The proliferation and democratisation of fashion design throughout the past century has led us to an age of abundant choice in what we can wear, and for this, we must be thankful. We are now able to explore a world of colour, prints, patterns, textures and shapes like never before.
But, as with great power, this choice comes with great responsibility; clothes are a powerful component of the first impression, and can easily entice an instant judgement from others.
As a consequence the professional environment often demands that we filter our usual world consisting of diversity into one of moderation in the name of professionalism. This leads to the rejection of more imaginative choices to the convention of dressing in clothes that remain in the safety zone of being polished and simple. However, even in more conservative settings, there has always been scope for some variety in the formal look.
Whether it is due to the relatively short time-frame of women's participation in the work-force, or their wider choice of attire generally (with the exception of Scotland, men attending meetings in skirt-like garments would be heavily frowned upon and remains for most men as a non-choice during their morning dressing routine), women have always enjoyed more flexibility in their options for the office.
Whilst a man can give away a hint of character to his prescribed suit in the form of cufflinks and a vivacious tie, a woman can vary the cut of her blouse, skirt, dress, jacket with even trousers ranging from boot-cut to skinny, 3/4 cut to an elegant length.
One woman who has very publicly broken the traditional mould of the corporate uniform is Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s current president and CEO.This variety of choice should be embraced by the modern professional woman, especially if working in less restrictive surroundings.
Mayer adds a new dimension to corporate fashion by daring to wear colourful and patterned dresses, often paired with sandals (typically on the no-no list of most corporate establishments). With the aid of a simple cardigan to mute the boldness of her outfits, Mayer depicts spirit and grace through her style whilst maintaining a professional edge.
Another female powerhouse whose professional environment may not be as forgiving as Mayer’s, but who nonetheless pushes the boundaries of formal wear is Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF. Instead of simply wearing colourful versions of the traditional suit, as have been the go-to options for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US president hopeful Hillary Clinton, Lagarde introduces flashes of colour into her usually neutrally toned ensembles using accessories. So famous are her scarves that commentators on her wardrobe often muse about the underlying messages they believe prompted her to choose a particular scarf to a meeting.
But the area where she truly elevates her style to a form of art is in the way she conveys her meticulous attention to detail and professionalism through her minimalist make-up, perfectly polished hair style and overall look of being ‘put-together’. We cannot imagine many people would think she is disorganised or anything less than supremely competent upon meeting her simply from the way she presents herself. As a result, Lagarde and Mayer have been both ended up on Vanity Fair's Best Dressed List.
But Lagarde’s stylish image has courted what appears to be a recurrent criticism towards powerful women who seek to express their individuality in the face of monotonous work wear - that business and fashion cannot co-exist without the woman looking frivolously preoccupied in her appearance to the detriment of her work or as a method to manipulate perception and get an advantage. This serves as a harsh reminder that no matter the credentials - even the best among us will have their work ability judged by the smallest of decisions: the colour of your scarf, the height of your heel, the length of your dress. And whilst it would be (and is) easy to blame the patriarchal society in which we work for this, it is also an inherent price of the liberty we have been given when choosing what to wear. After all, how much of the inner psychology of a man can you read from his cufflinks?
But, if judgement will be passed regardless of what we choose (whether the stern suits of Mrs Merkel or the feminine dresses of Mrs Mayer), we may as well embrace the advantages we have been given.
The reality is that women nowadays have realised their right to express themselves physically as well as intellectually and no longer feel the need to fit in with men in the workplace. To accuse women of being irreverent or worse, manipulative, simply because she is fashion-conscious is wholly unsubstantiated and only serves to reveal the attitudes of the critics as reactionaries, as well as victims to the hypocrisy of their superficial views. These accomplished women should be celebrated as spearheads for the advancement of gender diversity in a male-dominated world of business, not inhibited by dated and sexist stereotypes where the most important aspect of a woman is determined by what she looks like and what she wears.
Women are different to men, and as such they should not be made to feel uncomfortable about displaying their femininity. An expressive use of fashion may serve to magnify this diversity, and should be embraced within today’s working world.