Absolute Rules For What You Wear, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:07am


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.

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33 Comments

  • 02/06/10
    11:20 am

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    Tish Jett said...

    What's better than a little controversy when you know you're right?

    It can lead to conversation which can be amusing at times.

    (And btw and omg, I spelled Lilliy Pulitzer's name with one "L" I think. I had a dog named Lily once and spelled it with one and can't quite lick the habit.) En plus my mother and her friends lived in all that pink and green.

  • 02/06/10
    11:32 am

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    Belle de Ville said...

    I hope that deconstruction leaves good bones too…but in my opinion the evidence that I observe isn't leading in that direction.

  • 02/06/10
    1:35 pm

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    Jan said...

    I'd be interested in hearing about why religion is absolute, myself.

  • 02/06/10
    1:37 pm

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    Anonymous said...

    I can't quite get on board with trousers in the workplace, ever. I tend to reserve them for weekend wear, not least because of my grandmother's piercing looks of disapproval. To this day if I walk into her house in my tweed, wide legged, de la Renta finest I still get: "Love, are you going somewhere after this?" Followed by look that says "to the park? To visit your bookie? To check on that early grave you seem intent on shoving me into?" I'm sure if I wore a pair of jeans she'd keel over on the spot. A few of centuries of New England winters and the Puritan spirit stills go strong, I guess. In any event, thank you for giving me something to think about and a satisfying Saturday afternoon read.

  • 02/06/10
    2:55 pm

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    Mouse said...

    You may use my hands for your battle. Now you have four.

    I think bare nails–presumably manicured, neatly shaped, and healthy-looking–are plenty professional.

  • 02/06/10
    4:11 pm

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    Class factotum said...

    You said "arbiter." I think I love you. I'll bet you know how to use "comprise" properly. In fact, I'm sure of it.

  • 02/06/10
    4:29 pm

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    Town and Country Mom said...

    If polished v. unpolished stirs up such controversy, I eagerly await your judgments on visible tattoos and piercings.

  • 02/06/10
    4:42 pm

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    hostess of the humble bungalow said...

    My busy librarian nails are buffed regularly, they shine, and as a "hands on" gal I cannot use polish at work, the books, the computer, the shelving of books takes it's toll! Nothing truly looks worse or cheaper than chipped polish imagine the sound of nails on a chalk board…get the picture?
    I do use polish for special occasions, weddings, posh parties etc…my toes are done from April to September for sandal season…Peru B Ruby and I'm Not Just a Waitress by OPI are my go to colors.
    LPC you have quite the following, and I embrace the comment section, it adds depth and dimension with the diverse discourse.

  • 02/06/10
    5:28 pm

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    lauren said...

    T&C Mom, i'll bring popcorn to LPC's take on visible tattoos and piercings.

    you do have a lovely group of commenters, LPC. (can we put our heads together on a collective noun? "murmur of commenters" isn't quite right. ESB's would be a banter of commenters, mine a drift. for now, here, i say a salon, bearing in mind a salon's several venerable meanings.)

  • 02/06/10
    8:43 pm

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    The Gold Digger said...

    A harmony of commenters?

  • 02/06/10
    9:43 pm

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    Julia (Color Me Green) said...

    an interesting tidbit from my office:
    in the elevator, person A said to person B on how much they dislike person C: "I hate how she wears open-toe shoes all summer with no nailpolish"
    person A to person D (me) as we all realize my unpolished sandaled toes in the elevator: "oh but julia, it's different for you"
    because A knows I don't wear nailpolish because I'm "green" and somehow the standards are different for someone like me who doesn't wear nailpolish or other makeup because i don't want chemicals on my body. it's ok for me to have "unprofessional" unpolished toes but not for this other person. but probably they just talks about me behind my back like they do about person C.
    and that's why the rules of society are all f'd up and i don't bother ahering to what people think would be most "professional"

  • 02/07/10
    7:29 am

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    Joe said...

    perfect, Gold Digger.

  • 02/07/10
    7:30 am

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    lauren said...

    whoop, commented as my husband (heh). *i* think it's perfect, Gold Digger.

  • 02/07/10
    8:27 am

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    LPC said...

    Harmony is perfect, since it means not everyone singing the same note. Susurration is another word I like.

  • 02/07/10
    8:28 am

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    ELS said...

    I have just forwarded your blog to a cousin who is taking a first few (polished?) steps in the corporate world. Where were you in 1987???

  • 02/07/10
    9:08 am

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    hostess of the humble bungalow said...

    Conjures up a few visuals… a murder of crows….cacaphonic commentaters….cyber babblers…a gaggle of googlers…ok I must stop…I've had too much coffee and it's gone to my head, apologies!

  • 02/07/10
    9:17 am

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    Reggie Darling said...

    Hello, as a senior managing director in the NYC Investment Bank where I work, I have the following observations:
    (1) Professional women at my firm and other IBs rarely wear visible nail-polish, and if they do it is in subtle tones of pink or brown that compliment their skin color. Lurid colors and (god forbid) two-tone "french" polishes are strictly for those in support positions. If you want to be taken seriously as a professional, then leave expressive nail embellishments to others.
    (2) Trousers on women are fine, and appropriate office attire these days, but it's really nice to see a woman wearing a skirt every now and then as it breaks up the tedium and is a pleasant reminder that there are, in fact, attractive differences in the sexes.
    (3) Regardless of whether one wears trousers, skirts, mu-mus or tin cans to work, your fellow office-mates really to appreciate it when you make an effort and dress up a bit. Helps make the day go by a little bit more pleasantly.

  • 02/07/10
    9:43 am

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    LPC said...

    Hostess, words are always welcome, as are you, and Reggie Darling. Thanks for weighing in. ELS, in 1987 I was trying to hide my very evident pregnancy under a long white linen top, a black pleated maternity skirt, and a big-shouldered, Schiaparelli pink linen jacket. Jan, BTW, I am not religious. I concede religion's absolute nature for those who are.

  • 02/07/10
    10:21 am

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    Vix said...

    The skirt suit vs pantsuit debates on Corporette and elsewhere fascinate and sadden me.

    Whenever I hear the pro-skirt suits brigade say that skirts are more "respectful" or professional, I think of the suffragettes and their bloomers. And whenever I hear the pro-pantsuits brigade say that pants are less distracting and more powerful than skirts, I think of Joan of Arc and her masquerade.

    [And of course whenever I hear of a judge requiring or, even worse, rumored to prefer skirt suits, I think s/he completely unfit for a position meant to showcase Solomon-like skills. Since I'm far from impartial, I also label the female judges who fall into that camp hypocrites.]

    To me it's obvious that women competing in the same arena as men–vs just being in the workplace in lower-status roles–will always be a distraction. They "don't" belong, they've never belonged, and if they get to the top it tends to be fairly temporary. The closer they get to the brass ring, the more micro the spoken and unspoken rules around gender-specific isses.

    [The women who build their own corporate empires, however, seem to have little problem settling in for the long haul, whether they are painted or unpainted, pantyhose'd or bare-legged, etc.]

  • 02/07/10
    12:15 pm

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    The Daily Connoisseur said...

    Fascinating topic. I have to admit, when I meet a woman with long, fake fingernails (either French tipped or colored, with designs) I judge her. I immediately do not take her seriously. (Can't believe I'm admitting this!) I prefer short, filed, natural nails. I don't care what shade they are painted in (except blue- I hate that). I think nails without polish are perfectly acceptable as long as they are groomed. Great discussion!

  • 02/07/10
    12:26 pm

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    Duchesse said...

    A Swedish friend once told me, "I pay attention to how I dress so I don't need to use so many words."

    When I notice a woman with many visible supports (long fake nails, elaborate makeup), I wonder why she has chosen these effects, what they do for her. I make certain assumptions- though I try to see what a person does before letting my biases interfere.

  • 02/07/10
    2:31 pm

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    Land of shimp said...

    I think "appropriate" differs tremendously by groupings.

    Just as a for instance, there are also regional trends at play. What is considered appropriate on the East Coast doesn't necessarily translate to other parts of the country. I live in Colorado where business casual, and blue jean Friday is the norm. Many women have natural nails because in almost all that we do, it's considered tony and upscale to suggest that you are frequently outdoors, living an athletic lifestyle.

    The very things that are deemed appropriate where you are, would have someone stand out as fussy, overdone, and garish where I am. A pretense, or an affectation.

    Almost all "appropriate" behaviors, and forms of dress are about social groupings, really. Figuring out a pecking order, and a place within the hierarchy, but firm absolutes are difficult to come by, because once you leave a particular grouping (i.e. regional, etc) what was appropriate there, may be the exact thing considered inappropriate elsewhere.

    To be appropriate in a court of law, or a corporate setting, or any other place, the norm has to be surveyed first.

    Just as another for instance, people don't dress for dinner here. That's considered appropriate. On a trip to Vancouver BC, which I had assumed would be equally casual, I found my entire family being given startled glances because we were considered to be very casually dressed at dinner. In truth, we'd dressed more formally than we would have in Denver.

    Circumstance and location are determining factors in "appropriate" levels of almost anything, I could even argue that about religion, based on regional preferences.

  • 02/07/10
    4:00 pm

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    myletterstoemily said...

    thank you for the great advice. i have never worked professionally,
    but have to admit that i would think it unprofessional of my attorney,
    banker, or accountant to wear bright colored polish on long nails.

    how hypocritical is that?

  • 02/07/10
    8:35 pm

    Reply

    Giovanna said...

    not only do i rock bare nails all year round, but i also bite them down to the bone, and sometimes they bleed a little. is it ridiculous that i still consider myself professional-looking when i get dressed up for work? :)

  • 02/07/10
    8:56 pm

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    LPC said...

    I think that what land of shimp says takes what I wrote here to the next level of understanding. Appropriate is about context. And about your goals. Vix, I agree that grooming for women is a loaded topic, way more loaded than the same discussion for men. Thank you everyone for your contribution.

  • 02/07/10
    9:53 pm

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    Anonymous said...

    Julia, if "Person A" ever did research on the chemicals in nail polish, she'd never again insist anyone had to wear it. All cosmetics have chemicals of course, but polishes are in a class by themself. They cross the line into the "toxic" territory.

    I find it sad that I would be judged because Person A is ignorant of the facts.

  • 02/08/10
    5:52 am

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    Anonymous said...

    My nails are soft, and tend to split if I use polish. Since I cook, sew, garden and play piano, AND I can't tolerate the look of chipped polish, I keep them short and groomed. ('Manicured' didn't always signify 'polished', btw.) Toenails likewise.

    To my mind, the elaborate effects are perfect for people without much to do.

  • 02/08/10
    1:05 pm

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    Sher said...

    I love a good debate. And LPC I'm enjoying reading both sides of the story. Thanks for encouraging polite discussion.

    For the record. My nails are plain but manicured. During the summer I like to wear beige or a light color polish. My toes I prefer to wear some sort of color year round. Why? not from any rules but from that other James Cameron movie Titanic. Rose was in her 80s and still painted her toes. I want to be like that. ;)

    Now for clothes. I remember the 1990s where Ally McBeal wore those mini skirt suits to the court room. Again I was influenced by the media/shows. I wore them, but….I know I was not taken seriously in the Corporate world because of it. Yes I was a Cost Accountant, but never could quite get that coveted Controller spot.

    PS Don't worry. I've matured and won't be going Blue after his latest movie. Though Blue is my favorite color ;)

  • 02/08/10
    1:17 pm

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    Anna said...

    I will be interviewing for business school shortly and have amusedly followed discussions of American b-school students and aspirants about US corporate culture. The skirt/pants divide seems bottomless indeed (pun intended!). I really was not aware of that it was any issue at all – why not wear both if you feel comfortable in both?

    My mother, an executive/partner in an advertising agency, refuses to wear her pretty skirts to work. She says they don't make her feel equal and powerful – they somehow underline her femininity when all she wants her clients to notice are her ideas and words.

  • 02/08/10
    2:41 pm

    Reply

    Peonies and Polaroids said...

    "I pay attention to how I dress so I don't need to use so many words."

    This sentence has the kind of relaxing effect on me that is usually only achieved with prescription painkillers.

  • 02/08/10
    3:40 pm

    Reply

    Princess Freckles said...

    I try to get weekly manicures, and if I can't make it in to have them done, I clean up my nails and buff them myself. i think this goes along with good grooming, and good grooming is always professional. I hear you loud and clear that women don't and shouldn't feel made to make glossy every part of their bodies, though I like to be glossy! Ha! I'd love to see more men (heck, every man) pay more attention to grooming his nails and hands! No polish required, just trim them and maintain the cuticles already. Its 2010!

  • 02/08/10
    4:12 pm

    Reply

    thepreppyprincess said...

    This is the most fascinating read I've had in days, in large part because of the comments, in large part because of the civility used, such a nice change from a few other places we have visited lately.

    Another blogger recently wrote on the topic of pants at Mass on Sunday, with similar comments to these. We really are such products of our upbringing it is amazing, even now.

    Thank you for making life better Miss LPC,
    tp

  • 02/08/10
    9:49 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Thank you to all the wonderful readers and commenters for being willing to engage in civil discussion and disagreement. Lovely. Sher, perhaps dyeing ourselves blue WILL be the next thrust to push the style envelope.

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