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High WASP Corporate Dress For All

I have been asked, by a young South Asian woman, whether I’d care to address the question of corporate style for women of color in certain traditional industries. High WASP style, even. Well. OK then. (Note: this post used to have Polyvore collages in them but Polyvore went away. Some day I will add images in replacement.)

I was tempted to toss this one like the proverbial hot potato. Fast. But I’ll grab on tight instead, since I was asked. I’d never even think of addressing this question without an invitation. We’ll go slowly.

Let’s revisit the question of why corporate attire might have a relationship to High WASP style.

Many US industries and corporations grew up in the era when the High WASP man walked the corridors of power unaccompanied by measurable diversity. That dress culture set US corporate iconography. Although the High WASPs rule very little now, the artifacts of their culture send reassuring, almost mythical signals to the higher ups in traditional industries.

Should corporate America lag the many changes in our society? One can argue it should not. Does it happen anyway? Difficult to deny. One could fight the larger war on the sartorial battleground but I prefer to focus my energies on other issues. Things like racism and sexism and childcare and healthcare.

Since I have been asked, here is what I say from my High WASP background and my corporate training.

Everyone has to balance following the rules with showing up as an individual. Here’s what’s different for women of color. When the blond and blue-eyed wear, as I did once, a blue suit, a blue shirt, and red round the neck, we look confused and anxious. Too costumed. Dressing, perhaps, in our fathers’ clothes.

Red suits make women of my genotype look like we’re running for office or supporting our husband as he does so.

For women of color, ethnicity contributes sufficient divergence. You can embrace blue. And extend the welcome to red. (Of course, you can do anything you like. This guidance holds if you want to leverage dress code biases to your advantage.)

So on to general aesthetic principles.

Aesthetic Principles Of High WASP-Influenced Corporate Dress

    • Rely on a familiar silhouette, based on a man’s suit, i.e. jacket can have some variation around the lapel, or waistline, or pockets.
    • Wear straight-legged pants. You don’t see men’s suits with flared trousers. But skirts can be anything from pencil to pleated and fuller. After all, even High WASPs come in female.
    • Make use of the concept of a sports jacket. No sports required, thank goodness.
    • For casual, yes, the Jimmy Carter/Alistair Cooke cardigan.
    • Blue is your friend. Gray is OK. Black is OK. Other colors may work, but you have to scout out the territory first and see what your corporation has adopted.
    • Colors found in the American flag are quite reassuring.
    • For shirts, blue, white, blue, pink, and yellow are OK, gray and green not. Those are scary. Might be worn by someone who would try to strike too hard of a bargain. (I know the cultural baggage around ‘bargain.’ I apologize. The origin is medieval. So, perhaps, the remains of the aversion.)

Remember, corporate aesthetics always act as a signifier for assumed behavior.

What Social Signals Does High WASP-Influenced Corporate Dress Send?

      • Participants know the 3 key levels of rules. 1) understanding 2) mastery 3) advanced breakage of just the right bit.
      • We will be reasonably polite, but direct and impatient because we are masters of the universe.
      • Respect hierarchy, but believe there is a time for underlings to voice respectful disagreement.
      • The shared code of conduct will not involve intricate, scary bargaining. Disciplined negotiation is OK.
      • The code of conduct trumps one’s personal family network.
      • Pushing all these boundaries at the margin indicates there is an individual in there. A smart one.
So, to the young woman who asked me, absolutely wear your grandmother’s jewelry. In fact, if you just wanted the cheat sheet, here goes.
  • In finance, wear a pants suit. No flares.
  • Blue button-front underneath as first default. Stay away from greens.
  • Black, elegant flats.
  • In marketing, pull out the red. We think marketing must be creative because it involves emotions and who in the world understands those pesky things?
  • I included an Hermes scarf above, but these should not be worn until you hit Director level. Not to worry. The world is not suffering from a shortage of scarves.
  • Classic Ferragamos. Nobody cares if your toes show a little bit, as long as they aren’t painted.
  • Pull back your hair in a braid with a tortoiseshell fastener.
  • Lipstick verging on vivid is OK with the blue suit. You’ve shown you know the rules, now assert your right to diverge. If you’ve gone red, take the makeup down, down, down.
  • Wear grandmother’s earrings with pride. Heritage is heritage, and there’s nothing High WASPs like better. With pants, let the earrings dangle. With a flowy skirt, better to balance with an ornate post.
  • Never forget to demonstrate a rock solid skill set. And don’t worry one bit about any stereotypes involving ethnicity and math or science. Rock what you dominate. If you’re the most creative advertising genius since Don Draper, take that to the bank.

In sum, the High WASP, and the traditional corporate higher up, both want to know two things. First, do you know and respect the rules we spent generations trying to establish? Because if you demonstrate that you know the clothing rules, we assume you know and will subscribe to our code of conduct. And much of American business relies on that code. See contracts, for example.

Second, do you have enough confidence and skill to break the rules? Break the rules without breaking the Rule of Thirds? Break the rules and maintain a certain proportion and balance? The West likes its rectangles. Anything too curved makes us nervous.

This is not what I hold in my heart to be good, only what I have found in my experience to be true. And should I ever do business in Asia again, I hope one of you will take me aside and give me a similar briefing.

39 Responses

  1. You are extremely well informed on the subject. I am sure many women will find key information here to put to good use.

  2. As an Asian woman, married to a high WASP (my Connecticut Yankee!) I read your blog with interest- I love it, and I’m always glad for your insight!
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. What a fantastic post and you picked your way through prospective broken bottles so well.
    I’ve actually decided to sell my Hermes scarves – I don’t wear jewellery unless I’m going to a “do” and now even scarves feel too frou frou to me.
    Please intervene if you ever spot me trying to give shoes a miss.

  4. I love how you handled this corporate culture question! The article enlightened me about my long list of “close second place” results in job interviews. It was so disheartening over the years (especially when the chosen applicant would leave the position within a few months).

    Even though I understand the corporate uniform, I can never complete surrender to it, even for a job interview. So I am sure I confused my interviewers with my “almost” presentation and very bubbly, breath-of-fresh-air style. I understand now that what was I was perceiving from them was the threat to the “rules generations spent establishing”. At 52, I am very happy to be me even if I am a peg that doesn’t quite fit.

  5. I remember my first real job at a business magazine. After living as a Bohemian student / freelance writer for free alternative weeklies, I had no idea what to wear.
    I splurged on a well-tailored dark suit (good move). But then I tied an ugly blue polyester scarf around my neck. Why? Why! I wore that scarf every day, because I thought that’s what office people wore.
    Anyway, your Hermes scarf tip is an excellent one. You can only wear it when you’ve worked your way high enough that you can afford Hermes.

  6. Maybe because of our colonial heritage, Hong Kong professionals are conservative — black or navy tailored suits. Women mostly wear skirts, and with no cleavage / too much leg. There was one case of a teacher who had to sue in order to be able to wear trouser-suits.
    Singaporeans make fun of us for being formal.

    Very senior women may get away with Chinese-cut dresses — but, again, very modestly cut.

    I think women of color can clearly pull off more color, eg bright-red lipstick. On a pale blonde, it would probably look too sexy / showy for an office. But on me or my mom, bright-red lipstick looks natural, since we have darker features.

    The same goes for deeply colored clothes. I regularly wear a wine-colored blouse that doesn’t look particularly bright against black hair and Asian skin. (That said, I do work in a creative industry and not in a bank)

    I blogged a while ago about the Financial Times’ top women executives. The Asian ones, particularly from India, had more color and texture than their Western counterparts.

  7. I’ve never worked in the “corporate” environment, even though luxury retail is definitely corporate; however, we always had to address this subject for our clients…& Lisa, you’ve done a brilliant job on this! With explanations, cues, thoughtfulness & fun.
    My long draping necklaces would have gotten caught in the soup, I’m sure. xx’s

  8. Hmm. I think it is a good thing that I probably wouldn’t ever work in a “conservative” industry, because suit jackets generally look terrible on my non-tall bombshell figure.

    But I ask for clarification here: having never worn scarves before, and finding recently that they can actually be fun when included in creative-type outfits…is the ban on *Hermès* scarves or on scarves in general? I may never hit Director level no matter my age, because it’s just not something I’ve particularly craved. Would you then banish my scarves to weekend-only wear, or does the advice not count outside of conservative corporate?

  9. Ah I just had a corporate meeting, I should’ve consulted you. I wore dark pants (flared) but that’s all they’re selling that fit me (I went to 8 stores on Saturday)…corporate dress still sends me into a tizzy, who would’ve thought that one day my closet would be filled with fancy cocktail dresses and designer jeans and tees–nothing in between. Hoping you are having a good week so far Lisa!
    xo Mary Jo

  10. Excellent advice. I suspect any “non-traditional” job candidate (any candidate who will increase diversity) does well to emulate the social signals, especially in dress, of the dominant group. The devil, as usual, is in the details.

  11. Oh, this is good. Thank you for explaining. Some rules I had gleaned from observation, but a whole list! How convenient.

    I will bookmark this for my impending job search, and pass it along to my fellow interested students of color.

  12. This is marvelous…sending to my elder daughter, who in less than a week will begin her first professional-level job. Part-time, to pay the bills and fund her trip to London (part of her MA program), but creative AND technical AND visible to upper management. (Not that I’m bragging or anything.)

    Kudos and thanks!

  13. LPC, I watched the Age of Innocence again the other day and thought of you.

    Soon my corporate gear will be shoved on the backburner while I action Mother Clothes. I will miss them. xxxxx

  14. You are absolutely right about everything in this post. I know. Thank you for helping the women who don’t. You do a great service.

  15. Oh my, this is such a stellar post Miss LPC, I *love* it. You made excellent selections for both wardrobes, both of them look perfect. The phrase “…artifacts of their culture send reassuring, almost mythical signals to the higher ups in traditional industries” is priceless, as they *have* reached mythic levels in some circles!

    “Knowing and respecting the rules” hits the mark perfectly as well. I think I may have to come back and read this again tomorrow, just to absorb it all. :)

    You are so talented!

  16. One plus of your code is that it’s not too hard to put together. It leaves a girl with free brain power to run circles around the competition.

    Important jobs often entail long hours. A pantsuit with flats is an easy outfit for a long day.

  17. LPC – Thank you so much! I requested this post a while ago and am so glad you replied. I don’t live in the US, but I do like to dress in a more classic way. I’m glad that I do seem to be following your rules around colour (almost anything goes with brown skin:) though I have no clue what to do with my Hermes scarf!

    Can’t help the curves though – as long as I don’t look ‘sexy’ (and I don’t!), I guess there’s little I can do about them unless I wear a tent to work.

    But I just don’t get why this was a ‘hot potato’ post for you. I’m not being naive but this really has nothing to do with colour (except the obvious tips on what works or not). So, I’m flummoxed!

  18. Your advice is excellent with regards the way a corporate women should dress herself, but besides all this what you’ve mentioned i.e. colours and the style, the most emphasizing part is that the dress what you wear should be modest and comfortable.

  19. Excellent post, as usual, and always thought provoking. Isn’t that the crux though, in order to break the rules successfully, at least in a structured society, (corporate environment) you must also “know and respect the rules we spent generations trying to establish”.

  20. Fabulous post! There’s so much great information that I’m going to bookmark it for future reference. Thanks so much for sharing!

  21. Stephanie – Thank you so much.

    Louise – These are some fab adjectives. Much appreciated.

    Mag – Thank you.

    Muffy – Let’s hear it for cheat sheets:).

    Linda – Thank you so much for reading. And I hope @marginfades sees your thank you to her. I will point it out.

    Tabitha – Thank you. I will let you out without shoes, but pants, no.

  22. Kitty – It is absolutely everyone’s own choice to surrender or no, to corporate dress. It’s best done, as you point out, in full knowledge. Although the best part of 50 is finally feeling comfortable as whatever sort of peg we are.

    Joyce – I linked to your post on the top women’s executives. Somewhere. I just can’t remember where…Anyway, I agree completely on the deep colors. Everything you say about Hong Kong fashion fascinates me. I wonder if I can get myself over there to see. I spent most of my time on the mainland in the Pudong side of Shanghai, so fashion was almost non-existent.

    Michelle – Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

    English Vers – Thank you. And I’d even say that in the arts, if you don’t show some quirk, people may wonder if you’re truly creative:). Those with style add to their, um, brand. Right?

    Marsha – Thank you so much. And I can imagine you counseling clients on this, absolutely. Long draping necklaces are tough, in a world where we type most of the day…

  23. Someone – Oh, scarves in general are fine! Good, even. It’s just that the Hermes scarves are so visibly expensive. In corporations, people like to feel that you are ‘hungry’ and therefore not displaying wealth before you’ve earned it. And if you can’t wear a suit jacket, cardigans are definitely the next best bet. If you ever had to go conservative.

    mary jo – Aw:). It’s really hard to find pants that don’t flare these days, for suits. Especially in stores that sell to younger women. I am sure you looked fantastic anyway. And if you’re not actually in the corporation, the rules are much more flexible.

    DocP – “I suspect any “non-traditional” job candidate (any candidate who will increase diversity) does well to emulate the social signals, especially in dress, of the dominant group.” Brilliant. As usual.

    V – I will be extraordinarily happy if I can be useful at all in this. Good luck in the search.

    Marieanne – Brag away! What else are mothers to do?:). Hope she finds the post useful.

  24. K-Line – Thank you. Your thoughts mean a lot.

    FF – Guess what? I have convinced my father to write us another a guest post on exactly the Age of Innocence:). And I just can’t wait to meet your beautiful baby.

    Andrea- You warm my heart. I thank you.

    TPP – Yes, you are really in touch with the myth machine, in a far deeper way than I. Which makes me think. Perhaps some day we should post somehow, jointly, on the myth vs. reality:).

    RoseAG – Ha! I love your attitude. I bet you know them dead at work.

    Terri – Oh, to be clear, this is only in traditional corporations:).

  25. AN – It has been my pleasure. Let me address what you say here too:). First, the Hermes scarf is only an issue if you are still in the early phases of your career. You run the risk of looking like you don’t need the work any more. Second, my apologies. By curves I meant fabric patterns etc.:). I wasn’t even thinking about body curves. That’s a whole different subject. While curves may apply this way too, I’d have to think about it. Finally, if you don’t live in the US, the hot potato part may not be so immediately apparent. In the US, it’s touchy for someone like me, brought up in privilege, white as all get out, to prescribe anything to people of color. Too much history of oppression, plain and simple. So I needed to make sure that everyone knew I’d been invited to address the question.

    Kesha – Modest, yes. Comfortable, well, ideally.

    Mardel – Thank you. And yes, if dressing for corporate life is an art, it makes sense that what applies to poetry applies here too:).

    Jessica – My complete pleasure.

    QBS – Thank you very much.

  26. What a great post, the colour combinations are so spot on. One thing I have noticed when I read Corporette, is that Americans and Canadians do seem a bit different in terms of the dress rules. I am not in finance, which may be a bit more strict. I am a Canadian lawyer, and from what I read it appears that the dress code in the US is much more strict with less room perhaps for self expression. I really enjoy these posts because you have such terrific insight regarding the messages which clothing and accessories send out to others. It’s really fascinating and makes me rethink some of my own choices!

  27. Excellent post! My company dress code is business casual and most of my co-workers don’t understand that term. I am usually over dressed in comparison.

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