Should We Conform

By Colleen Winn

She walked into my office and closed the door behind her. I sensed that whatever she had to say she needed to do it in privacy. I also noticed that her look was pensive, directive, and hyper serious. I didn’t know whether to hide under my desk or mirror the seriousness of the moment that she had created. What I did was greet the Center Director and sat back in my seat with a weird smile on my face that spoke more to my youth than to my mood. She was a leader who did not mind the fact that her subordinates called her Ms. B*!#@ behind her back.  She was building, crafting and creating a legacy of future leaders and the culture she had constructed was one built on “her” strict interpretation of professionalism.  Like it or leave it!!

My mind raced to preview what I could have done to warrant this visit but before the tapes finished playing in my head…..she spoke.  “Winn, I am sending you home to change into something appropriate to this setting. I know where you live so you have one hour to return to center.” I was outraged at being reprimanded for my dress. I was a 34 year old darn woman who had some working years behind me. No one had ever sent me home for my attire….no one. I dare you to be dismissive of my decision of what to wear. I never just roll out of bed and somehow just fall into my cloths. No, my attire….what I wear, I give priority and thought to. (I thought in my head). She had totally unarmed me.

I looked at her for a second and tried hard to fane a blank (I heard you but it really did not phase me) expression and picked up my purse and said, “I will be right back.” Since that incident occurred some time ago, I cannot honestly detail what I had on that day. It could have been pants that she felt were not professional teamed with a blouse that she felt was too “low cut” or it could have been a dress that she considered too short. Who knows; but what I did know is that if I wanted to succeed in this environment I had to determine what was appropriate and wear it for her. Okay, I was a bit of a slow learner, basically because of my obstinacy, but I did get the lesson without too many bruises.

On my way home and then back to center, I kept asking myself, what does my dress have to do with my work ethics and how brilliantly I perform at my job? I kept coming up with the response that it didn’t. I read recently in a Business Insider article that, “in the big picture of ultimate reality, what one wears neither defines who you are as a person nor determines your value as a human being.” Even though I have been known to push the boundaries and fight back at established mores, I have had to initially bow down to some fiercely imbedded realities, people judge us by the we walk, talk, look and how we look includes how we dress. I just hate that reality but humans are humans and known to be subjectively objective …. and ….. fair is not always “fair.”

I worked in that environment for 19 years. The last 14 years under several other directors and at times (with her not being at the helm), I would slip back into my way of interpreting what is professional attire. Just let me add that my interpretations have changed with time and growing and aging and metamorphosing. Life affects our ideals and our temporal belief systems. If you don’t agree, you are still young and testing the waters.

I now work in a different environment and climate. Being in higher education I witness so many different nuances of professional dress. In some environments on campus it is all about ones intellect and degrees. This appears to give credence to ones degree of self-expression. So I welcomed being in this environment of individual expression and artistic interpretation. Dress is art, right? So I self-expressed.

I again had the talk……”in the workplace especially, clothing influences how others perceive and respond to you.” So we are back to a perceived reality …. back to where I started  this conversation. Perception is everything; whether you hate this reality or not. What we wear stands out in the minds of others. It is an indicator of how well adjusted we are, of how we are able to interpret the culture, and how we play by the rules. Are we always looking to bend them or can we conform to the established order? It drives others perception of our intelligence, trustworthiness, success rating, and suitability for promotion and advancement. Have I just happily jumped on the band wagon? Not really, without much inner turmoil, but at times a lot can be said about conformity.

I did feel a sense of relief when I visited the Comcast Center here in Philadelphia, where many of the offices are highly efficient despite the lack of a strict dress code. Business casual has become the new business formal and weekend wear is the new business casual. For some working environments more emphasis is being placed on productivity than “lookability.”  But for now I will ride the wave with the 1990’s research that correlates clothes with being smarter. Dr. Adam D. Galinsky, professor at Northwestern s Kellogg School of Management, coined the phrase “enclothed cognition.” His test findings concluded that “cloths invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state and makes others think you’re smarter.” For now, when I want to feel the “power”, I will suit up. When I feel powerful enough to push the confines of normalized organizational behavior, I will wear fish nets or black panty hose.

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