Men and Women Tell Us About the Clothes They Wear to Work

Nothing says 'I'm subservient but also adequately competent!' like a uniform.
November 6, 2016, 3:55pm

Mondays, etc. Photo by Jackie Dives

I sat patiently while a cheery, middle-aged woman gave me a black eye. She had just watched a documentary on the girl gangs of LA, so after she applied a half-moon shiner with green powder, she started drawing over my eyebrows with black liquid liner. That was how the lady-gangsters were doing their makeup, she told me, as if I might be inclined to copy the look at home. The night before, I'd gotten a phone call about the job. "You're a teen prostitute," my agent said, "They'll provide the wardrobe."

Movie extra work was easy. At the time, I was not yet 20 and generally untalented. The pay was decent; the skill level was low. When I wasn't needed in the background of a shoot, I fed off the snack table and read a book. I was living scenery—a body to be decorated as needed. The challenge lay in how I was required to look.

With my newly comical eyebrows and battered eye, I reported to the wardrobe trailer. A standard porn version of a schoolgirl kilt hung on the rack. Though I wasn't keen on spending the day standing leggy in the wind, at least it felt reminiscent of the punk ensembles I'd once donned voluntarily. But my nametag was not on the kilt. It was on a crumbled pile of black nylon. After squirming into ridged spandex and fastening a dozen snaps, I walked into the sunlight in a sports bra and tearaway trackpants, looking especially scrawny and Irish-pale. I folded my arms over my exposed midriff, trying to appear as confident as I could while feeling like a snake of uncooked dough with boobs drawn on it.

Emotional labour is difficult to measure. On set, I had the luxury of a clean break between my performances onscreen and off. Though I had to look vastly different from my everyday self, everyone knew it was a costume... right? I folded myself up in the trackpants wanting to hide, but was approached by a member of the crew. We chatted. He was funny, and attractive, and I began to feel comfortable despite the sports bra. It felt flirtatious, and when the shoot wrapped for the day, I was disappointed the conversation would end. But as we were headed back to wardrobe, he leaned in with a look of concern, "So, I don't mean to get in your business, but can I ask who gave you that black eye?" He wasn't joking. Umm... I suddenly couldn't wait to go home, put on an especially frumpy sweater, and wash my eyebrows.

When does what we have to wear to work—a uniform, a dress code, a full-on costume, or even just the expectation of a certain demeanour—make us feel professional and prepared for our jobs, and when does it make us feel alienated and disconnected from our own identities? VICE reached out to men and women to talk about the baggage and privilege that comes along with what we wear to work.

Formal polyester
Rachel, 32

Rachel worked at a high-end hotel that provided a full uniform. The hotel had an employee cafeteria hidden away from the guests where workers might remove their jackets. But while they were out front, they were required to wear the suit:

"Imagine the bellhop uniforms of Disney's Tower of Terror, but worse. A full burgundy pantsuit: burgundy pants, burgundy jacket, and shoulder pads that you could fly away with. The pants were ill fitting. They buttoned up way past the bellybutton and were so uncomfortable that I used to wear a pair of jeans underneath the pants and tuck in the top of the uniform into my jeans—because it was more comfortable to wear two pairs of pants then the uniform alone!

"There was ease with having a uniform, as they would wash it and have it ready at work, but that was probably the only positive."

Photo by Jackie Dives

Kitchen whites
Merri, 37

Merri works as a pastry chef in fine dining. The uniform demonstrates to diners that the chefs work cleanly, while offering some protection from the dangers of hot spills and sharp knives. For Merri, the uniform also has transformative powers:

"Maybe doctors and scientists feel the same way—you put on your uniform and you're somehow transformed into the professional you. In a kitchen, where for food safety reasons we can't dress up with jewellery, elaborate makeup, or hairstyles, coming to work means adopting a certain anonymity of style. I don't feel as prepared, professional, or focused without my whites.

"As you progress up the (horrifyingly hierarchical) ladder in the culinary world, you might get your name and your position embroidered on your whites. This is a symbol of rank. You might get assigned dress whites with your name, the name of the establishment you cook for, and any accolades, competitions, or associations you have embroidered on them. Dress whites are never used for cooking. They are what you wear to meet VIPs, circulate through the dining room, attend fundraisers and culinary functions, and appear at media events. I can't say I've ever been comfortable with this aspect of our field's use of uniforms—to distinguish the more important members of the kitchen from the less—however, I do hang my dress whites carefully and avoid staining them at all costs.

"Wearing whites can sometimes be wearisome. They are sexless, unglamourous, and hot. But when I've been away from work for a while, I look forward to transforming into the purposeful, focused pastry chef I am in my uniform."

Government green
Arne,* 43

Arne works for the government in a rural community. The uniform endorses him in his role, and also functions, for him, as a type of disguise:

"I am not a rancher. I went to art school, and only started eating meat in earnest the same time I got my driver's license—at thirty years old. But at work, I have a uniform. It's a government green that says, 'I'm subservient but also adequately competent!' It allows me to carry a bunch of keys, drive around in a big truck, or even a tractor. The uniform helps me project non-threatening authority. In my civvies, I don't think I could appear serious enough to interact with ranchers... Particularly with them wearing their tight jeans, neck scarves, massive hats, and waxed moustaches."

Little black dress
Mandy, 30

Mandy worked at a popular chain of 'casual fine dining' restaurants known for their attractive servers. As tips were involved, there was motivation for workers to push the limits of the dress code:

"We didn't have a uniform, but rather a dress code, so we had to pay for our own clothes. The official code was surprisingly prim: knee length skirts or dresses, low heels, and no tank tops. What employees actually chose to wear was quite different. It's hard to blame anyone—the tips were a lot better in 4 inch heels, tiny skirts and low cut tanks. I got in trouble for not following dress code properly a few times: my dress was too loose; stockings were not allowed; my blazer had a zipper on it.

"The language we were forced to use played into the trope as much as the clothing did. We had to call groups of men "gentlemen," ask them about their evening plans, and laugh at their jokes.

"The positive aspect in having a strict dress code, or having my income directly tied to how I looked, was that I spent more time in the morning getting ready, and it made me feel more confident. I've taken that lesson with me."

Millennial hoodie
Hannah,* 26

Hannah worked at a tech company. She was not given a dress code, but felt pressure on her appearance nonetheless. Each day, she attempted the demeanour desired in a culture were valued workers were 'chill' and ' delightful':

"When I left my job at a successful startup tech company, I had prepped myself for the exit interview of a lifetime. "...And you felt offended when our founder said that the product was like 'premature ejaculation.' Am I getting that right?" The HR Specialist transcribing the interview recited my comments back to me. I went on to list some further bullet points that she could jot down under Reason For Leaving: Culture Fit. I said manager speculations over 'whose Facebook profile was cuntiest' hadn't nourished my enthusiasm for the company mantra of 'surprise and delight.'

"My coworkers couldn't imagine a willful departure. They reminded me that there were office dogs here; all the beer you could drink every Friday at 3 PM, and no dress code at all! How could I abandon this utopia of American Apparel casual wear for a corporate gig full of "serious people"? My next employer wouldn't let me spend my health and wellness budget on flyboarding—THAT they could guarantee.

"The truth was, I had spent the last year emotionally drained. I was broken by having to wonder every day: "does this hoodie/craft beer/lewd remark make me millennial enough?" I was 25 and opting to work with a more diverse group of people. And they dressed in business casual."

*Names have been changed.

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