The Saddest Style Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

Stop putting up with harassment.
Stop putting up with harassment.

Last week, I had the great opportunity to partner with Washington Women in Public Relations (WWPR) for their annual speed networking event. Registrants were invited to sign up one-on-one sessions with me, so I could listen to their style struggles, and provide advice on how they could use their wardrobe as an empowerment tool to gain confidence, get respect, and advance their career.

All the women I met were fantastic. I was so impressed by their aspirations and goals – and thrilled to help them as much as I could in the limited time we had available for “mini consultations”.

One woman in particular stood out to me. She was dressed fabulously – Chanel-like jacket over a black dress and fantastic necklace – my first sentence to her was, “What do you need me for?” Her response not only shocked and saddened me, but made me really angry.

I need to know how to dress so that the men in my office don’t make comments that make me uncomfortable.

She said to me, “I need to know how to dress so that the men in my office don’t make comments that make me uncomfortable.” It should go without saying, but there was NOTHING about her attire that was anything but completely professional and appropriate.

She explained that she had changed jobs in the past year, and went from a department that was female dominated into one that was mostly men. In her previous job, her attire wasn’t something she ever thought twice about – she liked getting dressed each day, and putting together outfits that looked nice made her feel good – and that translated to her demeanor at work and her overall job performance.

Now, she deals with comments and looks everyday from her male coworkers. Women all know those looks – when a male is scanning you up and down and making mental notes about your appearance. She told me if she ever wears a skirt she’ll hear something like, “Well look at you, what are you doing tonight?” In a tone that suggests that a knee-length pencil skirt is out of line for the workplace.

She no longer wants to do her makeup before work because when she does, certain men insinuate that she must have a date lined up, or that she’s trying to entice other men in the office.

I’ve started to purposely dress ‘ugly’ at work because I don’t want men to say anything.

Our conversation continued, and she told me, “I’ve started to purposely dress ugly at work because I don’t want men to say anything.” I asked her how dressing “ugly” made her feel during the workday, and her answer was exactly as I expected. She said it pulled down her whole mood because she now felt less polished. It makes her feel less assertive, and she noted that her body language has changed because she was constantly trying to sit or stand in a way that covered her body. She summed it up by saying she now feels like a “government frump.”

To help, I told her, “This is not a STYLE problem, this is a H.R. problem.” Nobody (man or woman) should have to feel this way – that their appropriate outfit is bringing them unwanted negative attention in their workplace. I asked if she had ever discussed this with her manager, and she told me she hadn’t, partially because her manager was a man.

As a personal stylist, I encourage my clients to dress their best each day, so that they also FEEL their best. It really upsets me that for her, dressing her best at work makes her feel self conscious and uncomfortable, rather than spectacular.

My recommendation to her was to speak to her manager or H.R. about this issue. It certainly isn’t her fault she’s experiencing this kind of harassment at work. I plan to follow up with her, and see if she’s taken any action. I certainly hope so.

Have you ever felt uncomfortable at work just for being a well dressed woman? What did you do about it?

If you ARE being harassed at work, here are some resources you can use.

Colleen Bayus photo


Colleen Bayus is a personal wardrobe stylist in the Washington, D.C. area. Her company, Styling by Bayus, provides personal shopping, wardrobe consulting, and closet editing & organization services. Like on Facebook, Follow on TwitterInstagram, and LinkedInContact her with questions.

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