The Myth of the Working-Girl Wardrobe

Mattie Kahn | December 10, 2015

Do the clothes really make the woman?

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I have this skirt that I keep trying to outgrow.

It was short and black, cotton and elastic. I was fifteen, but even as I marched to the cash register after discovering it in the depths of a sale rack, I knew it was a provisional pleasure. The tight circle of fabric was just the kind of piece a girl needed in adolescence and never beyond it.

I had already decided that womanhood was made of finer fabrics — wool, cashmere, linen. Eventually, I would graduate from the impulse purchases of my childhood and live out an existence of intentional dressing. I would own so much Céline it would be almost offensive — yet tasteful!

The catalyst of this would-be transformation eluded me, but I assumed that it would happen when I started to work. All the polyester would disappear from my closet. I’d find a pantsuit that didn’t make me look like an extra in Dumb and Dumber. I would have no physical or emotional space for mass-produced miniskirts. A good sheath dress could turn me into the person I planned to become.

I believed in the myth of the working-girl wardrobe. I was in love with the idea that fabric and thread could wrap me in substance. I anticipated some instant in which I’d replace all of my sweaters and skirts and dresses, abandoning the jeans that had been both so discounted and so hideous and the shoes that I still can’t decide whether I should try to restore or throw away for good. I would go out and buy a few dozen classics and create an older and wiser version of me in them. I expected (the way those of us who love clothes sometimes do) that dresses and “trousers” could invent me.

The delusions of youth — I was so wrong.

When I graduated in May and moved into a new apartment in October, I unpacked the skirt into my “grown-up” home. It has a tiny hole in the waistband now and it is no longer black. In its present state, it would be better characterized as “soot.” Somehow, though, I still wear it all the time. It’s so anonymous and unremarkable that it matches most of what I already own and pretty much all the Everlane sweaters that I’ve recently purchased and the Zady coat that has so entranced me. I keep meaning to give it away. Except, I can’t seem to find a substitution for it. Even in its shoddiness, it still has sartorial worth. Maybe it’s a total stretch, but I like to pretend it proves I made a few good decisions in high school.

Because I am a writer, I will probably never go out and buy the kind of Theory separates that I had always hoped would make me into an ambitious and impressive woman. I don’t need them. I work at a website and sometimes in my pajamas. It is such a treat. But it means that there is no office dress code to usher me into adulthood. In its absence, I want to know: Is the dream of an “adult” wardrobe old-fashioned? Should I embrace the relics of an Urban-Outfitted past? Do the clothes really make the woman? And if so, how am I supposed to grow up?

Elizabeth wearing: Topshop turtleneck and J.Crew turtleneck layered, Zara pants (similar here), Robert Clergerie shoes, Taylor Morris sunglasses; photographed by Krista Anna Lewis. Background Photographed by David Hurn from Magnum Photos via The New York Times. Carousel Background via Quite Continental from The Library of Congress

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  • PAAR

    I have a skirt I manage to wear to any business meeting possible – tropical countries, freezing cold weather, etc. It is intact after more than 10 years. Classic pieces are classic for a reason. http://www.thepaarblog.com/

  • Jen

    But what I want to know is: where are those amazing socks from?

  • Such a funny and insightful piece. Your wardrobe is a reflection of you and continues to evolve organically and systematically. Buying a whole new wardrobe that also is a departure from your regular lewk will be foreign and look awkward. I’m glad you kept that soot coloured skirt.

  • “I was in love with the idea that fabric and thread could wrap me in substance.” I think many of us think, or thought, this way. For me, the idea is that the woman wears the outfit, not the other way around. Stick to the styles you like and find ways to make them fit the wardrobe you’re looking to create. Loved this relatable, humorous piece! http://theselfloveformula.com

  • Aydan

    I feel this way about everything in my closet. I’m so thankful that I didn’t take the plunge like so many of my friends did of purging their old closets and stocking up on “business clothes”. I have found that even the shortest of dresses or the most see through–I’ve still managed to repurpose and make suitable for work! Long live layers!!

  • kduck

    I thought I/my closet would go through the same transformation when I started working. Sadly (or thankfully, maybe?), I was wrong and I still own a little black elastic band that goes with everything. Turns out, I love that I have pieces that I cannot get rid of, no matter how old. Makes me feel like I’ve successfully collected a few pieces of the puzzle and that maybe, someday, I’ll find them all.

  • Vishakha

    I had almost all my first kisses with the guys I’ve been with in the last 4 years in the same maxi skirt. And funnily enough I picked it up from a random flea market (the skirt I mean.) It’s kinda stretched out now or maybe I’m melting away but that skirt is my love! Who says clothes aren’t magical? 😀

  • Yvonne Dunlevie

    When I graduated from college and started working, I too imagined myself in theory separates and even went so far as to buy some. They sat in my closet for a few months and I become more and more confused about what a working girl wore. Eventually, I found my middle ground between college and corporate America and realized that I actually enjoy and find confidence in more formal clothing. I have never worked in a “formal” office environment but I find that getting up every day and taking my outfit seriously – even if it is intentionally a slouchy look – helps me to take myself seriously! In no way am I wearing a suit to the Man Repeller office every day, but sometimes feeling polished makes me feel my best.

  • I feel like all I’ve done in the world of 9-5 is remove denim from the equation. Otherwise, it’s still me and probably also still not “appropriate,” but I’ve gotten by so far!

  • Sophie

    Sometimes… I’m excited to have a “real” job so I can actually wear more formal or dressy clothes with more of a purpose!! (in my mind) Sometimes …dressing up in college, just to go back and forth to the library, the dining hall, and classes feels like a waste of a good outfit to me. Does that make sense or am I just being dramatic?

  • Love me a classic 80’s power suit! Which is basically every costume in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl http://clothesonfilm.com/working-girl-the-culture-of-power-dressing/33184/

  • I’m never going to give up my fetish for bonkers design and vivid colors. Grey suites? Yes, but occasionally, not every day, that would be so boooorinnnng.

    http://sunmoonstyle.blogspot.rs/

  • I have always lived on the theory, that the “earrings” make the woman. Being an unconventional beauty — they were my way to stand-out.

  • Marion A.

    I don’t think this is an outdated idea. I still dream of having a French inspired wardrobe with classic Chanel and Missoni pieces! However I still manage to wear my favorite flannel shirt and leather jacket I found in college at a thrift store.

    • Lua Jane

      Yeah but flanel shirt and leather jacket, although not necessarily Missony or Chanel can actually be classic and understated cool! I think it’s what the style makes. Those things we picked out instinctivelly at some point and loved very much are the style. I have similar relationship with my leather jackets and cashmere sweaters. I’ll wear them and love them till they are in tatters.

      • Marion A.

        Yes, ultimately personal style tends to be less about whats “in fashion” or the “trend”, any more about personal expression.

  • Deborah

    Not a myth for me. My wardrobe changed dramatically once I got an office job and I now dislike working in non-work clothes, even on days when I work from home. The key for me isn’t Theory separates. It’s very traditional non-iron shirts from Brooks Brothers, tucked in and belted or worn with a stern skirt that prohibits sitting with my legs up. The shirt is really the key, though. I get 15 confidence points from wearing it and do much better work as a result.

  • kevynryan

    All that I’ve done since getting a grown-up salary was spend grown-up money on higher quality goofball clothes. Growing up is a myth. (I should mention I live in Austin where LITERALLY anything goes.)

  • Kristina Wilde

    Such a good perspective. I never realized how important a women wardrobe was until I realized I was buying fast fashion crap. Mid 20s now, realizing time to buckle down and invest in an actual wardrobe. xo http://www.kristinawilde.com

  • Isabel

    Reading this while studying for an accounting exam in hopes of being able to stock closet with buckets of beautiful clothing after dominating grad school… And then thinking to self: if clothes don’t make the woman, they sure know how to motivate the woman.

  • Yara & Jude

    haha I know all about working from bed, in my pjs! Best thing, all i need is a few pieces in my wardrobe. clothes don’t make the woman, the woman makes the woman for who she is, skin and fabric don’t matter

    Selftimers Blog | Bloglovin’ | Instagram

  • 😀 Amazing metaphorical reflexion about adulthood, and yes, i think adulthood is more fiction than reality, we just get older, we don’t need to get boring or uncomfortable 🙂 http://www.EllenVicius.com/news.

  • Seems to be such an important question – don’t know when, but a few years ago I decided I will remain a jeans person forevah. So I did – not that difficult since people tend to go casual in my Teutonic neck of the woods anyway. But it is not true that nothing changes as we grow older – I have become a natural fiber addict, for example, so I combine these two passions (an obvious decision for a Sag). I do wear formal trousers as a means of contrast occasionally and organic cotton underwear with polyester tops and dresses – feeling happy in organic fibers plus well-dressed in vivid colors, when I want to.

    Funny thing is I still dress as if I were the oldest in our house (comprising two other ladies) – my neighbors’ style is even more youngish, so I guess they must have decided against adult clothing at some point, too 🙂

  • Lua Jane

    I am one of those people who purge their wardrobes vigorously every 6 months or so. But some pieces keep surviving those raids. Usually those in basic colors (black, navy, gray), of better quality fabrics, and which can be worn with literally everything. Once I was entering the corporate world I feared terribly I’d have to become some boxy robot in a suit. Fortunatelly it didn’t happen. I did purchase few fitting separates that looked office firendly but soon figured, that my naturally more relaxed “rock chick” wibe can stay if I just add heels. I rarely (if ever) wear suits.

  • My first job out of college was “business casual”. And I really thought that dress trousers and blouses would make me into a more productive and successful self. Yet, I hated dress pants (not flattering for me) and the stifling sensation that I was always judged by how many varieties of the same outfit I could create really bothered me.

    At my new job, everything is more casual. The developers wear shirts with cats and video games on them. I get to wear jeans every day. And I absolutely love it. Being comfortable at works means that I get to focus on my actual work. I think the working girl’s wardrobe is certainly outdated, because in many industries, the working girl – and guy – finally have more say in what they wear.

  • Pamela

    “The catalyst of this would-be transformation eluded me, but I assumed that it would happen when I started to work” I always thought this same exact thing but once I started working I realized that in the creative environment I’m in comfort is preferred and for some reason I now find myself wearing and collecting more sneakers and basic tshirts than ever. My profession requires me to move and walk all the time and that is definitely what I didn’t consider when thinking what my grown up style was going to be. However I still think about it and maybe one day I will be a real grow up and wear all those pants and heels.

  • ava

    It is all nothing bu sisterhood of the traveling clothes.

  • Tiffany

    Currently sitting in my cubicle wearing a sweater that me and my grandma both own, after a promotion. I used to think the same thing! Upgrades in life don’t always come with upgrades in wardrobe, because money can be better spent on travel and fun and drinks and food and experience.

    ……..but I still want a Chanel bag. Amazing article!

  • phoebe

    That lipstick looks fabulous, what shade is it? Although it’s possible I can’t recreate… 🙂

  • Natty

    In the finance world, there is definitely a fine line between remaining true to your personal style and dressing appropriately for work. I try to “be myself” while maintaining a corporate aura and fortunately it does not require an overhaul of your closet, just a few key pieces that pull everything together. Yes, there are days when I must drag out the Brooks Brothers suit, and when I put it on I assume the role of Confident Banker Lady. I love the confidence that a good suit gives me when I need to be that person. But I can’t play that game every day or I feel that I lose myself, and that’s not a good way to live.

  • I still have and love some of my teenage clothes. My taste has definitely changed – I own more blouses and I’m my conscious of the length of my skirts and dresses, but I’m glad I don’t have a corporate adult wardrobe. I’ve only had one job where I had a strict dress code that I guess you could call business casual. I had to wear a black blazer every day and it got really old. I’m glad I can go to work in jeans and a t-shirt if I really want to.

  • Jessica

    I have clothes I still wear from junior high and high school. These clothes are still in great shape and fit me well. I get complements on them from peers of various ages. When it’s good, it’s good. Who cares how old you were when you got it.

  • nikilips

    A decade into “real job” and my closet is still evolving…

  • Selina Moses

    it’s become a staple piece so continue to love it

    https://matchamilady.wordpress.com/

  • don’t grow up it’s a trap.

  • Adisa

    I used to be obsessed with the sexy office girl look! Think pencil skirts and tight knit sweaters, “trousers” and button up blouses and blazers and so on. I owned a ton of stuff like this from Express and even for a short while worked in an office where I was able to wear it, though nobody else really dressed like that, it was pretty casual. Now, 7 years later, I have kind of “outgrown” that look, how ironic, right? It’s not that it doesn’t seem sophisticated and grown up, but I have just come to realize that they don’t fit my every day life anymore. I do work in a clothing boutique and though I could wear pencil skirts and blouses, my style has changed a lot. It is almost as though the older I get, the younger I want to dress, but not in an inappropriate way, just in a more comfortable way, ha.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever work in an office setting again but even if I do, who knows how I’ll dress. I guess I’ll just cross that bridge when I get to it…

  • Alison

    The gap between the women we are and the women we thought we’d be? It’s called growing up. I cannot tell you how many bad blouses I bought in high school/undergrad because I thought they looked like professional office wear. Now, I just wear dresses to work — no need to coordinate separates.

  • As someone currently standing on the precipice of 30 (good lord…), I can tell you my “adult” wardrobe is still evolving. I recently purchased a Drew bag and a Star Wars t-shirt from Target all in the same month, so make of that what you will.

    You will, however, find that your wardrobe will evolve as you do (I realise I’m echoing what a few people have already said…) The best thing to do is go with it. And don’t worry if you don’t yet have a reason to pull together totally fabulous separates. Enjoy your pyjama-wearing days – there will be plenty of scenarios in the future that will call for you to look like a Theory look book. I promise. Finally, if your sartorial sense is saying keep the skirt, there’s clearly a reason. You will regret it in the long run if you don’t. But if you really want to be harsh, use the year rule – see if you wear it over the coming 12 months. By next December, if it hasn’t made it’s way out of your wardrobe, send it off to the good will bins.

  • MippysMom

    Since I teach music (private lessons on French horn), I have no use for power suits, pencil skirts and the like. I dress in lots of knits, maxi skirts, sometimes jeans and layers with knit tops, vests, sweaters. I swore off blazer-type jackets after I saw what my full-busted profile looks like in a stiff jacket.

  • Adardame

    I am required to wear a uniform at work. It’s a button up shirt tucked into dress pants with a scarf. Sometimes I wear the scarf as a belt to see if anyone notices. Maybe some day if I switch jobs I will have to invest in business clothes. I cannot stop my husband from washing everything together on normal cycle, though.

  • I’m down for classics and hanging onto them to style a million different ways for years. Some of my favorite work skirts are from when I was in high school.

    That said — Harper’s Bazaar’s ‘Day in the Life’ series on designers has really changed the way I think about work wardrobes. When talented, internationally known designers are saying they just wear a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt to work…it’s debunked the myth that the clothes make the person for me. On the flip side, I absolutely believe that clothes can alter your persona, confidence and attitude. So..kicking it up a notch however you need to do your best at work, I’m all for!

  • disqus_cdUx5flR9v

    dear ladies, this is not a myth, at least not in Mexico where we are obligated to wear the ugliest uniform in the world. If not, you get nagged as if your in elementary school! every single lady from the admin army has to wear it and is the most invasive thing to our dignity and personality.

  • Carolinafsa

    Well, i used to have lots of “working clothes” until i started working at a shipyard in Rio. After a few years wearing those hot jumpsuits, I came back to the office but since then it is extremely hard for me to wear all those classic clothes again. I just leave home to work wearing jeans.