If it’s never been easy to be a woman in the workplace, it’s historically been easy to dress for it. Women chattered out typewritten memos in wasp-waisted dresses, then armored themselves in square-shouldered power suits. Then everything got complicated. The real Year 2000 Problem had nothing to do with computers and everything to do with an increasingly fragmented notion of what young women should wear to work. Sure, the devil wears Prada, but what is her whippersnapper assistant supposed to wear? If the woman in the cubicle to your left is wearing a bandage dress with a blazer, and the woman on your right is yawning her life away in a Theory suit, you are not alone.
I asked six women who work in vastly different industries about what they wear to work. There’s the southern debutante who works on Wall Street. The assistant at a fashion magazine who has a complexion like Limoges porcelain and has taken to outfitting her whole office. The writer who models–”Pose/Prose,” she says–and is navigating an office for the first time as an intern at a literary nonprofit. The consummate Brooklynite (which is to say “digital strategist”). The self-proclaimed “fairheaded truth darkwarrior” writer who works at a geekchic bookstore downtown.
I feared they wouldn’t want to talk about clothing. But to young women, at least in New York, clothes are as much an idea as politics, music, art, books, and foreign affairs. (As for men, we summarize your texts for each other and move right along.) And once I asked, they had a lot to say. What I found is that business casual is a profanity. Rising from the valley of ashes it left behind is a nebulous phoenix whose rules for getting dressed are as complicated as they come. If you thought girdles and shoulder-pads were confusing, wait until you hear about what one woman’s boss said about seeing her feet, the ins and outs of dressing to hawk art to an ambassador, and the trauma of taking your outfit from downtown to uptown. Have we figured out that stupidly elusive interview outfit yet? How do we lean-in in a low-cut blouse? Can’t women wear it all?!
Business casual is so over.
Today’s young women believe business casual is what you wear to walk the road to hell to deliver the news to Satan that Jesus just got a raise. “Business casual conjures up an image of some kind of pre-fab suit from Ann Taylor, worn by a woman on a golf course, with shoes from one of those walk-easy-Stride-Rite-for-grown-ups-who-commute stores,” says Limoges. The fairheaded truth darkwarrior–a woman whose sleeves are artfully shredded where Limoges’s drape with Parisian nonchalance–echoes this sentiment: “#BIZCAJ to me is like the comfortable undone attire of white collar/white people.” Our Brooklynite adds, “It brings to mind images of men in poorly fitting blazers with gold buttons and wrinkly chinos and women with boxy pencil skirts and buns. Do I sound terrible yet?”
Only Pose/Prose had much that was nice to say about business casual–“black jeans, blazer”–but there isn’t a mean bone in her perfect bone structure. They say fashion is cyclical, but “business casual” may be the one trend that will never resurface. The darkwarrior did admit to the occasional ironic adoption of business casual, though, so perhaps the emblematic rebellion regalia of the next Miley Cyrus will be Brooks Brothers suiting separates.
Most admitted that they were being a bit capricious about the whole thing. “I think perhaps this is not what it’s supposed to be associated with,” amends Limoges, following her horror-shoe tirade. But their ideas about what replaced the profane concept were unclear, meaning that whenever you receive an invitation suggesting “business casual,” you can hold it by the corner and set it aflame as usual. Even attempts to offer a cohesive notion of “what young women wear now” were entirely en vague. “Elegance without ostentation,” offered Gallerina X. “An office full of smart, happy, and interesting-looking people” was the news from Carroll Gardens (but of course). “How wonderful does that sound?”
What women wear: “I don’t mind seeing your feet, but I would mind seeing his”
When I ask women what they wear to the office, they’re as specific and pointed as their concepts of business casual were hazy. Take Gallerina X: “For the older, distinguished collector with Ambassador or Sir before his name, and a wife who is referred to as Mrs. Distinguished S. Ambassador, I will wear an embellished silk sleeveless sheath with pointed faux alligator kitten heels and major but understated bijoux. For our hip museum curator colleagues or snazzy interior design clients, a shirt dress with fabulous sandals and lots of gold and silver jewelry does the trick well.” Gallerina X is also the only person I know with what I would describe as an “erect carriage,” which I imagine helps her pull this all off.
Pose/Prose is similarly regimented: “I’m often using my lunch breaks to run off to castings. On days I have castings, some variety of all black, or a sexy skirt/blouse combo. It depends on what the casting is for. Heels, always, even if they’re small. Blown out hair. On days that I’m at the office without castings: oxford shirts, flats.”
The Wall Street debutante seems to be the only one facing a firm dress code. “I’ll wear anything from jeans and a casual top to a silk midi dress with a fur vest,” she says, but “my company has a very odd policy of only letting women wear sandals in the summer because, as my boss explained, to me, ‘I don’t mind seeing your feet, but I would mind seeing his.’” Huh.
Our truth darkwarrior reveals life lived blessedly without a dress code. “I’m bad. See-through, side-boob, crop tops, you name it,” she says. “Once I accidentally wore a repro[duction] of the Vivienne Westwood Seditionaries tits top to a staff meeting. So I was just hanging out with these big black and white boobs on my chest. [And] usually when I write, it’s first thing in the morning, so I’m in whatever I wore to bed…. For now, it’s a pair of grey sweatpants I found on the street, no joke.” Interview subjects inspire her to pull something together more formal, though. “Tavi Gevinson got me looking real grown up because I was like, ‘I have to be more mature than this girl in one way!’”
If women lack a universal philosophy of what’s appropriate to wear in the office, they are confidently exacting in what garments they want to want to wear, down to the way they’re cut. Says our Brooklynite, “I’m a fan of leather pants instead of chinos, tunics instead of buttons downs, long skinny skirts instead of pleated ones, tuxedo jackets instead of two-button blazers.” (She didn’t say as much, but I’m sure this manifesto is written in blood on an age-yelled document that hangs over her bed, like a guillotine.) Limoges also has things down to a science, telling me, “My morning routine consists usually of trying on one skirt (almost always voluminous), 2-3 tops (usually knits or an oxford) and settling on a look that mixes something snuggly with something architectural…. If it’s fashion week or I am traveling, I style my looks in my living room on a collapsible garment rack. I really like to take time to think looks through.”
And yet, what one woman wears to work would probably never do for any of the others (oh, that we could all dress with the darkwarrior’s insouciance!). It’s as if every business in Manhattan has developed an idea of what women should wear that’s exclusive to that office alone. Business casual is now “[your logo here] casual.” Those rat bastards.