Dressing for work, a gender puzzle

Dressing for work, a gender puzzle


Clothes make the man… and the woman ?

Not all companies have dress code. And yet. Whether in your open space or in the street where office workers pass, it is clear that there is one. However, it is difficult to find a written trace of it. The thing is rather of the order of the implicit. On the men’s side, between white and black, there are shades of gray and blue, sometimes embellished with a touch of fantasy if there is a dinosaur tie or visible polka dot socks. On the feminine side, we opt more willingly for bright colors, even prints, we allow ourselves a skirt or a dress that reveals the legs, sandals that reveal often manicured feet, to which is added makeup. Where does such a gendered distribution of shapes and colors come from?

Rolodexes and the smell of cold tobacco have long since deserted offices, but it could well be that a little perfume still floats fifties in many companies. What if the differences in locker rooms, especially in the office, were inherited from the old division of tasks between men and women? In the second part of Second sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir describes the typical household situation of the 1950s: a future that is difficult to imagine outside the domestic hearth for women, a job that ensures the material subsistence of the household for men. Although their universe is essentially concentrated inside the home, it is paradoxically to women that the functions of representation fall, because “the home is not just an ‘interior’ in which the couple is confined; it is also the expression of one’s standard of living, of one’s fortune, of one’s taste: it must be exhibited in the eyes of others. » When the man can be satisfied with a form of sartorial sobriety, since it goes without saying that it is he who ensures the subsistence of the couple, the woman must embody a social status by adorning herself in the same way as the living room. displays husband’s income.

At the time Beauvoir wrote these lines, women’s fashion, even intended for those who work, gives pride of place to a form of objectification while testifying to a desire for ornament, a state of mind that culminates in the new look. The trouser suit is certainly making its appearance in the women’s wardrobe, but we most often keep heels on the feet and a well-defined waist. The pencil skirt, even shortened, always impedes walking, and if it takes on a more flared and pleated shape, it is to become heavier due to the length of the fabric. “Man’s clothes like his body must indicate his transcendence and not stop the gazeremarks Beauvoir; for him neither elegance nor beauty consists in constituting oneself as an object; so he does not normally regard his appearance as a reflection of his being. » On the feminine side, it is quite the opposite: the garment, because it hinders or puts comfort in the background, is not intended to reveal the woman “as an autonomous individual” but rather of cut her from her transcendence to offer her as prey to male desires”. Associated with the wild and mysterious nature, when the man embodies clear and transparent reason, the woman adorns herself with vegetal and floral motifs, on her clothes like her jewelry: “She becomes a flower and a gem for man”, concludes Beauvoir. Christian Dior (1905-1957), the leading couturier of the year when the second sex, willingly admits it: he dreams of “Flower women, soft shoulders, blooming busts, thin waists like vines and wide skirts like corollas. »

Dressed for success

The 1950s are now a long way off, and it would no longer occur to anyone to require a woman to dress sexy to “seduce” an investor or to put her boss in a good mood… Women now largely occupy the work, they can in theory also embody the active life and the preponderance of the life of the spirit over that of the body. And yet, the differentiation of locker rooms persists. Why ? We can advance two hypotheses, which moreover are not mutually exclusive. The first would be that the function of representing women, including within the company, persists. Even in menial positions, it is on them that the weight of a form of approval weighs, as if the image of the company rested on their shoulders – bare or covered with well-designed shoulder pads.

In a study on employment discrimination and published in 2016 by the Defender of Rights, it turns out that appearance matters more when you are a woman than when you are a man. While criteria that can easily be changed, such as clothing or make-up, emerge as grounds for discrimination that are difficult to accept for men and women alike, 47% of men, compared to 39% for women, believe that it is possible to discriminating against someone because of their lack of physical attractiveness (the proportion is similar when it comes to weight). However, the latter is difficult to separate from the clothing or make-up that one wears. If we add to this the fact that management positions, and therefore recruitment, are mostly occupied by men (58% according to INSEE), we may be tempted to conclude that the career of a a woman is more likely to be influenced by the way she dresses and the general look she gives off than a man. Roughly summarized, this gives: men recruit women likely to value their company professionally and physically.

That’s why there’s a big chance that you’re a woman… if you’ve ever racked your brains in front of your wide-open closet to figure out what to wear before hosting that strategy meeting or results presentation. It is moreover to put an end to what she describes as a form of tyranny of the look that the American artistic director Matilda Kahl took a decision widely commented on social networks after his column published in Harper’s Bazaar in 2015: that of dressing the same way every day. After adopting the black pants/white blouse ensemble, she notices: “The simple choice to wear a uniform to work saved me from wasting countless hours wondering ‘what the hell am I going to wear today?’ Truth be told, those black pants and white blouses have become an important daily reminder that, honestly, I manage. » After all, no one ever asked Steve Jobs Where mark zuckerbergwho confessed to wearing the same thing every day to save time and relieve themselves of a mental load, if they had a problem.

The pleasure of clothing

Of course, women now have the freedom to dress like a man if they want, following the example of the uniform adopted by Matilda Kahl. And yet, it is far from being a generalized movement. To the persistence of the differentiation between men’s and women’s wardrobes, we may therefore have to look for another explanation. What if taking care in what you wear, paying attention to the arrangement of one color and one material with the other, was simply pleasant? Not to mention the comfort of being able to wear a skirt or a dress in the event of a heat wave, when men remain stuck in this performance of “transcendence” which prevents them from giving in to bermudas and shirts, there is also a certain pleasure, no doubt a futile nothing, to get dressed.

Even the one who accuses women’s fashion of alienating women from masculine gazes because she reduces them to available bodies seems to have experienced a certain pleasure in developing sometimes sophisticated outfits, and in taking the opposite view from the uniform expected of a woman who dares to walk on the masculine flowerbeds of philosophy. His students, including Olga Kosakiewicztestified to the aura that Beauvoir exuded, in particular because of his style of dress. “Olga, for her part, was dazzled by the 27-year-old young woman: elegant, refined, unconventional. Mlle de Beauvoir was not a teacher like the others,” reports Kate Kirkpatrick in his biography of the philosopher (Become Beauvoir, Flammarion, 2020). If even the most informed of the dangers of getting ready gives in to temptation, it is because there must be another side to alienation. !

It is perhaps to a friend of Simone de Beauvoir that we should turn to see things more clearly: Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In all of his work, and more particularly in the Phenomenology of perception (1945), the latter is interested in the way in which our body appears to others as well as in our style. This term does not only designate the way of dressing, of writing or of expressing oneself, but encompasses something more general, more difficult to grasp, which relates to a look, a posture, a way of being world and to incarnate. “When I say that my body is seeing, there is in the experience that I have of it, something that founds and announces the view that others take of it or that the mirror gives of it. […] It is by the world first that I am seen or thought of.he remarks in The Visible and the Invisible (1964) Also it is difficult to distinguish what belongs to my body from what belongs to the world of things, because the latter are “an appendix or an extension of himself, they are embedded in his flesh, they are part of his full definition, and the world is made of the very stuff of the body” (The Eye and the Spirit1960).

If we rather choose such color, such material, such cut rather than another, it is therefore also for the sake of presence in the world. More accustomed to being the object of gaze, women perhaps draw from it a form of ease that allows them to play more than men with the way in which their body manifests itself in the world, through clothing in particular. In business, even if the rules are relaxed, the inequalities in the distribution of positions ensure a form of continuity with codes inherited from the 1950s. When men no longer fear having their calves stared at, perhaps they too will they display in flowered skirts at the meeting on Monday ?

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