Redefining Professionalism and the Way You Dress For Work

When I started this blog, I thought a lot about my personal style and how it would fit with my profession as a lawyer. 

Working for myself has been a liberating experience because I've done away with the conventional rules of style and I decided to focus on how I see myself as a young, sassy, entrepreneur in my late-20s!  In redefining what it meant to be a young professional, I had to deconstruct normative values that shroud not only the legal profession but various other professions.  I had to come to the understanding that conservative, professional attire and intelligenence are not mutually exclusive concepts.  Sounds obvious... however, there's a notion in many professions that conservative attire underscores intelligence.  

Here's how I learned how to debunk these myths and redefine how I view style in my own profession.  

Most of my late teens/early 20s were spent in the mall, occasionally shopping, but primarily working in the fashion and retail industry.  I used my full-time job(s), with different retailers, to help finance all of my degrees, including my law degree.  In the 10 years that I worked in the retail industry, I never stopped to think about how I chose to present myself in one sector would be challenged in another.   While I was working retail, I played with patterns freely and flirted with hemlines.  I wore garish & bold, yet stylish outfits to set myself apart from my colleagues.  Importantly, I had fun with fashion and used it as a means to express myself. 

I noticed a fundamental shift in how I thought about style when I started law school and participated in the legal recruitment cycle.  On the eve of the Bay St. recruitment season, I purchased my first power suit.  It was a classic, Italian wool suit-- black of course!  I paired this suit with conservative blouses and scaled back the 6" stilettos to 3" kitten heels.  From that moment and onwards, the conscious decisions I made to dress conservatively were always at the top of my mind.  In law school, we were given formal sessions on how to act, dress and behave during interviews or cocktail receptions.  At these sessions, "the importance of wearing professional attire" was a constant theme.  We were bombarded with images of men and women in shapeless suits all wearing a lot of black, grey and navy!  These images represented the pillar of "appropriate attire" for the profession.  They were often juxtaposed with the most outrageous and extreme examples of what not to wear to work.  However, the message presented had an obvious undertone-- conservative dress equates to greater intelligence.  But, this is not the case.  I agree that lawyers in particular are required to dress conservatively in specific instances.  For instance, there are rules in many jurisdictions that dictate how lawyers are to appear before the Court.  Attire in those particular settings are not in dispute.  It is the discussion of attire and appearance out of the courtroom that many lawyers struggle with.

Having worked in an environment where I was told to "dress for success," (whatever that means) and "professional attire helps your colleagues see your mind," I felt stifled.  Navigating the professional attire waters are particularly difficult as a law student.  I must admit that when I summered and articled, I played it safe.  I stuck with traditional suits, neutral colours, dark stockings and longer hemlines. I didn't do anything outrageous with my hair and I had no visible piercings.  The clothes I wore were functional for the environment, but I didn't feel like myself.  I would try to add jewelry or funky shoes to each outfit to add a little flair, but somehow I wasn't satisfied with how I was presenting myself. On several occasions, the inability to express myself through fashion affected the way I worked and my overall morale. 

In my opinion, my daily interactions will colleagues and clients reflect my personal and tasteful sense of style.  Let's be perfectly clear, many young professionals are aware of what it means to be appropriate, so you shouldn't expect a junior associate to show up dressed like Beyonce.  The lines are drawn based on the fact that entertainers, in their own profession, dress and look a certain way for their performances.  In my discussions with many young professionals, most feel that they have to sacrifice their sense of style for the sake of the profession.  Several young professionals have expressed that they feel stifled when trying to fit their sense of style into a neat and tidy box.  While working through this issue for myself, I'm constantly questioning the normative values around professional attire.  I have reclaimed my sense of style and work with my clients to reimagine what it means to be a young professional who smart with an edgy, non-conforming sense of style.  

 As a Stylist & Editor of SLF, my entire business model is about helping professionals cultivate their own sense of style.  Whether they are looking to experiment with patterns or add a bit more flair, my goal is to ensure that the professional is comfortable making style decisions that best suit their individual needs.  I often tell my clients, my function as a consultant is to hold up a mirror and allow them to express how they feel through fashion. 

My retail days are long behind me.  Now, I'm in my late-20s (oh God!), living in the in the downtown Toronto core, and operating a successful business and legal practice.  Now that I work for myself... I don't have anyone telling me how to dress for the occasion.  While, I still wear traditional suits, my ability to express myself through colour, patterns, textures, and accessories has heightened my sensibility to feel good and produce great work.  My style is classic, with a touch of glam. 

Recently, I read a really cool article by Mary Burnet, an Articling Clerk at Pink Larkin in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  To read Mary's article, see the link below.  

Mary's article is the inspiration behind this blog post.  I enjoyed this piece because Mary describes herself as "a queer, almost lawyer, with visible tattoos and piercings."  While our styles and aesthetics may be different, our engagement with what it means to look like a "legal professional" is very similar.  Mary's article focuses on how the normative and oppressive notions of professionalism play out in her experience as an articling student.  She concludes her article by stating that in many ways "professionalism" is a code to stifle diversity in the profession and this is something that needs to be challenged and changed by younger professionals.

I posted Mary's article to my Facebook page and it sparked a wonderful discussion between my friends, who are all, for the most part, young professionals.  While I had only been thinking in the confines of the legal profession, it didn't dawn on me that my friends occupying different professional spheres were having similar discussions.  My dear friend Bahar M. who describes herself as, "[a] young almost-dentist with tattoos, piercings, a half-shaved head and blue hair" (it's presently a cute shade of aqua),  provided an astute analysis of how she approaches the discussion of professionalism in dental school.

Bahar expressed to me that she had a number of reservations prior to entering into dental school and starting her clinical.  She writes:

I was worried I would be asked to "tone down" my look or change my appearance to look more "professional." I was worried my older patients would be hesitant to follow my treatment plans because of my style. I thought my clinical instructors would act snobbishly and not take me seriously; [My dental school] is filled with a lot of high class conservative... dentists, many of them older men, and I didn't think they would find me amusing...

To her surprise, Bahar found that the Deans and academic advisors were open to discussing what professionalism meant in dentistry and appropriate workplace attire.  In many of her discussions, her advisors stressed the importance of creating a space for patients that was clean and followed infection control, as a chief concern for any dentist.  How an individual in the profession chooses to present him or herself, was completely up to that individual.  

There will always be people who are snobbish or uptight about arbitrary standards of "professionalism" that have nothing to do with your technical skill and everything to do with marginalizing already-visible minorities or those who identify with countercultures. The way my colleagues and I see it is that you wouldn't see eye-to-eye on important things with these people anyway, and a doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationship would be hard to build. And there will be potential clients who will feel motivated and excited by your unique look; often people seeking healthcare or legal counsel are in a vulnerable position and they may feel more comfortable upfront being seen by someone who seems more approachable, more human, more "real". And there will be the great majority in between who don't care either way...because having blue hair doesn't mean I won't do an amazing root canal. If someone is going to nitpick about your appearance, they're going to nitpick about other asinine things and find fault where there isn't any.

In my opinion, what it means to be a professional has little to do with my appearance and more to do with my ability and skill.  When I summered and articled, I worked very hard to learn about what it meant to be an excellent lawyer.  These included all of the technical aspects of the law in addition to its human elements.  Most importantly, I learned how to communicate with clients, other legal professionals, as well as the importance of building strong relationships.  All of these things are far removed from my appearance or how I fit into the normative box of "professionalism".


To read Mary Burnet's Article, "What does a "Professional" Look Like? Thoughts from a Queer Almost-Lawyer" Click Here


Looking good for me equates to feeling good.  When I think of my funky, off beat, bold, yet classic, sense of style-- it paints the picture of all of the ways in which I exude these qualities in my work as a lawyer and a stylist.  I'm fearless with my wardrobe, which makes me fearless in how I work.   Where defining "professionalism" becomes problematic is when it serves to reinforce heteronormative, oppressive or discriminatory practices to marginalize particular individuals within a profession.  Through our individual engagement with style, young professionals, occupying different professional spheres, are working to deconstruct and redefine what it means to be a "professional" and the way one dresses for success! 

xo Raquiya G.