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What Does Dressing ‘Professionally’ Mean for Women of Color?

The rules aren’t the same for everyone.

They said they would help us understand what was “professional.”

It was my first year of law school, and, like many of my classmates, I had never held a full-time office job. I’d had summer internships, but those hadn’t required me to wear anything more formal than jeans. Now, we were about to work in the most conservative environment possible: the Boston legal environment.

The schools did give us certain guidelines. They told us that big hoop earrings were unprofessional; that open-toe shoes were not preferred; that we should test skirt lengths by kneeling and seeing if the skirt hit the floor. Blouses, they said, could dip three fingers’ length below the collarbone (not further). No ostentatious jewelry or accessories.

But generally, they avoided specific rules. “Be discreet,” they said. “Dress professionally, like the older lawyers do. Blend in.”

When you’re a woman of color, that’s almost impossible. You learn quickly that your body is hypervisible, because it is probably the only one of its kind in the courtroom. You are constantly among men, white men, who notice how different you look from the usual faces they see. And because you’re hypervisible, you are subject to the harshest, most unforgiving scrutiny. Does that girl belong here? What is she doing here? they wonder. And when they wonder, they seize upon the easiest thing to criticize, the first thing anybody would notice: the way you’re dressed.

“We’ve, uh, had some complaints about your dress today,” said my summer intern supervisor one day, not quite meeting my eyes. “People are asking that you go home and change.”

Bewildered, I looked down at myself. I wasn’t wearing a suit that day (when you’re on a student budget, you can’t afford suits for every day of the week). My dress wasn’t low-cut; it didn’t reveal anything it shouldn’t. It fell bang at my knees, and it was plain black. I was wearing it underneath an especially conservative blazer. I had seen older women wearing much more showy ensembles. What was wrong with my outfit? What was so wrong that multiple people would feel offended by it?

“It’s the… cut,” she said, and cleared her throat. “It’s not… professional.”

I nodded and hurried off, feeling as if I were 6 years old and had just been chided by my nanny. I felt thoroughly humiliated: When would I get it? When would I understand what professional meant?

As a fairly curvy woman with big breasts, I already knew that I had two choices when it came to button-downs: either I could look sloppy in a shirt that was too large, or I could wear the right size and look “distracting.” This was the fear that every professional woman wrestled with: the fear of not being taken seriously because of how we were dressed. It was a problem that was compounded for women of color, for plus-size women, for any woman who did not fit the cis, thin, white body ideal.

Makeup was another minefield. As students, we could spend our days in North Face and ratty sweats, not worrying about how we looked. But as women in a traditional profession, we were expected to look reasonably attractive: We were aware that good grooming could significantly increase our paycheck.

When the big firms came calling for interviews, we were advised to wear foundation, blush, a suitably demure lipstick shade, and suitably demure nails. (None of us could agree on what “demure nails” meant: only that any color called “Vamp Scarlet” was probably off the table.) Most of my classmates were white, and they didn’t seem to worry about these rules too much. One girl said that she didn’t plan to wear any makeup at all. But the women of color in the class worried that they would be seen as unprofessional if they did the same. Skipping it wasn’t an option, but how much of it should we wear? When I wore makeup — even subtle makeup — I was told it was “too much.” One professor explained to me condescendingly that “wearing blue eyeshadow, for instance, would be too much.” I restrained the urge to reply that I would never, ever consider wearing blue eyeshadow to work — even though the white judge was.

The selective enforcement of rules continued all through law school. We didn’t get a handbook at my summer internship telling us what to wear: It was left to my supervisors to enforce the dress code. They did it in the most arbitrary fashion; my coworker wasn’t admonished for wearing a white suit to court, but I was sent home again and again to change.

Nobody tells you what too much means, in the context of the workplace. They don’t go into detail, because it’s an embarrassing conversation to have with another adult. That reluctance is normal, and it makes employers resort to coded language, like “unprofessional” and “excessive.” Unfortunately, it is this vagueness, this lack of specificity, that is exploited to the detriment of women of color. When you don’t have a clear set of rules to follow, you’re open to the judgment of a subjective authority — often a white male authority. In the eye of that authority, your very presence is a violation.

I was left in no doubt that I didn’t fit in. On more than one occasion, I was asked if I was the Spanish interpreter, because “I looked like an interpreter rather than a lawyer.” If I had had the energy to ask what that meant, I might have. I knew that any answers I got would be marinated in racism.

When you’re the only person who can’t seem to get a simple thing right, who is accused again and again of the vague charge of being “unprofessional,” your self-esteem begins to erode. I had always loved fashion: I had loved the thrill of putting together the perfect outfit for the day ahead. When Lucy Liu said “I only go into work to show off my outfits” in an episode of Ally McBeal, I felt a thrill of kinship. But once I realized that my fashion sense and my professional success were directly at odds, I started to doubt myself. Each day, I agonized over what to wear: The ritual of dressing up had gone from pleasurable to nerve-wracking. I could be seated at an absorbing murder trial, but still be thinking about how embarrassing it was that I couldn’t seem to dress myself in an appropriate fashion.

It wasn’t until I left the United States and began working in all-brown offices that I truly understood how much discrimination I had faced. Suddenly, I no longer stood out. I was no longer being sent home to change, or being dressed down for wearing a pencil skirt that was too tight or too casual. Getting dressed in the morning was no longer an impossible calculus. I could worry about the quality of my presentations instead of the quality of my skirt suit, and that was incredibly freeing. To have your work stand alone is a great privilege. Those who have it don’t recognize it: The rest of us are not so lucky.

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