobe choices demonstrate her professionalism with a spark of youthful creativity.

“You really can wear anything, besides ripped jeans,” She says. “If you were to wear slacks and a button-down, people would ask where you were going out after work.”

At her workplace in New York City, she says the workplace environment is business casual, often leaning more towards the casual side. “It’s more a lack of professional environment.”

 
 

In the past few years, there has been a boom in the job market for those who work from home in media and technology related fields where visual interaction with customers is limited. In 2016, there were approximately 182,220 new jobs added, the gain primarily in IT services and software services, according to The Wall Street Journal. It does not matter what you wear behind a screen.

“Gender is playing a lot less of a role in any situation.”

“The workplace is inclusive of all different types of people,” Seymour says. “Diversity is huge at [Indeed.com]. I work with all types of people. Everything is more flexible. You can take a lot of days off, and you have a flexible number of days you work [per week].” Seymore says she is occasionally allowed to work from home and does not have to come in to work everyday as long as her work is completed.

“In my experience, directors and managers do not care what you wear—they want productivity,” Seymour says. “If you are productive and not offending anyone then that’s what they want.”

Women’s business attire is becoming more centered around practicality. Even if you do not work in tech, workplace attire is opening to self-expression. Instead of masking differences between genders or ethnicities, the working wardrobe is making its way towards acknowledging and even celebrating differences.

“Gender is playing a lot less of a role in any situation,” Seymore says. “I can wear a suit if I want and it goes both ways. It’s a lot more fluid now-- a changing of the time.”

There still remains a lack of diversity in the workforce, especially in management positions. However, there is hope these positive changes will continue to make waves. Employers want authenticity and efficiency above all else.

“Are you happy, dedicated and productive?” Seymore said. “Are you focused and energized? That is what really matters.”

The original version of this feature was published in Issue 8 of the EST Magazine

 
CultureSavannah White