“Dressing the Part”

Woman In Red Dress Looking Through Her Purple Purse In Chicago Photo : Alanna Bagladi

I work in the software industry and sometimes find myself rolling my eyes at the cliches I encounter. Are there software developers that roll into work at 11 AM in cargo shorts and sneakers? Yes. Have I ever seen our CEO in a tie? No. Do we have a ‘keg-erator’ in the office? Yes.

Now, believe me, I’ve embraced my office’s dress code with vigor on the days that I can only bring myself to throw on a pair of skinny jeans, shirt, and sweater. But I’ve noticed myself dressing up more and really enjoying it – and not just because wearing a dress brings my number of wardrobe choices down considerably. I’d say that dressing up makes me feel like I’m taking myself and my work more seriously, which I hope then translates to my day-to-day interactions. I also think that dressing more professionally helps me harness a certain level of confidence to face the day.

In the past, I heard a sentiment that expressed how putting on a more serious business professional outfit and make-up can be a woman’s armor. That pencil skirts, blouses, and loafers can protect a woman as they move through their day in whatever professional setting they work in. Protect them from what? In my experience, it’s the day-to-day exhaustion that comes with being “on” but historically, it’s the sexism, full-blown and soft, and limitations women have faced in the workplace in things like missed promotions, rude comments, and basically the glass ceiling.

I’ve found this sentiment playing out in my own sartorial choices because to be totally honest, I really struggle at work some days. I joined my current work team at an entry-level and I’ve gotten feedback about how my emotions appear to overcome me at times, that I’m very “transparent”. It can be really challenging for me to balance being left to my own devices, but still needing to shadow more senior team members. It’s a bit trickier for me, too, because the role I’m currently in wasn’t necessarily my “dream job” – it came into my life at a really good time, however. Like any young person in their first adult job, getting the experiences that you simply need in order to be competent at best wears on me and I wish I could have known and done everything related to my projects yesterday.

All that said, I’ve taken to channeling an effort in improving my professional development into my outfit choices. The saying does go, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”, right?  I think this quote could be changed to, “dress like you have your shit together, even when you don’t”. Appearance is a factor, albeit a shallow one, in the workplace and while it sucks, I’d rather harness that factor in the way I want, rather than being forced into it.

So I want to use a workplace’s business casual dress code to my advantage and just err on the more ‘business’ side because I feel like it. Dressing put together may not always translate to immediate success but I think it can help build a foundation. For me at least, I feel more together and ready for whatever I might have to deal with during the day when I dress nicer. I truly do think it could just be a placebo type effect, but I feel myself become more serious and with it when I’m more business casual-chic. Maybe laying the groundwork for some semblance of professional confidence can come from putting aside my Madewell jeans for a Loft dress. If “dressing the part” is going to make things go more smoothly, then so be it.


Katharine Donohoe lives and works in Virginia. She (sometimes) has very little chill but enjoys the simple things like GChat, Trader Joe’s frozen snacks, and listening to a healthy amount of podcasts.