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
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT