men workplace attire

I was at a lecture on fashion in the 21st century last week led by Anna Akbari, who is full-on brilliant. Really, she is, just stalk her relentlessly (but in a whimsical, chipper sort of way, not an Annie Wilkes way).

She discussed a study done wherein a woman was asked to read a piece of paper, first in a turtleneck and slacks, then in a miniskirt, a tank top and high heels. Those observing her were asked to guess her IQ, where she went to college and whether she’d be a good employee.

Unsurprisingly, the woman scored higher in the turtleneck.

Because her brain was better supported by the wool.

No, because people are idiots.

Anna mentioned that a study should have incorporated a middle option, and I nodded my head vigorously, as if to say, “Yeah. That was dumb. That’s a dumb study.”

People assumed she went to Cornell and had an IQ of 175.

Immediately after, in the question and answer period, a woman asked, “So, there’s this girl in my department and I just think she is dressing inappropriately. And I want to tell her about it, but how can I do that without hurting her feelings?”

And everyone nodded.

After checking in my purse to see if there was a pen I could use to stab myself to death, because I do hate to live in a world where such was the takeaway (there wasn’t, there’s nothing in my purse but Lindt chocolate wrappers and slut-colored lipstick), I raised my hand and said, “You should scream across the office that that woman looks like a tramp, and then you should throw a stapler at her.”

No. I didn’t. Alas.

But I did ask Anna Akbari whether she thought there was anything men could wear to the office that would cause people to think less of their intellect the way a tank top and a miniskirt would in the case of a woman. She suggested that a loose fitting suit or a knock-off tie might undermine them.

Would it really make people think their IQ was that much lower? I was curious.

The next morning I rolled into the office, took off my jacket, put on my leopard print desk-coat the way I do every morning, and told a colleague that, by God, we’d hire people who came in wearing a bikini and a gas mask if they did their job well.

My colleague stared for a second – I think there was tacit agreement in her silence – and then we discussed how we’d be inclined to see a man in an ill fitting suit not as a tramp-y idiot coasting by on his looks, but as the kind of eccentric who must be brilliant if lacking in social skills. We’d actually assume he was so smart that he didn’t care what he looked like.

But we work in… I don’t even know what people wear in our office. Once a girl came in with no pants on. And I think, pretty much to everyone’s credit, no one mentioned it until halfway through the day when the girl exclaimed, “I forgot to put pants on!” And we all nodded, because it was true.

I deduced that we didn’t really put the thought into office attire that some people do. Our work dress code seems to be “Try to remember to get dressed all the way in the morning if you can.” 

So. I called a male friend of mine who works for a hedge fund and hires, almost exclusively, people who wear pants.

“Would you hire someone wearing an ill fitting suit?” I asked.

“For what job?” he replied.

And so we discussed the exciting opportunities available to one at a hedge fund. I will not share any of them with you, because I want to have an edge on you should this blogging thing not work out. Suffice to day, there are many different jobs.

“Alright,” I said, “that was a good talk. I will rephrase: would you think that someone wearing an ill fitting suit was less intelligent than someone wearing a properly fitted one?”

“I wouldn’t think he was less intelligent,” he replied “but I would think he was – DO NOT USE MY NAME – n.o.c.d.”

“I love it when you do that trick where you open your mouth and my grandmother’s voice flies out.”

“Come on,” he said, “come on. You know these things. If you were brought up a certain way you’ve been in a blue blazer since you were four. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it makes you a person who knows how a suit fits. There’s definitely a symbolic almost coded nature to knowing things like how suits are supposed to fit, or having the sort of watch your father gave you, or knowing that you buy Nantucket Reds at Murray’s. You see someone who also knows those things and you think you are alike. And if your boss grew up in Greenwich or New Canaan or wherever, he also knows those things and he wants to hire people who are like him. You see the same thing with people in Silicon Valley where they all want to hire guys who wear hoodies, because those guys are like them.”

I pointed out that I would like to hire someone wearing a bikini and a gas mask.

“Right,” he replied, “and maybe that says that you’re a space alien.. from the future.”

I learned a lot about myself, but nothing about the sartorial items that could undermine men in the workplace that way a tank top and a miniskirt can. Though I do think it’s not a bad idea to Single White Female your boss provided you can do it subtly.

patrick bateman

We all want to fit in.

I called, then, on Ted Gushue, who is not only very brave about putting his name on his stories, but also is some kind of style icon. He told me a very sad story which runs thus:

In the middle of the dog days of summer I’d accidentally pulled a major workplace fashion faux pas: I wore flip flops to work. Now normally I wouldn’t think too much of it, I sit at a desk and most wouldn’t notice – but on this day I had a meeting with the higher-ups at work, and as I do in most meetings when sitting down to settle in, I cross one leg over the other.

Upon crossing, the entire meeting was brought to a halt as the president of my company said something along the lines of: “let’s all take a moment here to stop and admire Ted’s naked feet.” Completely brutal. I was mortified, and for a split second was genuinely concerned for my future at that job.

As for cheap suits/poorly fitting suits I’d certainly say that it would hinder your progress through the corporate ladder. If you are oblivious to the fact that you dress like a schlub, the chances are you aren’t doing too terribly hot in the other areas that matter either. The biggest drawback to wearing an ill fitting suit is more about what happens after the 5 o’clock whistle blows, translation: the boss might not tap you on the shoulder for that all important drink that could shape your career.

The main thing I took away from this is that one should not cross one’s legs like Cary Grant at meetings – although that sounds like a very dapper move – but the message still seemed to hold that if you dress in a way your boss does not dress, they might like you a good deal less. Which amounts, I suppose, to the same thing as being thought less intelligent insofar as it will limit your career advancement.

I discussed the notion with one more friend of mine (I have a total of four friends qualified to comment on this, the list is quickly approaching the end). He’s a lawyer, which I think is categorized as “more-than-sometimes-pants” profession. He promptly informed me that a man looking at all stylish will undermine him if he’s in a serious profession. He remarked:

I think for men in real business, like law or banking or engineering, anything that’s not consulting or PR, there is a suspicion of anyone who is too fashion conscious. You don’t want your neurosurgeon in a pink ascot, even if its slammin’.


He continued,

For lawyers, you want to look professional and sufficiently successful, but not attract attention to the fashion per se. And trial lawyers, even the richest ones around, they stick to blue suits with striped ties.  The jury cant think you’re a rich dandy,  and if they’re talking about your clothes, they’re not talking about your arguments

So, we’ve come to the understanding that:

If you work at a hedge fund or meet with higher ups, you should try to look like you were born atop a pile of silver spoons, gold watches and Nantucket Red pants.

If you are a lawyer, you should look like you are a man of the people, and wear blue.

If you are Ted Gushue, you’ve got to stop wearing flip flops to the office.

None of these things will necessarily, as far as I can tell, make people think you’re less intelligent, but they will make people like you less.

But I think the most interesting response came from the third man I talked to, who works in media.

He asked me what would constitute “slutty” dress for a man.

“A… mesh top,” I suggested, in a moment that revealed that I have absorbed my knowledge of “sexy clubwear” entirely from the gay male characters on Sex and the City.

“Would you think someone who wore that was really hot?”

“I would think they were hilarious and also crazy.”

“Right. That’s not an advantage. The reason women get upset about other women wearing tank tops and miniskirts is because the boss could treat them more favorably. There is pretty much no male equivalent to that.  Probably the sexiest thing a man can wear is a suit, and most men are already doing that.”


That actually makes a good deal of sense. Though I hate to think that there is no outfit a man can wear if they want to dry hump their boss into a cream-based soup ordering frenzy.  If men aren’t being thought less of because of their sexy, sexy officewear, perhaps that’s just because men don’t really have that many sexy, sexy options that don’t seem hilarious. I mean, in anyplace but… I’ll think of someplace.

This is what they’ve got.

If men can’t be undermined by dressing slutty, it might simply be because “slutty” dress doesn’t really exist for men. They don’t have outfits designed to maximize their sexual appeal. And perhaps that is because we are, historically, only just entering an era where women or openly gay men would be in hiring positions. Thus, for most of history, there wouldn’t be much incentive for men to dress in a way where it would be advantageous to seem really sexy.

Can you think of anything that would seem sexy if a man were to wear it to the office? I’m kind of standing by the slammin’ ascot idea, but I’m interested in what you think.