How do you dress for success in today’s workplace? It’s complicated.
Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, would approve of beautiful Deega’s bubblegum-pink hair. Deega’s mom? Not so much. Her future boss? It depends. “Are you applying for a job with the circus?” her sister wonders aloud.
Deega has never appreciated the joke — not now, as she’s job hunting, and not when she was a teenager. It turns out that “Let her be — it’s just a phase” was clearly “It’s not just a phase, Mom. It’s me.” And Just Like That, the pink hair (referred to as IT by family and friends) secured IT-self a permanent spot in an otherwise conservative, natural-colored family. Deega became the pink sheep of the family.
Just as Woods waltzed through Harvard Law in towering pink heels, so Deega breezed through a top US business school. Her parents invested a small fortune in her education, and Deega delivered, coming home with a 4.0 GPA and impressive internships under her belt. The girl who means business hopes to be headhunted by big firms.
Her parents worry about their investment, though: What recruiter will agree to put a shocking pink head of hair past the first phase of screening? Every time the fresh grad mentions she’s going to stop by the hair salon, the whole family stops in its tracks in anticipation. Is this the day she dumps the pink?
As a close family friend and Deega’s cool honorary aunt, I’ve been summoned more than once to play Danny Devito in the family’s re-enactment of The War of the Roses. It goes like this:
DEEGA: Ignores everyone, her angry red eyes zoomed in on me.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM: Mom sits, an angry wildebeest. Enough smoke pours from her ears to set off the fire alarms.
ME: Composed. Praying no one ends up hanging from the chandelier.
MOM: “No respectable company will ever hire a pink-haired punk. They will never take you seriously. The guy who interviews you is going to offer you bubble gum, not a job. This pink marshmallow look shouts, ‘Come on Barbie. Let’s go party.’ It. Is. Not. Professional.”
DEEGA: “You know what, Mom? Anybody who judges my credentials by the color of my hair can go [redacted] themselves. They won’t hire me? I won’t work for hair-color bigots. Right now, as we speak, there’s an employer out there who’s not as judgemental as you are — one that would love to have my pink head on their team.”
So, what does it mean to maintain a “professional appearance” in the modern office? Can you lead a team, have a strong work ethic, be on time, and always deliver — all while sporting Bermuda shorts and New Balance sneakers? If you’re a white-collar worker in Egypt and your boss is over the age of, say, 40? Probably not.
In a world of piercings, prominent tattoos, and rainbow hair color, intimate family debates have become workplace flashpoints. A younger, digital-first generation wants to bring their “whole, authentic selves” to the office — in crop-tops and joggers if they want. At many companies, the professional grooming teams (read: HR departments and team leaders) are struggling to cope. Deega’s peers might be able to avoid taking style advice from mom and dad, but they can’t escape Mme. Affaf from HR; she doesn’t want a Schiaparelli model walking around her office — but she does want you in lipstick and straight hair if you’re going to be client-facing.
It’s tempting to blame Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. Confronted about his bland wardrobe, the young bn’aire said, “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” Before the second tech boom — before Facebook and the rest of the social media platforms — professionalism and professional appearance coexisted peacefully. Expectations were met, professional attire endured (sometimes even embraced), and HR personnel and job candidates were on the same page.
Work is a stage, and you’ve got to dress the part. And there’s usually a dress code that gets you through it. For many, following the dress code is a no-brainer — it’s a constant sign of respect to your coworkers, yourself, and the workplace. Or as Stanford legal scholar Richard Thompson somewhat more grandiosely suggested: “Dress codes are a Rosetta stone to decode social norms and resistance of a time and place.”
WE’VE BEEN FIGHTING OVER DRESS CODE FOR DECADES-
Skimming through the evolution of workplace fashion in the past 100 years, we’re team Thompson. Heck, we even find ourselves in the unusual position of having to quote the content mill known as Forbes, where a ‘contributor’ writes, “Professionalism and professional appearance are nuanced concepts that have become rather sensitive in nature as norms change and culture evolves.”
It has always been so: Pre-1960s, men were in suits and ties on even the hottest days of summer. For women, long skirts and dresses were as mandatory as the servile roles they were allowed in the workplace. By the 1970s, women were rocking pants (and pantsuits) into the C-suite. The power suits of the 1980s (shoulderpads seemed mandatory for men and women alike) gave way to the advent of “business casual” in the 1990s.
Before we knew it, we had a long menu of business looks from which to choose: casual, smart casual, business casual, business professional, business formal — even (you guessed it) gender-neutral.
In choosing to work in a given field, many of us implicitly accept a certain dress code. Hoodies for coders. Suits for bankers and lawyers (except, maybe — just maybe — on casual Thursdays). Yoga pants for pilates instructors. You get the point.
What if you show up on stage dressed to play your part, but decide to come back after a short intermission in a different costume? That’s when things really break down.
Nereen Salem was Miss Egypt 1989, and she rocked anything she put on — a bathing suit, a pilot’s uniform, and (later) the hijab. Little did she know that the moment she covered her hair, her career as one of Egypt’s first female commercial pilots would take a nosedive. The chairman of her airline’s board of directors fired her in 2001 after several attempts to get her to take it off. The claim: Her veil violated the company’s uniform code (nevermind that the company’s policy manual at the time made no mention of female pilots at all, let alone hijab).
Nereen won her legal battle, as did Arpinder Kaur, the first female Sikh pilot in the US and the first Sikh pilot of any gender to wear a turban on the flight deck — challenging a longstanding flying norm.
So, can an opera singer stand in full costume, staging a production of Opera Aida, and wear the veil? Cairo Opera House would say no. In 2003, officials issued a warning to members of the a cappella chorus who insist on wearing hijab during performances. (The clash of dress codes and religious freedom is too complicated to analyze, even for this column.)
It gets even more interesting when you throw in race: California’s CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) prohibits discrimination against employees (read: Black folks) who choose to go with natural hair or a hairstyle associated with their race or ethnicity. New York City also defends the right to wear natural hair — or to just leave your hair uncut or untrimmed.
(May I suggest we need a CROWN Act of our own here in Egypt? One that saves beautiful, natural Egyptian curls from the cruelty of flat irons?)
IS THERE A WAY FORWARD FOR DEEGA? FOR US ALL?
If there’s a common thread in global culture today for the under-40 set, it is, “Why fit in when you’re born to stand out?” I suspect we face many more years in which the freedom of (self-)expression clashes with office oppression.
Still, it’s hard to wonder, as we all bring our authentic selves to the office: Are you showing too much of you? Oftentimes, the answer hinges on how conservative your boss is. Erin Brockovich made her office mates uncomfortable with her law-office attire. “As long as I have one [redacted] instead of two, I’ll wear what I like if that’s alright with you,” she retorted. Erin was lucky to have Ed Masry, not Red Forman, as her boss — we know exactly where Red’s foot goes when he’s not happy with you.
The truth is, my conservative friends, that the workplace changes constantly, evolving to accommodate whatever is thrown its way. Take covid, which suddenly introduced us to a new kind of professional attire (blazers on top, PJs on the bottom) that we had previously seen only on Balenciaga runway shows.
Smart bosses know that a flexible company culture is a shock absorber — and that should extend to dress code as much as WFH. The simple reality is that a buttoned-down workplace isn’t inviting if you’re seeking young talent. It’s hard enough to get young people to work as corporate drones without forcing them to wear clothing they hate.
We can hear Deega’s mom booing us from the sidelines. She raises valid concerns. Will your clients, your regulators, or even other employees be as understanding of your all-inclusive approach? Or will you send them flying in another direction, taking with them their business, goodwill, or experience as they seek out a competitor with the standards and looks they’re familiar with? Deega’s mom interprets her girl’s insistence on pink hair not as an expression of personal freedom, but of her lack of maturity, flexibility, and professionalism.
As for Deega herself? She’s waiting for her Elle Woods moment. Her job hunt continues, and she looks forward to triumphantly proving herself an asset to any business she sets foot in — in all her pink-headed glory.
Sorry, Deega. Nothing personal. Or as Billy Crystal as Dr. Ben Sobel once said: “Don’t kid yourself, Jelly. It doesn’t get more personal than this.”
ANALYZE THIS is a regular Enterprise Weekend column by the Mother of the Resident 15 Year-old.