of wool coats and professional dress

The other night at St J’s, a volunteer, a med student, came out into the waiting area wearing a sweatsuit and speaking like a high school cheerleader.

I’ve had my fair share of sartorial cognitive dissonance in that waiting room. My habit is to dress as if I were, at least, headed for a casual Friday at work. My mother still looks plenty professional on “jeans days”. She pays her money and trades her trousers for denim. I take my cues from her, since she’s never been reprimanded for her style choices. Sometimes I even dress like the woman I wish I had been able to become by now. Sometimes I wear dresses, or muted skirt and top combinations. I own a wool coat and I’m not afraid to deploy it.

Henry owns a wool coat.

Henry is a gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties, with glasses (I think) and not a lot of hair on top but plenty on the sides, gray and curly. I think he must have had some great misfortune. Maybe he fell into drink. Maybe he lost a niche job that paid very well. I know he is literate because he haunts the book rack. I know he has no car, perhaps no license, because he waits for a ride. I suspect he is starving because he takes bread from the basket.

I hurt for Henry because I know what it’s like to expect much of oneself and live up to none of it after all. I don’t know what he thinks when he sees “professionals” half his age dressed like chavs, but I know he still wears the trousers and button-downs he must have worn to work. Maybe they are all the clothes he owns. Maybe that’s who he is, much like I’m the kind of woman who owns nice jeans and the odd pair of leggings, but also dresses and pretty shoes.

I know that it hurt me deeply to realise that a girl in a tracksuit, bearing herself much as a teenager might, was still my superior. Be damned to the idea that nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. I felt plenty inferior, against my will, because no matter what I tell myself, at the end of the day I’m still an idiot undergraduate and she has taken steps toward a real career, has somehow gotten into a brilliant university. Didn’t carry herself as if she had much of a brain, mind you, but she must underneath the disguise. So why does she hide it? Does she think it makes her more accessible?

It makes her look a right twit. It makes me think “I should be doing your job and you should be asking me for help, not the other way around.” I could, with little difficulty and the theft of a white coat and stethoscope, fool her into believing me her superior. It doesn’t leave me very confident in her abilities.

I want to sit down with Henry and ask him what happened, if it wouldn’t hurt him too badly to say. Lacking that, I want to wear pretty things every week from Tuesday forward and speak with dignity, because someone’s going to have to demonstrate the concept, I see.

What are the broader implications for my future and my profession of choice?

I read a blog called Corporette, whose tagline reads fashion, lifestyle, and career advice for overachieving chicks. Mercifully, the women there don’t poke fun at the helping professions, though from what my textbook implies, they’d have every right to think we were backwards. We’re professionals. Do we care to mark ourselves out as such? Not if the sight of business wear means someone’s going to a funeral.

The people who work where Claudius did until a week ago all dress in oversized tees and ratty jeans, not unlike bored college students. Little wonder they’re being paid student wages, and do student-quality work. They seem not to respect themselves very much. Claudius stopped even pretending to respect my mother and me. From the day he grew that beard, things went downhill, I’d swear it. He began to drink and stink and hate us all the more for expecting him to act like an adult.

Social workers are professionals. Some are clinicians. Some are rescuers of children. Some are just damn good at shifting resources around until the people who need them have them. I may, in the course of my career, be called upon to testify in court. The step from professional to expert witness should not be a leap the likes of which mankind took when it set foot upon the moon. Even when I’m not in court, what do I want to portray? Do I want to embrace the signs which, like it or not, my society deems the markers of competence? As it happens, I do. I want to reassure my clients by my voice and my appearance that I am someone who can help. It doesn’t mean spending big-law money on suiting I’ll wear twice a year. It does mean my separates should be neat and natty, my suits should at least be suits (even if I got them for cheap, in Juniors), and if I can work out in it, I should not be wearing it in the office unless I am teaching some sort of fitness class.

And no bloody Peter Pan collars or twee-arsed bows.

I know there’s a time and a place for relatively casual clothing. As a professional, I should know when that time is, and where the place. Who will teach us if not our forerunners? What example do we intend to set?

Where’s the balance between “person who will help without sneering at you” and “person who appears to be a competent professional”? Surely at some point the two lines cross. Is it possible that the former is so subjective that the latter becomes a matter of personal taste? Or have there been studies as to what makes clients comfortable?

Because I swear I’ll walk out of any office containing a gum-snapping child in a sweatsuit, wondering if I’ve been punked.

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2 thoughts on “of wool coats and professional dress

  1. There are times that it gets complicated – I’ve done some of my field in jeans and sweatshirts because I was on a construction site, and I think that a lot of the people at the IDMH conference Friday have done likewise. You don’t wear your best to a mudslide. But I realize that is a Very Special Circumstance. 🙂

    The job I’m interviewing for in two weeks is going to need the combination of sturdy-practical and neat-professional that I have to buy with real care in order to have it fit my plus-sized pear-shaped self.

    And thanks for the research idea! ❤

    • When you’re working on a construction site, safety and comfort should take precedence. But sweats in a cosy office? [headscratch]

      I wish you would come out here to shop with me! If you get that job, I want to shop with you, anyway. It’s great fun. I like helping other people shop.

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