January 25, 2010


    Friday morning 2 weeks ago I went to get dressed and put on a gray tuxedo top dress.  I had my black tights and heels on and, well it was just too dressy for work.  None of my cardigans worked and wearing a blazer only exacerbated the problem.  So knowing I didn't feel like taking off my tights or jewelry (yes, I'm just that lazy) I went to put on my white button down shirt.  Well, I hadn't planned this, so my shirt wasn't ironed.  It then dawned on me to just layer a cardigan over the shirt.  Grabbed my gray pencil skirt and an outfit was born.  But wait, was this too sexy for work?  Was I playing into the "sexy secretary/librarian/legal assistant/(insert job description traditionally held by women here)" look?  What does it matter?
    So I went to work and spent the whole day thinking of the post that Sal of Already Pretty wrote on the "Sexy Secretary" look.  Even though her explanation on how a generation gap might make a difference in how she views the Sexy Secretary look was interesting, her explanation on Position is what really drew me in.     
Position: And this is the one that I'm least sure of. I’m a communications coordinator. Coworker Cal - who can do sexy secretary like nobody’s business - is a development officer. We aren’t ACTUAL secretaries, we're mid-level employees. And I think people see our looks as playful and retro-kitschy when we don them. But Vanda is an office administrator and the stubbornly literal people of the world might struggle with her sexy secretary looks more than they would with mine. This look is culturally iconic, and when worn by a woman in a secretarial role, it may be harder to get out from under that ingrained image. I wonder, too, if women in positions of power in office environments may encounter problems. Most of the female execs I've worked for have erred on the side of androgyny, and I can't say as I blame them. It seems like a traditional, conservative or semi-conservative office environment would rebel against a female leader in pencil skirts and seamed hose. But I've never encountered either a secretary or an exec who sports this look, so it's all conjecture on my part. (reprinted with permission)

    As I explained in this post from a long time ago, being a woman in the law can be tough.  Part of that reason is because of the positions women have traditionally held in the legal profession.  Up until the recent past, maybe the past 25-30 years, women in the law were generally paralegals, legal assistants, receptionists or secretaries, ie women that all worked FOR men, not WITH men.  
    But why does this affect me, a 25 year old hispanic/latino woman who will be graduating and working in the 21st century?  It's because the legal profession hasn't changed much in the 300 years its been practiced in this country.  It is still mostly run by older white men.  And these older white men started practicing when there were few if any women working as attorneys.  So they're used to women playing a role as support staff rather than as a member of the team. 
    Given this background, maybe its easier to see why I would avoid a sexy secretary look, but then again not.  So I'm going to flesh it out anyway.  If I want to be seen as a competent attorney who just happens to be a woman then I have to make sure to dress conservatively and if not conceal then not draw attention to my womanliness.  Conversely, if I don't want to be taken seriously as a female attorney, then I should dress sexily or as support staff or any number of other ways that undermine my credibility.  In other words, being viewed as a secretary, not to mention a sexy secretary, isn't great for a female attorney.  Once relegated to a support staff role, its very difficult to be seen as an attorney (which is REALLY not good for one's career).  
    So when Sal stresses that she's not "an ACTUAL secretary" but rather a mid-level employee, it means that she is someone who puts on the costume for a day.  Depending on where you work, putting on the "Sexy Secretary" costume might be acceptable and work for you.  But in my case, ideally I would like to be a leader in an office someday.  So rather than risking being pigeon holed into a support staff role, I really have to think about what I'm wearing and what types of vibes it sends to those I'm working with, especially the men.  Does it say "Take me seriously, I'm an attorney you're going to love working with for a long time" or does it say "I'm a female employee and as such you can count on me to do support work"?  Essentially, I don't think I, or any young female attorney for that matter, can really risk "putting on the costume" because it could very easily turn into being viewed as support staff rather as an attorney.  
     By the way, this is in no way meant to disparage support staff.  As someone currently in that role, I know that the legal profession would come to a dead stop without support.  So I appreciate the secretaries, receptionists, paralegals and legal assistants that make the practice of law possible.  At the same time, I've worked really hard and gone through a lot of school to be where I am, so being grouped in with support staff would just plain suck.  I also know that there are varying experiences and that a lot depends on your type of workplace (large/mid-size/small firm  or in-house counsel), region, practice area and personalities, yours and those around you.  I'm lucky enough to work at a small firm where there are 8 women and 2 men, 1 of each being attorneys, and where being a woman does not automatically equal support staff.  Nonetheless, chances are I won't always be working for this firm.  I wish I could say that its unlikely I would ever encounter these attitudes, but I'm not so sure I can.   
Do you see any differences in these two pictures in terms of authority, responsibility and professional ability?  Am I simplifying this too much?  Any thoughts? (Click pics to make them bigger)

The Details:
White Shirt: BR outlet
Skirt: Jones & Co.
Tights: L'Eggs
Heels: Aldo
Necklace: Consignment Store
Cardigan: Target
Blazer: Nine West Suit


Sal said...

Fascinating stuff, A-C! And, as frustrating as it may feel to have to dress conservatively, it makes total sense to just suck it up when doing otherwise could directly affect your career path and level of peer respect. And you’re so right – for me “sexy secretary” is a costume. Some days, I’m a punk, some days a princess, some days an avante-garde art chick. I’m lucky to be able to swap out my looks, and wear such a vast array of them.

Glad that sexy secretary discussion sparked such a thoughtful and fascinating post!

A-C said...

Thank you! I'm not sure I would have really thought this through without your prompting. I think we often take clothing for granted and don't always think about how we are perceived because of the clothing we wear and your post definitely made me think a little harder about it.

What Would a Nerd Wear said...

how frustrating that we have to think of these things all the time!
i think you look terrific in both outfits, although it's clear which one is more conservative than the other.

A-C said...

Thanks hon! I know its obnoxious to think about these things at times, but I think it adds legitimacy and depth to style and fashion.

Anonymous said...

i think this is an interesting article but once i scrolled down to the photos i was sort of stumped at the dilemma you describe having.

I really don't see very much of a difference in the two photos at all except in one it's like your blouse got pulled out of your skirt because you did some jumping jacks or something and you just haven't noticed to tuck it back in again - which is a bizarre description but almost certainly more truthful than 'sexy secretary'.

from what i've experienced (at a conservative consulting company), if appearance matters in a workplace, then i think the most important thing in the workplace is to look polished, which the outfit on the left is, and the outfit on the right clearly is not. not "sexy" or even too tight or revealing, just not "polished".
in summary of what i think works:

polished and conservative - yes, ok, can be boring but it'll work well. (i think your outfit #1)

polished and sexy - this i would be interested in seeing your take on; that pencil skirt, then a button down that actually fits. not TIGHTLY, but that fits like it ought, not like a box.

un-polished and conservative- not my favorite, but it works for most people (i think your outfit #2 with one more cardigan button done up)

un-polished and sexy - no, never.

Angela Pea said...

What an amazing synopsis of the "professional dress" delima at work.

I am a professional engineer, also a career field dominated by older white men. In fact, I am the only female licensed engineer in my firm!

I am very, very careful of how I dress at work or at "professional" events outside the office, such as banquets, client dinners, golf, etc. I would LOVE to put on a sexy secretary look, but out of respect for my profession, I won't.

Margaret said...

I am an attorney, for 25 years, in different workplaces. I have to say that while this is an interesting discussion as a general matter, I don't think your outfits illustrate the issue. If you want to compare extremes, look at Joan on Mad Men for sexy secretary. And then tone it down for what Sal and others likely mean when they wear this "look". When I took my latest job, as a government attorney, I had to buy a new professional wardrobe. I went a bit in the direction of "retro sexy secretary" and by that I meant pencil skirts with cardigans and jewelry; peplum jackets and kick pleat skirts and sweater tops; wrap dresses with pleated skirts. Granted I have never worked in the private sector where men were in power. That was choice, not coincidence. The most important quality your professional dress should convey is confidence. I am 50 and I do not wear costumes to work. I also do not wear suits except to court. There are a lot of issues for you to consider especially since you are in a support role now but will be moving to a different role soon: that is in itself a reminder that it is a good idea to dress to the job to which you aspire. That is very relevant to your situation. Best of luck to you!

Claire said...

Howdy! Visiting via Sal at AP. Yes, outfit on the left seems clearly more conservative, mature, authoritative. Do pointy-toe shoes ever come into question for you on this issue?

Much luck in your aspirations!

Anonymous said...

From the perspective of a female college student looking at a probable career in politics, I refuse to give up my love of art and fashion to please some vague, societal rule that says I can't be pretty in the workplace. There are rules to professional dress in the workplace for both genders, and neither males nor females should be flaunting anything inappropriate. That's doesn't mean I can't embrace my youth and beauty in bright colors and beautiful fabrics and patterns.
Maybe this is the generational-disconnect here. I honestly feel that your first outfit is much more flattering to your shape, and the gray skirt is much more interesting than the back-and-white look. In regards to the second look, I'm going to agree with the other anonymous poster -it's unpolished, and frankly, looks rather cheap in terms of fabric and style.
If by "sexy-secretary", you mean the old-fashioned idea of slutty bimbo at the front desk showing her breasts, then no, you shouldn't be dressing that way at work. If by "sexy-secretary" you mean a pencil skirt and a beautiful silk shirt in a flattering cut, then I must be screwed, because I don't think of that as "sexy" at all -it's pretty, elegant, and appropriate.
As for the playing the "bimbo receptionist", aspiring professional women should know enough to leave that in the bedroom.

CompassRose said...

Going from the photos, which are admittedly small and dark, I would definitely say that, sexy or not, the photo on the right does not present as much of a professional image as the one on the left. The photo on the right says "student at a summer job" to me, or maybe "casual Friday at a workplace that doesn't allow jeans." The outfit on the left might be a bit formal, but it is elegant, fits you, and has a bit of admittedly conservative style. If I was "aspirationally dressing" (which seems to be the meat of your argument, leaving the sexy or not out of it) that would definitely be the one I'd choose.

A-C said...

It’s taken me a few days to respond, but I knew I didn’t want a knee jerk “you’re being mean to me, stop!” reaction. (No I don’t think you’re being mean, I’m just not used to having more than 2 comments so its strange and cool, very very cool, to have people to discuss things with). So here goes (from top to bottom):

Anonymous1: I’m not surprised that there’s a disconnect between the photos and the post. The reason is that I wouldn’t dare risk my position or reputation at work to put on a full “sexy secretary” costume. Sure it might be fun for Halloween, but it is definitely not something I would do for work. My post was more about the different ideations of a “sexy secretary” and how putting on the costume would or could affect my professional life. As for the button down not fitting, well I have boobs and the only way to get a button down to fit them is for it to be a bit big everywhere else. Such is life until I can get everything tailored.

Angela Pea: I SO get it. I would love to be a bit crazy with my dress and take risks and stuff, but out of respect for my profession, myself and my workplace, it’s just not going to happen. BUT what we can do is take mini-risks with things like accessories or shoes so that we’re not calling A LOT of attention to ourselves, but we’re enjoying the creativity that dress and style can offer.

Margaret: Thank you! I really appreciate someone who *actually* practices law, and especially who has done so in different places offering their insight. I think you hit the nail on the head with “I don’t wear costumes to work.” I know that some people can and that is their prerogative, and it’s fine with me. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to do so in a law office.

Claire: Welcome! Pointy-toed shoes have never come up, for me at least. I think that as long as it’s not a severe pointy-toed shoe or anything else terribly distracting, then they should be fine. Shoes are an accessory and one of the easiest way to add some individuality into an outfit. While I wouldn’t try to wear a pair of leopard print shoes to court, wearing them in the office all day when not seeing clients would be fine.

Anonymous2: I don’t think it’s about not being pretty or being told to not look pretty. It’s really about being professional and polished. Also, the only thing I changed between the two pictures was I traded my cardigan out for my jacket, the rest of the outfit is the same.

CompassRose: I think aspirationally dressing is exactly what I was trying to describe near the end, but just didn’t come up with the right term. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

hello, this is "anonymous one" again.

when i read your response to my comment about the button down shirt + boobs - i was like "doh!"
actually, right after I posted my first comment i realized that that was not at all a good example.
I am in the same camp with the button downs; i actually just gave my last one away last weekend to charity,in an effort to stop lying to myself that i'll actually wear one one day. i think they're awful unflattering and uncomfortable and, thank god we live in a post-1970s separates world, definitely not essential.

i realize my comment may have come across as, i don't think your outfit is sexy, therefore you aren't... i apologize and totally agree with that sentiment. i just meant, as an example of a style, it didn't seem to be the best one.

Anonymous said...

*DISagree. disagree.

A-C said...

Anonymous 1: Don't worry about it. Unfortunately tone doesn't come across on the internet.

As for button downs, well for interviews I kind of *have* to wear them. Otherwise I'm a big fan of shells and sweaters and other blouses that don't have a tendency to gape or make me look frumpy.

sara star said...

I work in the legal field as a paralegal. And I have noticed the female attorneys having to work twice as hard to be taken seriously by the old white male partners.

I think it is very true that a female attorney who started out as a paralegal is going to have a tougher row to how in some ways.

In other ways, an attorney (male or female) that worked as staff before might manage staff better than attorneys who don't even really know what their staff does or how time consuming some things are.

As for dressing, I do think that staff has a little more freedom. I think a female attorney does have a profession to represent, just as much as the male attorneys do. Both have to dress rather professionally. I can dress more like Sal (whose sexy secretary is more like demure modest retro secretary), but I love being a paralegal and hope to be a paralegal until I can be a full time artist instead.

Even as a paralegal, I still need to dress fairly professionally. I would wear the second outfit, it does seem like a suitable outfit for my position (if the shirt was less wrinkly). But if I were a lawyer, I would definitely wear the blazer instead, the second outfit does scream staff to me.

A-C said...

Thanks Sara Star! I've noticed that by being staff I'm treated differently than if I were an attorney. In fact, I've been told by one of the paralegals that until I take the bar and pass it, I'm still one of "us" but once I'm an attorney I'll be one of "them." However, the attorneys treat me as sort of a junior attorney rather than support staff. I'm not sure if its because its a small firm or because I'm on the cusp of graduating, but I find it curious that I could be treated so differently by both groups.

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