Professional women developing careers know that ‘clothes make the woman’ and they need to maintain a ‘neat professional appearance’ if they expect to get ahead in this world. It’s a constant reminder, from dress codes at the office to fashion tips on career sites for women. There is an expectation, a demand, that working women dress fashionably. Not necessarily at the height of fashion, as runway looks wouldn’t be, as they say, work appropriate, but certainly neatly, elegantly. Dress codes are a snarled tangle to navigate when you’re supposed to be demure, but not drab, neat, but not flashy.
And when fashion for women evolves extremely quickly. Women need spring, summer, autumn, and winter wardrobes. If they live in regions with temperate climates, they can get away with some blurring around the edges, but otherwise their garments need to be seasonally appropriate. Not in the sense that they provide appropriate protection from the elements, although of course that’s an issue, but specifically in the sense that they mesh well with the seasons. Springy dresses. Autumn sweaters. A professional woman’s wardrobe needs to be well stocked so that she doesn’t get accused of dressing out of season. She can’t distract people with a heavy sweater too early in the fall, or an inappropriately bright and perky skirt in February.
It’s not just season by season, but also year by year. Fashion for women is constantly changing, extremely rapidly, and a dress that looks good one year may not be so the next. Women are often told to build up collections of classic, timeless pieces, but many of these are expensive and it’s not possible to fully stock a wardrobe with them. That old advice about how you ‘just need a few good pieces and accessories’ is not actually easy to follow when people will ask why you’ve worn the same trousers twice in a week. Which means that they have to buy cheap, disposable garments in order to be able to fill out their wardrobes so they dress for work, even if they hate those garments and what they symbolise. Even if they know those garments are going to look out of date in a year.
The garment industry has created disposable fashion because that way, it can sell more clothes. It wants rapidly changing fads and it wants people to feel forced to constantly update their wardrobes to keep pace. Because this makes money. And at very high profit margins, thanks to the exploitation of garment workers who produce the cloth, the finished clothes, the accessories at very low wages and in grueling conditions. The industry forces women to be complicit by making timeless garments produced in ethical ways unaffordable. $100 or $14 for a scarf? You choose, ladies.
Women are scorned for picking the $14 scarf but it’s not that simple. Clothing, good clothing, solid well constructed beautiful timeless clothing, is expensive. Not everyone can afford the out of pocket expense, and shaming women, shockingly, is not going to make them more able to afford nice clothes.
In effect, the industry is punishing women for profits. Young women and women in the lower classes who are trying to establish careers for themselves face an unpleasant bind, when it comes to clothing. They need to build wardrobes but have limited capital to do so, and must, consequently, buy into the disposable fashion industry. And run the risk of wearing something a few too many times, of stretching something past its trend expiration date, and being censured for it.
Following dress codes becomes a very special nightmare, of course, when you are fat. Even disposable fashion often isn’t available for you, plus size garments come with a fat tax, and you’re faced with a limited array of options which may not necessarily be to your tastes. You are punished for your body, whether it’s in the dress code about not showing inappropriate cleavage, an impossibility when even a nun’s habit would look risque, or at the clothing store, where nothing on the rack will fit you and you’re forced to order online, through retailers with such disdain for their fat clientele that they don’t even bother to stock their brick and mortar stores with clothes that will fit fat people.
Fashion can be such a beautiful, fun, exciting, awesome, interesting thing. Women’s fashion is so delightful because of all the colours and the shapes and the textures, the many, many ways women can dress, the wider swath of options. But it’s also punishing because of those very things, the constant updating, the insistence on keeping women on their toes with the next fashion trend, the next big fad, the next thing you will have to buy to be smart and current and up to date. You cannot show up in the office with outdated clothes and that traps you in the fashion industry’s treadmill.
The cost of wardrobe development for professional women is an issue, and it can be a barrier to career advancement for some women. The schlubby faculty member is the one who will be bypassed for tenure, no matter how brilliant her work is, no matter how impeccable her credentials. The less than polished junior partner in the law firm will never make a senior position, not with her shoes looking like that, honey. The clerk with the slightly frayed cuffs and the ill-fitting skirt from last season won’t be considered when there’s a vacancy for manager, because obviously, she doesn’t quite have what it takes. After all, if these women really cared about their jobs, they’d take the time to dress professionally, right?