The Evolution of Workwear

The other day I was shopping for a commercial when I was surprised to run into an issue I’d never expected. The direction dictated colorful work wear, and while it was easy to find attractive scarves, sweaters, button ups and turtlenecks, I wasn’t able to find even one blazer that wasn’t the color black.

Now sure, black is a cool color. It's very "New York,” very “chic,” and endlessly easy to pair with different garments. “Black goes with everything,” is a statement you’ve probably heard before, and yet just a year ago, I couldn't stop running into more playful options. Bright blazers that complimented cropped slacks. Colorful options which could be purchased to highlight the consumers fun and flirty personality.

It lead me to thinking about not just the development, but also the destination of workwear. How quickly our society has devolved from demanding specific uniforms be meant for the office, and others for play.

Jeans, tank tops. Sneakers and crew neck T’s. Back in the 90’s you would be shamed if you chose to wear these articles of clothing to the office. Sent home for your lack of professionalism - because what is workwear if not designed to communicate your commitment to your given profession?

I grew up watching Sex and the City and lusting after Samantha Jones two piece suits. She was attractive and she was smart and she had an office surrounded by windows from which she welded the type of power many women were not allowed to at the time. Sure, there were women of influence, but no one who was simultaneously taken seriously and also allowed to lean into their femininity at the same time. Hilary Clinton comes to mind as an example of someone who used to have a gorgeous head of shoulder length blonde hair that the nation watched her hack away over the next twenty years.

Ever since women entered the work force, to be female and also authoritative, meant inserting yourself into a male dominated culture. Working Girl, the late 80’s classic, does a great job with its tongue in cheek title of reminding us just how connected prostitution and “fitting in” at these professional boys clubs really was - and often still is.

The rise of freelance culture has helped create a rift in this way of thinking. One of my favorite article over the past 5 years has been The New Yorker’s “Freelance Achievement Stickers.” They include awards for things like ‘going outside’ and ‘putting on pants.’ But even if you do remember to put them on, the kind of pants your wearing are shockingly different than the ones you would just ten years ago. 

2019, everyone is talking about ‘living their truth,’ and I’m all here for self expression. Clothing choices have never been more personal or performative than they are today - what other time have you been allowed to dress for your body and no one else’s? Every person has the right to wear clothing that flatters their frame.

Which begs the question - if our professional lives have come to allow it, then why do we still find ourselves struggling to maintain?