Wearing a suit made me feel like a lawyer, then the dress codes changed

Maybe one solution would have been to keep wearing a suit if I felt like it, but wearing a suit when all of my coworkers were in their pretty shirts and pants seemed a little deaf, like I was deliberately trying to stand out, when all I wanted was desperately to fit in. So one Friday, I opted for a black knit camisole, a camel-colored long skirt set, paired with brown high-heeled, open-toed shoes. I was glad enough that I found a way out of the daily grind of pants and blazer, only to have a senior colleague who has been referred to as my ‘mentor’ peek at me as we walked along. around lunch and says, “This is not casual work. . It was a simple, improvised comment – she thought I was overdressed – but it landed as a call not to understand what was expected in the workplace.

Maybe I was thinking about it too much. But whenever I, or any of the other lawyers of color, had a meeting where someone automatically seemed to assume that we weren’t lawyers, I had to wonder what was going on. These usually fell into the micro-aggression camp, like “Oh, I’m sorry, I assumed you were from IT,” or the incidents in the elevator where the main partners were talking about the news. entry class without realizing you were one. of them.

Of course, I’ll never know for sure if these were harmless mistakes or something more nefarious. What I do know, however, is what others have studied for decades: that the way you dress has an impact on how you are viewed and what role you are viewed for. dress. Over time, as I became more familiar with the norms and culture of my workplace, I no longer felt the need to dress. Instead of suits, I turned to silk scarves and black riding moccasins with a brass bit. These were pieces that I could build around and which, like the costume, made statements of trust and belonging.

To be honest, I forgot a lot of this until last year. But as in the early 2000s, we are living in a time of upheaval and pivotal point, both in the workplace and in our society at large, as issues of race, equity and belonging continue to emerge. in addition put forward. Over the past 18 months, as I moved from virtual meeting to virtual meeting, I found myself noticing that even though we weren’t going to a physical office, we still “dress” for work. via the shirts and jackets we wore on screen. , how we designed our shelves and the objects we chose to make visible in our background. I also wondered what it means to have an inclusive workplace when so many people continue to work from home. While dress isn’t necessarily a priority in conversations about inclusion in the workplace, it is a crucial part of the equation, as the way we define dress codes and expected standards involves the individual agency and self-determination.

These days you will rarely find me in a costume. That being said, I’m still not one for khakis and pants. For me, the more original and colorful, the better: a Busayo jacket, a Dries Van Noten dress and Stella jogging do the trick. I realize that my initial fixation on costume was actually hanging on to an outward manifestation that signaled my internal desire to belong. Yet, over time, I have learned that belonging is less about fitting in, but more about being comfortable taking space with who you are and claiming your rightful place at the table.

Tamara Belinfanti is a law professor and author of an upcoming dissertation on her Jamaican childhood.

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