Heidy Rehman, founder of fashion retailer Rose & Willard, looks at the role of gender and femininity in the workplace, using her own experiences of male-dominated environments.
Every woman’s done it – opened a wardrobe to find a sea of clothes and then thought “I have nothing to wear”.
To the dismay of most suit-wearing men, the reality is that it’s often true. It’s not just about what’s in the diary for that day. Consciously or unconsciously what’s racing through our minds is everything our choice needs to encapsulate – confidence, status, functionality, practicality and what I gradually learned should never be overlooked – femininity.
I was a professional woman in a very male-dominated industry. In order to succeed, I needed to be taken as seriously as the men. Proving I could do the job was one thing, looking the part was entirely another. It was the latter that often posed the tougher test. Standing equal to the men but distinct from the secretaries is no mean feat.
For an age, the answer has been to appear as ‘male’ as possible. The shoulder pads of the 1980s epitomise this. But even now, Googling images for ‘women in business‘ shows women in dull trouser suits, cotton shirts and little or no makeup or jewellery. Even their stances appear masculine.
As with many of my peers I gave in to this. I got ‘suited and booted’. Did it work? Not really. I recall my frustration at meetings where new clients would immediately defer to my male colleagues, regardless of rank.
And then the goalposts moved. Everyday smart-casual superseded the ‘dress down Friday’. While men ditched their ties and donned varying shades of chinos (not an option for us) we few women were left furtively glancing at each other looking for an appropriate response. Some thought it was wearing cardigans – I wasn’t convinced.
The challenge lay in preserving our status as we emerged from our faux chrysalides. Would we become moths or butterflies? The main reaction seems to have been to play it safe; avoid the contours. The ubiquity of ‘clean and simple’ designs from numerous fashion brands is no accident.
The new answer was to become asexual. The problem is that this risks a devolution into anonymity when what women want is to be recognised.
For me, trial and error, along with a rising disposable income, led to a softer and better cut of suit as well as a step away from cotton and into silk. Interestingly this also started to elicit a different and more accepting response from the men in my working world. But more importantly, this new wardrobe not only made me appear more like a woman but also made me feel and thus project something more feminine.
And instead of this serving to weaken me, rather it disarmed the men. And so I grew ever bolder – skirts made a more regular appearance and dresses could substitute readily for a suit.