A friend and I meet often at a Starbucks in an office park and enjoy the parade of office and tech workers coming in for their morning coffee break. We first revel in the fact that they’re working and we’re not and then turn to examining their work clothes. We check out the six-inch heels on the women and are thankful we’re not wearing them. Beyond that, there is little uniformity: slacks, mini-skirts, long skirts, dresses, tunics, jeans. Styles include high collars and no cleavage, low-cut and lots of cleavage, loose, and tight. Anything goes. Then we move to the uniforms of the men: shorts and t-shirts or jeans and t-shirts. Oh yeah, and athletic shoes. Backpacks are the most common accessory.
Thinking about today’s work clothes took me down memory lane. When I was a university student, women could only wear skirts or dresses. My second job after graduating was in a community college, where again we were not allowed to wear pants. A few of us “rebels” complained to our boss and said we would like to propose a new dress code, one that would allow for certain tasteful trousers. He told us to form a committee and develop a proposal.
About the same time, Yves Saint Laurent was designing the first pantsuit and the idea caught on fast in the ready-to-wear world. Our committee went through catalogs and magazines and cut out samples we thought the boss would accept, pasted them on poster board and presented them to him. After he approved, we shared our pictures with the rest of the staff.
I’m confident that what Laurent designed was not the pantsuit our committee came up with. Most of the ones on the market were one color, made from cheap material, and without any redeeming flourishes. I remember proudly wearing my first outfit that passed muster with our boss: a maroon polyester pantsuit. The pants were baggy by the end of the workday, but wearing pants represented victory.
Now, the thought of going through what we did to be able to wear pants in the office makes me cringe. But I researched the issue and found that our experiences were not unique. We argued for change and were successful in the 70’s, but “until 1993 women were not permitted to wear pantsuits (or pants of any kind) on the United States Senate floor.” I wonder if they had to form a committee and cut out clothing ads, then plead to their colleagues for permission. Or was the Supreme Court the final arbiter?