I believe that there are very few absolute rules. Besides religion, of course, but let’s leave that aside for now.
If we aren’t discussing religion, and I am not, what then remains as absolute? To my way of thinking, kindness, violence, responsibility.
What we ought to wear? Not absolute. The question of what is “appropriate” dress always needs to be answered with a question. “Appropriate in what context?”
I’m thinking in particular about two recent posts. One, my own about manicures and pedicures. The other, on Corporette, about what to wear to trial. I confessed to jumping to conclusions about the wearing of colored fingernail polish, others said that bare nails were “unprofessional.” In the Corporette comments, lawyer after lawyer debated whether to wear pants or skirts to trial.
The trial example has a rational, analytical answer. While we might struggle with the idea that women are held to a different standard than men, or that something like clothing can trump talent or even justice, the judge rules his or her courtroom. The jurors decide your client’s fate. In that situation, there are rules. They are absolute – in the smaller context of that judge, that jury, that room. No point in fighting. The consequences of breaking the judge’s rules probably isn’t worth it. Fight the larger battle – “Why can’t we wear pants, if they are more comfortable, if men can?” – elsewhere. I for one will thank you. Skirts bug me. Sturdy Gals really prefer pants.
But let’s consider fingernails. Professional networks are more diffuse than courtrooms. No judge sits at the head of the system, clearly establishing rules. In the absence of a final arbiter, all we are left with are biases. Biases which we may or not may share with others.
Shared biases become group norms. Singular biases, well, they make good drunken rants, or text exchanges with your best friend. “Can you believe he’s wearing pleated pants in 2010? What does he think this is, ‘Welcome Back, Kotter?'”
Most likely, everyone in formal corporations will share the bias that long fake nails are inappropriate for women in most positions. Evidently the feelings about short nails in medium shades of pink are mixed. Some women feel that bare nails look unprofessional. My 1970’s-raised self clears her throat and wants to say, “Why do women have to groom and make glossy every centimeter of their body? Who says?” But that battle is too big to fight with two hands only.
What matters is that in these gray areas, without a judge in robes, or swinging doors to the courtroom, we own up to the fact that what we feel are biases, and no more. Social disapproval is valuable when it drives productive normative behavior. Normative behavior can allow a group to work well together, by removing social friction. If we are similar, we trust each other and don’t waste time questioning why others diverge from our ways of doing things. But this goes only so far. Social disapproval becomes pursed lips, nothing more, when it prevents us from valuing the work of those who differ from us. Balancing the drive to norms with the acceptance of differences is the science of culture and management. It applies to style too. I’m guessing that we all know this and that even so you will not object to a reminder.
I confess my High WASP biases here. So that they are out in the open. So that where they have value they endure, and where they only shame they fall. Once my kind were dominant. Rules we invented live on, for better or for worse, and I hope that deconstruction leaves good bones in place.
By the way, you are all the most wonderful set of readers and commenters. Thank you.