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The complex science of what women wear to work
Issue #98: The Beauty Backlash
Fresh out of business school, I joined a consulting firm. It was my first job ever, and I was eager to put my best foot forward.
All through our MBA, we had been taught that dressing professionally meant one thing - wearing a three-piece business suit.
Now some people - like me - begin an MBA in India not having remotely been in the vicinity of a business suit (unless you count uncles at weddings). But by the end of their MBA, everyone manages to convince themselves that wearing a three-piece suit in India’s tropical climate makes perfect sense.
So when I entered the consulting sector fresh out of business school, I felt fairly confident in my sartorial choices. Armed, as I was, with all of my three business suits from Mohan Singh Place, Rajiv Chowk, nothing could stop me now.
My first client meeting rolled around.
Like the good kid that I was, I pulled an all-nighter to refine and re-refine the PPT, and reached the client’s office an hour in advance, dressed in my finest black suit.
As I was setting up the PPT and doing some tech checks, a few colleagues started walking in. And then the boss did. I noticed a huddle around the boss, and some hushed whispers floating about. After a while, one of the ladies gestured me over.
She took me to a corner of the room and told me in a sickly-sweet voice, “Hey, as you know, this is a conservative client. So boss thinks that you wearing western clothes will send the wrong message. Why don’t you head back home and change into a saari? Don’t worry, you can be late. We will hold the fort for you.”
I looked around the room. All other colleagues were studiously avoiding eye contact with me. The boss was doing a good job of looking like he was busy with something else.
Like this order did not come from him.
Like he had not just shattered a young employee’s confidence on the first day of the first big meeting of her career.
If this happened to me today, I would have a lot to say in this situation.
But fifteen years ago, I was not as sure of my voice (or that I was even allowed to have one). So I quietly collected my things and left the building.
As I was heading home in an auto, I blinked back tears of humiliation, because I now had to Google how to wear a saari.
The embarrassment of that day stayed with me for a long, long time.
I spent three more years in that company. So, for the next three years, I would triple-check my wardrobe before every client meeting. I would sometimes discuss my clothes informally with the senior lady who had the ear of my judgmental boss to ensure it would be deemed appropriate by him. And I began whispering unsolicited advice in the ears of other women colleagues who joined after me to spare them the same embarrassment.
In short, I became what I loathed - the Uncle who wardrobe-shames women at work.
Too girly, or too manly - pick your poison.
Revathy works on the shopfloor of a manufacturing company as a mechanical engineer.
“I work in the manufacturing facility of one of those companies which touts itself to be very ethical. While the company does ensure ethical business practices, there are a lot of other shady practices going on at work.
Like clothes-shaming women.
On the shopfloor, women are ogled at as if they are alien creatures. As one of the very few women engineers there, I find all eyes on me every time I enter a room. So I have to make a lot of effort to dress down. ”
Revathy is the boss of most of the men working in the facility. But like most women, she has to jump through a lot of hoops to earn the same respect that a man would get by sheer virtue of his designation, no questions asked.
“You have to dress to command basic respect. This means dressing in a way that makes you look the perfect combination of not-too-feminine and not-too-masculine.
If you look overtly feminine, they say ‘She is too girly for the tough life on the shopfloor’. And if you wear what everyone else is wearing, they say, ‘She is trying to be a man’.
If you are a woman, deciding what to wear to work is hard work in itself, and ultimately there is no winning.”
Leggings weaponized for maximum distraction
Anushree also started her career as a shopfloor engineer. Today, she is a senior executive in her firm and has a bird’s eye perspective of these unwritten rules around women’s workplace attire.
“I was lucky to start my career in a firm where we all wore a gender-neutral uniform on the shopfloor for safety concerns. But once I got promoted to management, I saw the landmines women have to navigate to simply pick what to wear to work.
If a woman wears a salwar kurta, it is ‘too girly’ and she is not adhering to the appropriate ‘business casual’ dresscode. But if she dresses up in pantsuits, she is perceived as ‘too aggressive’.
At one point, my company unofficially banned leggings because they were ‘too distracting’. No prizes for guessing which gender was getting ‘distracted’ by which gender wearing them.”
Anushree talks about the role senior women often play in this.
“Policing women’s clothing definitely began with men - because men, even today, form the majority of senior management in the corporate sector. Sadly though, senior women often do more than their fair share to perpetuate it.
A Director once casually told me that she feels like taking a ‘How to dress at work’ session for the women freshers who had recently joined work. I was aghast because what people wore to work was, frankly, none of her business.
We actually have a dress code in place because our company falls is governed by the Factory Act. It deals mostly with safety at the workplace. If people are following that dress code, then it really should not matter what they wear!”
Corporate policy against chipped nail paint
Swagata works in the sector I quit for the charms of not being clothes-shamed every day.
“In consulting, one term that is used a lot is ‘executive presence’. For men, this is usually about how they speak, how they lead a team, how they present their thoughts. In the case of women, how we dress is a much larger part of how our ‘executive presence’ is calculated.”
Two instances came to Swagata’s mind instantly when I asked her to elaborate.
“When I first started work, I used not overthink about what I wore. I guess I was labouring under the delusion that my thoughts mattered more than what I wore. I realized how wrong I was when, before a meeting, my boss told me ‘not to dress like a jhalli (an unkempt woman)’. I was taken aback by that comment because I had never heard her speak like this to a man in the team, no matter how unkempt they looked.”
Her second story is simply jaw-dropping (if you are a man).
“A senior colleague from the global team was about to visit the India office. A consultant from his team actually advised all of us that he did not appreciate women wearing chipped nail polish. Apparently, he had publicly pulled up a woman for it in the past. So ahead of his visit, women on the team were informally given instructions to get their nails professionally.”
Swagata says that these unreal standards are tough not just on women in general, but also on some women in particular.
“These biases are particularly pronounced against women who don’t come from a place of privilege. If you cannot afford to spend money on dressing well, or do not have the same template dressing sense as most urban and upper class folks do, you do not count. So it is a double whammy for women who do not come from money.
This is the opposite of the ‘diversity and inclusion’ agenda that most consulting firms espouse, at least in theory. I feel personally ashamed that I continue to spend money on this so-called ‘power dressing’. There is no denying that I am a part of the problem.”
“Bullshit moral policing”
When Vartika was a law student, she interned in the office of a senior lawyer.
“My boss was a very senior and well-respected lawyer who had an office in the court. His team sat at small desks outside his office. The dress code there was black and white for everyone, and black coats for the lawyers. Since I was not a lawyer and my work never entailed going to court, I did not wear a coat.
On a hot June day, I was wearing a simple white sleeveless kurta. I had not even thought a second time before choosing it because it fit the official dresscode. My boss never commented on my clothes anyway so I was at ease.
That day, however, several other lawyers - all old men - walking past my desk stopped to say various versions of ‘You can’t wear this here’ or ‘Kal se ye sab nahi pehenana hai (You will not wear all this from tomorrow onwards)’.”
Vartika was really young and it was her first job, so this sudden attention understandably flustered her.
“I started apologizing to every man who made this comment, and became hyper-conscious of my work wear for the rest of my internship there. But today, when I look back, I realize many other things. Those men were not my bosses. I was not working in their team. I was not even working around them. I would never go to court as part of that position. And my clothes were well in line with the court dress code of black and white. They had absolutely no business talking to me about my clothes. That was nothing but bullshit moral policing.”
Sajna hai mujhe, meee-eeting ke liye
Priyanka worked at the center of this Bullshit Universe - in the beauty industry itself.
“I am the sort of person who works best wearing comfortable jeans and sandals. I was the marketing manager for a fairness cream brand (cringe). Unless there was an important client meeting, I would dress comfortably to work. Most of the team comprised women - many of whom made much more of an effort for their appearance.
I never thought our personal style choices were relevant to our work until one day, my boss came up to me, pointed to another colleague, and commented, ‘Why don't you dress well like her?’
I suppose it was meant to be a joke, but I was shocked that it happened in a professional setting.”
She quickly gathered that this ‘joke’ was the tip of the iceberg. There were unwritten rules at the company about what your dressing sense said about your professional skills.
“If you dressed well, you were supposed to be right-brained, with a mind for beauty and aesthetics. If you dressed casually like I did, you were supposed to be more numbers-oriented, and not a good fit for working in beauty marketing.
This was the underlying messaging that the bosses advertantly or inadvertently conveyed. I think they were all trying to impress someone else. In fact, after I moved on from the company, I heard that my boss actually took all the women managers out for an actual makeover. I think they called it a ‘grooming workshop’ (double cringe).”
Today, Priyanka runs her own business.
“I now have the luxury of being my own boss. I do not have to play political games for anyone else. Our team is mostly women too, but we all work remotely and no comments are ever made on anyone’s styling choices in my company.”
“I pity the women who work under him”
Chanchal recalls an incident from her stint as a manager at a tech startup.
I was making a presentation to one of our key investors. He is a big corporate honcho, and the pressure to get that presentation right was high. I had worked on the PPT all night, and was even working in the car on the way to the meeting. Obviously, I had had little time to focus on getting groomed at a salon. Nor did I think it mattered in the least.”
The presentation went quite well, and the investor seemed happy with Chanchal’s work and their startup.
“But after the meeting was done, his Executive Assistant walked up to me and said, ‘I am SHOCKED that you walked into a Board meeting without getting your hair done.’
I was horrified. I had led the whole goddamned meeting. I could not believe that of all the observations this dude could have made, it was my hair he had the strongest opinion about.
He obviously did very well for himself in the corporate world. He is a CXO of a major MNC today. But I will always associate him with that comment. I pity the women who work under him.”
“You could have looked a little more glamorous.”
Farah is the founder of a tech startup and shared the story of another investor meeting.
“I was making a pitch to a group of angel investors. It was in the Covid era so we all connected over a Zoom call. Very few women were on the panel from investor’s side. I was happy that one of the women got in touch with me after the pitch to say how much she liked our work.
But then, her parting comment was, ‘You could have looked a little more glamorous.’
I was shocked. Only my face visible on the Zoom call, but that was clearly enough to distract her from my startup’s pitch to the more pressing problem - my woeful lack of mascara.”
Because she was wearing a mini skirt
Komal shared a colleague’s story from her workplace.
“I work in the media sector. One of my colleagues - let us call her Smriti - held a massive portfolio at work. She held a lot of creative as well as financial power. She was really good at her job - very effective, decisive, and yet a warm and affable person to work with. She was also married and a mom to a six year old at the time of this incident.
We were all in Thailand for some entertainment awards night. After the awards function, there was a corporate party. Everyone was having fun and letting their hair down to celebrate the successful culmination of a stressful project. The dance floor was packed, and Smriti was chatting with some colleagues on the sidelines.
Suddenly, a man - who had clearly had too much to drink - forcibly pulled her to dance floor. He went on to make lewd gestures and gyrate all around her. It was a deeply uncomfortable moment and no one knew how to react.
Thankfully, our CEO stepped in. He slapped the man and made the HR team fire him the very next day.”
What happened next is - if possible - far more bizarre.
“The fired employee went to labour court. He said that Smriti was wearing a mini-skirt and drinking alcohol which, according to him, justified his obnoxious behaviour. His team colleagues also vouched for his ‘character’ and slut-shamed Smriti for her choice of clothes.
It turned into a long legal battle. Smriti’s husband advised her to accept blame and end the case. She stood firm that her clothes cannot be used as a basis to justify sexual harassment. Upset with her stand, her husband left her. Her parents are conservative and blamed her for the separation.”
Meanwhile, Komal says, Smriti’s name was dragged through the mud in the organization.
“Colleagues stopped informing her about client meetings, and ignoring her in internal meetings. Over a period of time, the company started nudging her in unofficial ways to accept blame in the case. The CEO who stood up for her was also fired on some other pretext.
Finally, she quit the firm. In fact, the media industry is so small in India that she had to leave the country to escape the shadow of this event.
She was paid a huge amount as an out-of-court settlement in the case, which she accepted just to end the matter and move on in her life with her child. I later heard that she donated all of it to some NGO.”
Komal, who works at a junior position compared to Smriti, speaks of the impact this incident had on her and other women in the company.
“Since this incident, there have been ample opportunities to go abroad on prestigious work assignments. But I cannot get myself to take them up. I can't forget what happened to Smriti when she was in a far more senior position. If something as flimsy as her clothes can upturn her life and career, I shudder to think what could happen to me.”
Prada bags and Chanel perfumes - the corporate uniform for women
Vasudha - who works in the India office of a silicon valley conglomerate - says that ‘power dressing’ has nothing to do with women’s power at all.
“I used to work in other sectors earlier. But when I joined my current company, I realized that all the women here are expected to dress in a very typical way.
If you came to my office - and most corporate offices - and looked around, you would find that most women conform to a certain mould.
For the most part, women’s hair has to be straight, shiny, black, usually tied up neatly, with any greys carefully hidden with hair colour and regular root touch-ups.
Eyebrows threaded to perfection at all times. A bright red or maroon or pink MAC lipstick. French manicure. Branded business suits, tops, skirts, probably by Zara. Trousers by Mango. Gold or silver jewelry, typically purchased from Tanishq or collected from trips around the world - including matching rings, necklace, earrings. Footwear is exclusively pumps (high heels). Handbags have to be Louis Vuitton or Prada. Perfumes have to be Chanel.
“Most women in my office know a dozen ways to wear their silken scarves. They will match a colourful scarf with a monochrome outfit for a ‘dash of colour’. Or wear an all-white outfit with an all-blue jewelry theme. They all look gorgeous and chic - like supermodels.
But make no mistake - each look is put together with a LOT of careful effort, planning, time, and expense.”
Vasudha says that when she first joined the firm, she tried to conform to these grooming standards.
“I thought maybe this is how the game was played. I learned how to do makeup. I had owned only three lipstick shades in the last decade, so that was saying something. I tried to wear heels, tried to use a sleek handbag instead of my convenient backpack.
I think the only things I refused to to do were French manicures (I hate long nails) and hair colour (I wear my greys proudly).
Soon, I found that it was exhausting to keep trying to match up to these impossible standards! I realized that I was spending more time worrying about the right shade of lipstick, than I was thinking about my meetings that day.
Out of fatigue and sheer lack of capability, I gave up. If this was needed to play the game, I was out. I decided to just be myself. I still dress in a smart, clean, and thoughtful way, but I have stopped trying to pair the right scarf with the right top.
I wear smart but comfortable footwear (no heels, thank you very much!) And I use makeup only for special occasions because that is what feels right to me.”
When she gave up on living up to these high standards, Vasudha thought the skies would fall. But something surprising happened.
“I don’t know about people’s perception of me, but my perception of myself altered drastically when I stopped trying to be someone I was not. I felt more confident, at ease, and proud about being my own authentic self.
I don't judge those who genuinely love putting in that amount of effort to get dressed everyday. If that is their authentic self, it is absolutely lovely.
But in trying to be like them I was losing out on being myself - which was what got me that coveted job in the first place!
For example, I actually have a colleague who wears a beret in office during winters. She looks impossibly swish and chic.
I would just look stupid wearing a beret in Gurgaon.”
Vasudha’s story is inspiring. And I wanted to end with it in case you are a woman trying to live up to an impossible standard, and you needed to hear this.
That said, our workplaces continue to hold women to these ridiculous standards and that is a problem.
Anything that attracts attention from men is labeled ‘distracting’.
Anything that asserts their power is labeled ‘aggressive’.
And if we magically manage to hit that Holy Grail of beauty standards, we are told that our ‘work should speak for itself, and not our clothing’.
Not to mention the extra time, effort, and expenses we are forced to invest in something that is as simple as wearing a white shirt and black pants for most men.
Men, can you imagine putting this kind of effort into getting dressed for work:
A 2017 survey titled “The True Cost of Beauty” found that an average American woman spends $225,360 (INR 2 crore) on beauty products over her lifetime. A Skinstore survey pegs that number at $300,000 (INR 2.5cr) and adds that the average American woman applies a whopping 16 beauty products every day to her face alone! In total, women account for 80-90% of the global market for beauty products, which is estimated to rise to about $500 billion by 2028.
The cherry atop this cake of humiliation is when men forward us jokes about how long women take to dress up.
But none of this is accidental, or even innocently cultural.
In her seminal book, “The Beauty Myth”, Naomi Wolf says that these impossible beauty standards for women at the workplace - what she eloquently calls the ‘beauty backlash’ - is all about how women’s entry into the workplace threatened power structures for men after the Industrial Revolution.
Wolf says that women were (and are) already working a “Second Shift” that men don’t. The Second Shift starts when women finish their day jobs and have to do a whole second job of caregiving for the entire family at home.
The beauty backlash was designed to add a “Third Shift” to women’s day, in which they spend insane amounts of time, effort, and energy in dressing up to meet a ridiculous moving target.
Spoiler alert: No woman ever meets it. Not even the one wearing a beret in Gurgaon.
Women (the privileged ones at least, who have some job security)
If carefully planning and colour-coordinating every ‘work outfit’ does not bring you joy, consider taking it easy and redirecting your depleted energies in more productive directions. Like reading all ~100 posts of this newsletter.
Women who perpetuate these beauty standards at the workplace and think that putting other women down will make you feel better about yourselves
Please seek therapy.
Men who think they have an iota of a right to an opinion about what a woman wears
Your fly is down. Go make a sandwich.