Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Does what women wear to work matter?

By Peggy Drexler
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
These American models from 1940 know how to dress to impress. But how has women's work wear evolved over the last century? And who were some of the pioneering power dressers who helped shape it? These American models from 1940 know how to dress to impress. But how has women's work wear evolved over the last century? And who were some of the pioneering power dressers who helped shape it?
HIDE CAPTION
Working girls
Coco Chanel
Vera Maxwell
Elsa Schiaparelli
Ration fashion
Anne Fogarty
The secretary
Airline attire
Angels at work
Power suit
Fancy dress
Slick style
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Loyola Law School memo advises students what not to wear to work-study jobs
  • Peggy Drexler: Memo implies that women's looks and job performance are related
  • She says the memo, while perhaps useful in spirit, was insulting in tone
  • Drexler: Does school doubt women's ability to make common sense choices?

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- Recently, Loyola Law School in Los Angeles issued a memo to its students outlining what not to wear to work-study jobs. For one: low-cut tops. Another: those sexy Louboutins.

"I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I?" asks the author of a memo entitled "Ethics, Professionalism and Course Requirements for Off Campus Externs" but then goes on to mention it anyway. "The legal community is small in L.A. and judges and lawyers who have unprofessional experiences with externs talk freely amongst themselves about the experiences. It can be embarrassing."

It can also be sexist.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

I'm talking about the memo, of course, which offers no such guidelines on appearance for men, if we're to assume that men aren't among those whose cleavage and heels are generating whispers within L.A. courtrooms.

The memo's implication is that there's a relationship between how women look and how well they do their jobs, and that it's okay to judge a woman on her appearance.

It's one thing to acknowledge that a bias exists in society, but quite another to insist on kowtowing to it, and to expectations that are, in most cases, initiated and maintained by men, but not imposed on men.

Women are very often reduced to, or at least measured by, their looks, in every industry, and the message can be infuriatingly contradictory.

Look good, but not too good. Pay attention to vanity, but don't be obvious about it. Be different, but about the same as everyone else.

The Loyola memo noted that the school had received "complaints from supervisors" about students' dress, though it isn't specific about the nature or number of the complaints. While it's possible that some women may go overboard, perhaps the topic could have been addressed with the individual(s) against whom the complaints were filed. After all, overboard is both subjective and confusing. At least one law professor advised women to get ahead by wearing "skirts to appeal to men, makeup to look healthy and competent, and heels to appear more powerful."

What's a constant, though, is that looks matter, and usually that attractiveness pays. So why shouldn't women, who face any number of disadvantages in the workplace, use what they can to get ahead?

According to research by Daniel Hamermesh, author of "Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful," the top one-third of attractive females earns about 10% more annually than those in the bottom sixth of the genetic pool. A 2006 study from the University of Helsinki that looked at the role of beauty in politics found that the better-looking the candidate, the more competent, trustworthy and likeable he or she was perceived to be.

When it comes to dress, a recent Harvard Business School study found that dressing distinctly could make a woman appear confident and influential, two qualities especially relevant for courtroom lawyers.

We can't blame Loyola Law School for society's obsession with appearance, and if judges and juries are indeed forming opinions about female lawyers' abilities based on the length of their skirts, it's important for would-be lawyers to recognize that.

It's not right, but perhaps it's a reality. Law in particular is a profession that relies heavily on the opinions and very real biases of others.

That said, we can hold the school responsible for helping to perpetuate the mixed messages women receive about their appearance, and for issuing a memo that, while perhaps useful in spirit, was insulting and condescending in tone.

Loyola is a highly rated law school; it stands to reason that the students accepted there have at least some common sense and social awareness. Presumably there are some brains behind those bodies. By widely issuing the memo using the language it did, Loyola expressed doubt in the abilities of its female students to make their own decisions regarding something as basic as what to wear.

It's important for a school that's in the business of educating women to recognize and support the idea that women can be both smart and attractive; to help shift the conversation from an either/or.

Meanwhile, women should keep pushing the boundaries and resisting definitions, and wearing what they deem appropriate. There was a time, after all, that pantsuits were considered "shocking" courtroom garb, a convention that changed because women insisted it change.

With persistence, eventually what will matter most is how women perform their jobs, and not which shoes they happened to choose that morning.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT