Five reasons I love having my own self-imposed “work uniform” by Laura Trevaskis

Image by Becca McHaffie on Unsplash

 I won’t lie, I stole the idea from Vogue magazine circa 2015. I don’t usually read fashion magazines but I was on a 23 hour flight from Melbourne to London with Philippine Airlines and any reading material would do. Actually – PSA – if you’re as privileged as I am and expect that every airline offering long haul flights will include a personalized entertainment service, prepare to be shocked when you board a Philippine Airline flight. If you don’t bring your own entertainment, you’ll either spend 23 hours staring at the back of an outrageously screen-free chair, or, you’ll spend the time parasitically eyeing off anyone with a magazine, waiting for your opportunity to pounce and ask, “Excuse me, would you mind if I read that now that you’ve finished?”

Thus, I found myself reading Vogue three hours into my flight.

One of the articles was about a woman who had bought herself a “work uniform” even though there was no mandated uniform at her workplace. She worked in the corporate world and had to dress professionally but she had grown tired of keeping her work wear fashionable, and so she bought two of the same jacket, three pairs of the same pants, three of the same shirt and one pair of extremely-comfortable shoes, making this her “work uniform”.

At the time I thought it was a good idea but I wasn’t about to outlay $1000 buying multiples of the same thing. Plus, I was arriving in London where I would work as a teacher for the next eight months and money was tight, so I was kind of wearing the same thing every day out of necessity anyway. I forgot about the article, but on returning home to Australia I vowed to buy less stuff. I was amazed at how little I had needed for 8 months and confused as to why I had ever before thought that I would need more than what was packed in my suitcase.

But, as often happens, once home, promises I made to myself overseas were soon forgotten.

At home I had a different reputation to maintain – I was looking to advance my career, in a way that didn’t matter to me when I was in the UK – plus I was becoming increasingly conscious of sexism in the workplace.

Getting my clothing “right” seemed of paramount importance if I wanted to be taken seriously and promoted to a position of leadership. That idea was reinforced to me by colleagues, who would often offer unsolicited commentary on what other female staff were wearing: a colleague who spied a graduate teacher wearing a skirt she felt was too short, “That should not be happening. Why have our esteemed leaders not done something?”; a colleague questioning the qualifications of a young female leader because “she’s so young she hasn’t even graduated to a G-string yet! Do we have to see the outline of her underwear every day?”; an overly-friendly male colleague pantomiming a judging ceremony between me and a colleague standing next to me at the microwave, “Hmm. Who is better-dressed today?”

And it wasn’t all water-cooler gossip. During my time at a girls’ school, a teacher of 15+ years was called into see the Principal to discuss the length of her skirt. Meanwhile, at an elite private school where my friend worked, a teacher who wore “figure-hugging” clothing was “gently” encouraged to leave, and even offered incentives to do so.

I became fearful that I could be undermined by something as superficial as clothing. But the irony was, in trying to ensure that I wasn’t undermined by my clothing, my work wardrobe began to grow as I sought out clothing that would send the “right” message. That is to say, clothing that was – at once – current, friendly, professional, and authoritative.

And so, my commitment to buying less — and thereby being more sustainable and less consumeristic – was a failure, as my working wardrobe was costing upwards of $2000 every year.

Plus, the pressure of accumulating this wardrobe was getting to me. The fashion industry is as insatiable as the sea. There is so much choice for women, that the risk of “getting it wrong” is always imminent. Plus, just when I had bought something beautiful, the seasonal colours in store would change, and there would be something else I should have.

In this way, choice started to feel like a bad thing. I know that men probably feel sick of wearing the same thing every day to professional workplaces – the same old suit and, if they’re a bit eccentric and ‘fun’, maybe a bright flash of colour in the form of some Happy Socks – but ultimately, less choice can help to simplify things and allow a person a “professional identity” if they prefer to keep their work life and their home life a bit separate.   

And so, in response to all of this pressure, I bought my own “work wardrobe” and these have been some of the expected and unexpected benefits:

  1.     Less stressful mornings

The first thing I noticed was that my mornings became less stressful. I had less choices to make and less stressing out when I realized that all my tights were dirty. My outfits were always ready because when I undressed in the evening, I could either lay the clothes out for the next day or put them in the wash and pick out the other identical outfit.

  1.     My “work” clothes have been given new life

After only two weeks in my “uniform,” clothes that I had despised wearing outside of work because – in my mind – they were associated with the wear and tear of the classroom, became re-discovered favourites. I started wearing these outfits out to drinks or dinner and my friends commented asking, “That’s nice! Is it new?” It felt like I had a whole new wardrobe now that I had disassociated these beauties from work.

  1.     I’m not buying more stuff = sustainability & money saving!!!

As a consequence of re-discovering the joy of my ‘work’ clothes, I felt suddenly overwhelmed for choice looking at what I already owned. I feel no inclination to buy more clothes.

  1.     It’s a win for the environment

I only have two of the same shirts and two of the same pants, so I do need to wear the same clothes back-to-back. I used to wash anything with even the faintest musk thinking that I didn’t want to return partially dirty clothes to the wardrobe, but now, my only question is, “Can I get away with this tomorrow?” More often than not, the answer is yes.

  1.     I’m fighting one less battle

Once the first week passed and a few colleagues had said, “I feel like you’ve worn that a few times this week,” my work uniform became an accepted – even admired – personal choice. I look professional every day, and my outfit choices cannot distract from my ideas, initiatives or teaching practices. Sure, it’s inherently sexist and ridiculous that I feel my work wear impacts the professional opinion my colleagues have of me, but I’m choosing to fight one battle at a time.