Want a break from all the messy news about Donald Trump Jr. and Russiagate? Let’s cut to some other topics that are roiling America: Is it acceptable for women to go sleeveless and bare their toes in a professional setting? And what about cleavage in the workplace?
Before I get to cleavage (don’t worry, I will cover it), can we at least agree that a female lawyer baring her arms is no longer scandalous?
Indeed, at some firms, the tailored sleeveless dress seems to be a summer uniform, like the women at Debevoise & Plimpton. Several weeks ago, I attended the firm’s annual women’s cocktail party at Rockefeller Center and it seemed like every other women there had on a jaunty sheath dress. (And may I just say that they looked fetching and toned—just as they did at last year’s party?)
But as stylish as those Debevoise gals are, they wouldn’t pass the decency test in certain parts of Capitol Hill.
According to CBS News, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recently laid down the law on what’s acceptable attire: Men must wear suit jacket and ties. For women, it’s more of a list of no-no’s: No sleeveless tops, sleeveless dresses, open-toe shoes and sneakers.
Ryan reminded House members to “periodically rededicate themselves to the core principles of proper parliamentary practice,” adding that “members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House however brief their appearance on the floor may be.”
Such lofty words. And already, female reporters are getting in trouble for showing up sleeveless. CBS reports that one sleeveless female reporter tried to abide by the dress code by ripping paper from her notebook and stuffing “them into her dress’s shoulder openings to create sleeves.” It was a valiant try, but she got kicked out anyway.
The result is that some women are up in arms (forgive the pun) about the House dress code. The Hill reports that Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona publicly defied the code by announcing on the House floor: “I want to point out I’m standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes.”
You go, McSally! I don’t know whether Speaker Ryan is squeamish about women showing some skin or hopelessly fashion-backward (Hello? Doesn’t he know that even women at the stuffiest Wall Street firms now go sleeveless?), but I think he should flip through some fashion catalogs and get hip with the current corporate style.
Of course, I assumed that women lawyers would take my side about Ryan’s silly rule, but I was wrong. A female litigator at a big New York firm told me this: “If men have to wear suits and ties, women should wear the equivalent.” Though she says she would go sleeveless in the office, she adds, “I would never slip off my jacket in court, nor should a man.” As for shoes, she’s also quite conservative, adding that she once worked for a firm that prohibited open-toed shoes in the summer, and that she abides by that rule now for court appearances.
I understand her caution about not offending the judge or jury, but I still don’t get why going sleeveless or showing a few toes in court or Congress is considered inappropriate. If the dress is tailored and the shoes are understated, how is that diminishing a woman’s credibility? I mean, are we that hung up about women’s arms and toes?
I guess the answer is yes. It seems people get easily rattled by any hint of women’s sexuality.
Which brings us to cleavage. Here’s the paradox: Women who reveal more cleavage are perceived as better bosses and being more powerful, particularly to their female colleagues. The University of Wisconsin study (published in the Journal of Social Psychology), reports the Daily Mail, surprised the researchers, who had expected that women managers who wore less revealing clothing would get more respect. In fact, female “bosses who buttoned up were perceived as less powerful and mature—undermining their influence on staff.”
The takeaway from these recent developments? Women who want to be taken seriously at work should wear a suit or jacket, conservative pumps but flash some cleavage, particularly if they are speaking before a female judge or a predominantly female audience.
Got that, girls?
Contact Vivia Chen at email@example.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.