By Ben Barry
Every morning, men make a seemingly mundane, yet crucial, decision: what to wear to work. Most pull out a suit from their closet. Some might add their own twist: a polka-dot pocket square, or colorful socks.
This probably isn’t surprising. In Britain and North America the suit is the most culturally accepted form of office wear for men. But what do we make of the men who reject the solid-color suit and opt for, say, an embellished jacket and sequined leggings? This question is not as trivial as it may seem. The way we answer it has important implications for how men feel at work, and influences organizational cultures in ways that most managers might not consider.
Over the past three years, I’ve conducted a research project on men, masculinity and fashion. Fifty men between the ages of 22 and 78, living in and around Toronto, gave me a tour of their wardrobes. They varied across races, ethnicities, body types, sexual orientations, occupations and clothing styles. We talked about how they made clothing choices, as well as the memories, experiences and feelings they attached to their garments. While some grabbed a navy suit and white button-down shirt for work, many did not, choosing clothing that defied masculine appearance norms when dressing for their jobs.
These choices are what performance studies scholar Madison Moore calls “fabulousness”, a way of dressing and styling the body that not only disrupts gender codes but also introduces new forms of identity. It’s more common in the arts and fashion industries, but men also choose to dress fabulously in professional organizations. However, doing so creates a particular conflict. Dress codes, written or unwritten, are common and mostly conform to dominant gender norms. Because of this, fabulous men police their clothing to avoid “masculinity dilemmas” at work.
The experiences of the men I interviewed raise important questions for both employees and managers, particularly as companies pay more attention to employee authenticity, inclusion and belonging.
Why is clothing so conventional within organizations?
Most organizations valorize traits associated with masculine norms. The emergence of the capitalist economy played a large role in setting this gendered organizational norm: As work was separated from the domestic sphere, home became feminized and work became masculinized. In this way, the business suit was seen to embody masculine traits, and became synonymous with corporate success.
My interviewees seemed well aware of this stigma. While they took pleasure in color and sequins, they were cautious about wearing these looks to work because they faced both subtle and not-so-subtle sanctions. For example, Mark and Richard opted out of wearing fabulous looks to avoid microaggressions from their colleagues. Some of these would come in nonverbal forms: puzzled stares or eye rolls directed at colorful jackets. Others would be verbal. Wearing fluorescent pink or leopard-print tights left Nigel and Olu open to critique for looking “unprofessional”, a euphemism for not fitting into white, straight, middle-class masculine norms. The implication underlying these comments is that the men’s clothing choices made them ineffective at doing their jobs.
Why are we threatened by men who don’t conform to masculine norms?
Why did more feminine looks make my participants’ coworkers and managers uncomfortable and upset? One participant, a 35-year-old marketing manager named Dave, offered a clue. Dave wears traditional masculine outfits at work. He wasn’t only uncomfortable with the idea of wearing clothes that he described as “prissy” or “dainty”; he was uncomfortable seeing them on other men.
Dave was not only worried about being seen as feminine; he was also scared about being seen as not masculine. While masculinity is often held up as the epitome of strength and power, it is actually a fragile identity because it is always at risk of being broken. Gender has long been presented as a binary, but in reality, we all embody various degrees of masculinity and femininity. By wearing feminine clothing rather than suits, fabulous men force Dave to confront the supposed naturalness of his masculinity.
In many ways, fabulous clothes suggest to some men that the power they posses is man-made, and, therefore, can be lost. Most of what these men have been taught is undone when they see other men openly embrace femininity. And embracing femininity through clothing is one of the most visible manifestations of testing the boundaries of masculinity.
Why should managers care?
The men I interviewed felt that conforming to masculine clothing norms at work would bring organizational benefits, such as getting a promotion. But at what cost?
Wearing somber, buttoned-up outfits turned my participants into different men. Yet, research suggests that workplaces where creativity and innovation are at a premium encourage people’s authentic differences. These studies have focused on the mind-sets of employees, but clothing and appearance are ways in which people make their unique perspectives visible. By censoring their fabulousness, my participants felt forced to mute core aspects of themselves.
What are organizations losing by perpetuating white, straight, middle-class masculine norms of appearance? And how could they benefit if they let these norms go?
Nigel, a sixth-grade teacher, explained, “My students are building identity, and the process is figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t work.” He sees his role as creating a safe space for students to engage in that process. When some of the boys in his class wore nail polish, he believed that his own appearance choices were benefiting that work. If Robert felt he had the ability to dress fabulously at the hospital where he is a physician, it might make him a more creative thinker and a more empathetic person when meeting with patients.
I recognize that the idea of men wearing sequins may make some uneasy, but we need to question the logic driving the opposition to men who wear more traditionally feminine clothing at work. Why do these men look unprofessional to some people? Why do we think the office is not a place to express ourselves through our appearance?
It’s likely that our answers will lead us back to the same place: maintaining masculine power. But holding onto the “superiority” of masculinity at work just isn’t worth it: It alienates many employees, requires them to act inauthentically, and creates environments that stifle productivity and innovation. Fostering workplaces that celebrate diversity in clothing might appear to primarily benefit fabulous men, but, in fact, it helps everyone feel comfortable to be themselves at work.
The author Ben Barry is an associate professor in the School of Fashion and director of The Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change at Ryerson University in Toronto.