I have a lot of feelings about professional attire.
I look really good in femme professional. I have a handful of professional outfits I bring out for when I need to make a good impression on relative strangers. The core of this part of my wardrobe is one specific black top with elbow-length sleeves and a low back, which I can combine with knee-length skirts, jewelry, shoes, and makeup in matching colors. These ensembles compliment my figure and present a competent, assertive, unabashedly femme image to the wider world. I like what I see in the mirror when I dress professionally, and I feel comfortable and confident in it.
This mood suits what professional workplaces demand of femmes. Femmes are expected to brighten and beautify the workplace with our presence, by varying our clothing from day to day and season to season. We are not allowed to be merely competent, to just do our jobs. We must also be points of light amidst the sea of interchangeable black and navy suit jackets, as decorative as the potted plants and the wall art and an ever-shifting visual treat for our co-workers. My particular relationship to femininity is such that I gravitate to and thrive in this role, but I shouldn’t have to, and neither should anyone else.
To falter in this challenge is to “not take the job seriously,” to be slovenly and uncouth, to be unprofessional, without the quality of one’s work ever coming into question. But to take up this challenge with aplomb is likewise a black mark, designating someone vain, superficial, and unworthy. The misogyny baked into the very idea of professional attire hurts all women, but in this way, it particularly poisons femmes’ possibilities. My field, biology, has a particularly obnoxious, jagged line for femmes to toe. We have to look professional for presentations, and render ourselves weird and vaguely unnerving if we insist on showing up to functions in field or lab clothes. But the rest of the time, we must be practical, and to exceed that arbitrary standard gets one the dreaded insult of “unserious.” All of my female colleagues at my previous job got a certain level of patronizing and condescension from my supervisor that their male counterparts didn’t, and it was noticeably worse for the ones whose quotidian fashions took more effort. My own treatment varied with my clothing on a day-to-day basis, a dramatic shift from its pre-transition pattern.
I was fortunate to start in a field that doesn’t expect professional clothing at all times, because I can’t sustain that verve long-term. My professional wardrobe, acquired largely by donation, is small. I have to start reusing pieces or experimenting with less professional options within the first week or risk wearing out my best pieces. Professional clothing is expensive and both replacing worn pieces and expanding my selection are currently out of reach, as they are for many people who didn’t enter the workforce with an already-large clothing budget. This naked classism is particularly hard on aspiring professionals from low-income backgrounds, recent immigrants, and trans women like me, all of whom effectively have to build up in weeks or months what their more privileged competition collected over decades.
It is also deeply unfair to disabled people, who often must wear “unprofessional” clothing for medical reasons. Femme professional clothing often features inconveniently-sited zippers, form-fitting cuts, and stiff rather than soft fabric. For people with mobility impairments and especially difficulties with fine motor control, zippers are often impossible. Restrictive clothing can exacerbate asthma, digestive pain, and joint conditions, depending on where the tightness is located. People with digestive conditions often must prioritize clothing that they can quickly remove in the bathroom, which describes alarmingly little of professional femininity. People with any sort of non-normative body shape, whether due to fat distribution or postural difficulties, are often ill-served by the stiff, self-supporting fabrics used in many forms of professional attire. All of these things can set off texture sensitivities. Often, soft, elastic items such as yoga pants are the safest choice for all of these reasons, but such items rarely fit within people’s sense of professionalism. In this way, people’s physical possibilities are held as representative of totally unrelated workplace attitudes and skills, and disabled people in particular suffer for it.
Men outside those categories, by contrast, continue to benefit from the relative ease of the three-piece suit as the core of their fashion. It is downright boring in its simplicity, but it meant that, during my time as an unwilling prisoner of masculinity, I had one suit, and I was set. No one would have regarded me as anything worse than mildly eccentric if I wore that one suit until it turned threadbare and then replaced it with a different one suit. But as a femme, workplaces expect far more from my presentation, day in and day out.
I both relish and resent that difference. I have no fond feelings for the time I labored under masculine norms. What some see as the benefit of hassle-free fashion decisions I saw as intolerable restriction, keeping me from exploring what I wanted to look like and what version of me I wanted others to see. I dreamed of the freedom to wear pretty things and of caring enough about what I looked like to put effort into choosing them. That workplaces now expect me to so curate my appearance is the same combination of disconcerting and affirming as being catcalled: something no one should have to deal with that nevertheless tells me I’ve come home.
The thing is, the show I put on isn’t for them, regardless of whether they enjoy it. I am a femme in the workplace, and my femininity is for me.