A few weeks ago the political blog Axios reported that President Trump likes his female staff to “dress like women.” In response, women posted selfies dressed in combat fatigues, medical scrubs, flight jackets and boxing helmets under the title #DressLikeAWoman—pictorial challenges to restrictive gender norms. To some this controversy may seem trivial or even misguided. But outdated and inflexible ideas about how women should dress can contribute to more serious inequalities.
There’s nothing wrong with different fashions for men and women but the underlying implication here is that women should conform to a narrow, conservative, feminine ideal to please their employer. After all, there are plenty of unquestionably feminine garments that we can be pretty sure Trump would not approve of. For instance, recently, a lot of women in Washington, D.C. have been wearing some fetching bright pink “pussy” hats—yet for some reason this undeniably feminine style hasn’t caught on among White House staff. Would Trump welcome a woman wearing the distinctively feminine hijab? What about a Hillary Clinton style pantsuit? No way. To “dress like a woman” means something more specific: as a Trump campaign staffer noted, “women who worked in the campaign’s field offices,” even those who were pounding the pavement doing door-to-door canvassing, “felt pressure to wear dresses to impress Trump.”
The President also expects male staff to be “sharply dressed” and wear neckties (preferably “Trump” branded ties according to sources who have worked for him, but Brooks Brothers will do). Doesn’t this make him an equal opportunity stickler for style? Not really. Unlike menswear, much of traditionally feminine attire was not designed with the workplace in mind. High heels and pencil skirts impede easy movement—not so practical when running after insulted foreign dignitaries, racing to get in front of rumors of a trade war, or walking back an ill-advised late night Tweet.
And it can be harder to command authority when wearing many types of traditionally feminine attire. In the late 18th century, men adopted the streamlined, utilitarian wardrobe that would evolve into the modern business suit. Women’s clothing moved in the opposite direction: diaphanous neo-classical frocks evoked a feminine ideal of pastoral innocence, whimsy, domesticity and guileless sexuality. Styles changed, but the significance of the gender divide has been a constant: the suit has become ever more streamlined and functional while women’s fashions have adopted countless fanciful and impractical styles: layers of petticoats, elaborate bustles, tight-laced corsets and the erotic drama of ever changing necklines and hemlines. Whereas the suit and tie are easily-adopted emblems of professional gravitas, dressing “like a woman” in the traditional sense can convey docility or coquettish frivolity.
Couldn’t female White House staffers just look to Trump’s eldest daughter as a good example of how to dress like a woman? After all, Ivanka is a formidable businesswoman, and even her detractors have to admit she is poised and stylish. But Ivanka’s look won’t work for all women. Not everyone has her inherited stature and bone structure—and more to the point, very few enjoy her inherited privilege. The harassment and belittling endured by many working women—which often involves critical or salacious remarks about their appearance—is not going to be directed to the boss’s daughter. In more ways than one, Ivanka’s glamorous professional style is a luxury most women cannot afford.
Working women must dress like women while also dressing for success, balancing traditional ideals of femininity with the demands of the modern workplace. A narrow idea of how women should dress doesn’t allow each woman to strike the balance that works for her. In fact, federal employment laws protect women from the double bind that ensues when expectations of stereotypical femininity clash with the need to convey authority and competence. For instance, in the 1980s PriceWaterhouse told employee Ann Hopkins that in order to advance in her career she needed to wear jewelry, make-up and clothing with feminine touches—in others, she needed to “dress like a woman.” Hopkins sued, eventually convincing the United States Supreme Court that this requirement was evidence of unlawful sex discrimination.
The President should set a better example for other employers and leave the question of how to dress like a woman—with all of the trade-offs and nuances it entails—to the people who actually have to do it.
Richard Thompson Ford teaches at Stanford Law School and is author of several books. He is currently at work on a study of dress codes. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/our_ford.