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Navigating the World of Professional Dress Codes in the Virtual Age

Now, take what I have to say with a grain of salt, but I did get some feedback about your presentation yesterday, and I guess at one point, you stood up during the call, and it looked like you were wearing pyjama pants. - My boss gave me third-party feedback on my first-ever, formal, client video call. In the world of professional dress code, this was a cringe-worthy moment.

Woman working from home in professional attire

I’m here writing today because no, the floor did not have the grace to swallow me up like I begged, nor did the universe put me out of my misery. My face burned, my stomach dropped, and I went back to my desk defeated, no matter how much my boss assured me she believed that I would never do that. “Some things just don’t look good on camera. That happened to me in the early days of Covid. My boss had to pull me aside and tell me the white dress blouse that was a regular staple of my office wardrobe against my pale skin, on camera, just looked like I was wearing nothing. Needless to say, now I always wear black.” She assured me.

I was mortified. Getting this job was a huge milestone for me, a giant step up from answering phones and doing menial admin work. Finally, I was working for a worldwide company, the best in the business, I was making good money, and being challenged every day, and three months in, I embarrassed myself like this. As irony would have it, I had taken care of picking out my outfit for this call. I wore a plain white shirt because the lightweight pants I selected were bright, and called for a neutral top. Sunshine yellow, roasted orange, and a contrasting, cornflower blue swirled in an enchanting, boho pattern. The trousers were high-waisted and wide-legged and could be dressed up with classic, minimalist accessories, and with a satin blouse, or dressed down with a linen crop top, and leather sandals, or made just right, (in my opinion) with the plain shirt that covered my shoulders but would stand out against the dark, a touch of curry, coloured walls of my home office. The thought literally crossed my mind as I sat down for the call, “I could wear these pants to the office. They are comfortable enough to sit in all day, but they are dressy enough that they aren't too casual like athleisure wear.”

Needless to say, I will never be wearing those pants to the office, or on a call again. Heck, I’m honestly about to put them in the donation pile for someone who is braver with colour than me, to enjoy. I thrifted them after all, they deserve more of a life than what my closet can give at this point.

Clothing choices for remote work presentation

I’ve never been one to be considered fashionable. I’ve never been a trendsetter; I’ve never had “it” clothing. I’m usually a season (or three) behind because I hate shopping, I hate paying full price for things, and I wait to find them on the clearance rack or on sale. More recently, guilt over fast fashion has sent me to the thrift store first, and brand new with tags second, if at all. As someone who was bullied growing up for my clothes and lack of fashion sense, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to people judging what I wear. But it’s one thing to have someone insult your look, and another to have your professionalism questioned because of what appears to be a lack of care in your appearance. Insult my fashion (or lack thereof) any day, but my professionalism? Ouch. If the teammate I was supporting thought I was in pyjamas, the client we were presenting to most certainly did as well.

As someone who has changed jobs a lot, and someone who has been criticized by a past employer because the shoes I wore were canvas and therefore too much like a sneaker thus violating the dress code, I read employee handbooks. In fact, I’m someone who reads them more than once, and I’ve been known to refer to them regularly. Before an in-person client meeting, I ask my boss what to wear. Blazer or work swag? Dress or dress pants? I don’t own high heels, so don’t look for those. But never in a million years would I pause and ask what I should wear that not only looks professional but also comes through as clearly professional on camera. It’s just another layer of anxiety that now plagues me as I dress in the morning. Who would have thought that just because something was office-appropriate, didn’t mean it was work-from-home appropriate because of how it comes through with poor lighting or the wrong background?

We are living in this wild, wild world of technology where we are inundated with setting ourselves apart while gathering followers or connections but swamped with positive posts and self-affirmation apps coaching us to not care what other people think. Inevitably the line of “be yourself” but also “fit in” is blurry and gray and can’t be ignored. Applied to my trouser travesty, “business casual” differs from office to office and company to company. In fact, every office I’ve worked in has been a “business casual” attire, but this has ranged from jeans every day are acceptable, to the office I had the misfortune of working in through all of Covid, which expected me in dress pants and work blouses every day, and jeans were only okay on casual Fridays. One office manager of employers past, jokingly asked me if I had an interview just because I wore a skirt to work. I have a friend who can’t even wear jeans on casual Fridays unless it is specifically okayed, so a denim jacket isn’t allowed in her office either regardless of the professional dress or pants it’s paired with, and another who wore athleisure wear on the regular, all falling under the category of “business casual”. The pants that looked like pyjamas on camera would have been more than okay in the office I worked in through 2020; in fact, they would have gotten raging complements when paired with a white linen blazer but were frowned upon in my current office where golf shorts and polos are allowed in the heat of summer.

usinesswoman on a video conference call

There is no universal definition which opens the door for equal parts creative identity and equal parts shaming when we get it wrong, and there is no in-between. How do we as professionals stand out but also fit into this poorly defined (traditional or archaic) definition of “professional”? Would it have mattered if it was me and two other women on the call? Would they have known my pants were a fashion statement, not to be mistaken with sleepwear? What if I had worn black dress pants? Would you know the difference between my black dress pants and black leggings or jeans on camera? Probably not, but in real life, you definitely would be able to tell. So how do we create less of a question in this tech/IRL fluid world?

The shame and embarrassment passed almost as quickly as they came; by the end of the day, my inner circle of boss babes and cheerleaders had my back and had me laughing hard enough to share this story because maybe this is the answer, or at least it is the only one I can come up with. Sharing so that others might think that it’s okay to try and strike out too. Or just shed awareness on what fashion really is. Maybe it’s just normalizing the conversation of “what not to wear”. Personally, as someone who’s been fashionably embarrassed or bullied, I’m here to share my story in hopes that no one feels low and alone like I have in the past. I cannot fix the alleged pyjama problem, I can’t "unwear" the pants, but I can normalize the conversation. And that started when the floor didn’t swallow me up and continues with every person who laughs with me about my faux pas.

Note from BYICON: we value the meaning behind one's fashion choices. We were drawn to collaborate with Laura because of her ability to challenge the ambiguous definition of "professional" attire. Highlighting the need to address the blurred boundaries between personal and professional style, focusing on normalizing discussions about appropriate attire. This commitment aligns with our mission to empower individuals by guiding them toward authentic and meaningful fashion choices.



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