Two remarkably different articles on dressing for business appeared in The Wall Street Journal on the same day. Both purported to offer advice.
One was "Please, Men of the World, Tuck in Your Shirts." It urged men to dress more neatly. The other was "The Rebellious New Power Suit for Women." It challenged women to wear flashy outfits "with a side of sticking-it-to-the-man 'tude."
Now, any kind of 'tude — much less the "sticking-it-to-the-man" variety — would seem unconducive to rising in a traditional business. So how does the Journal get away with providing men style pointers that are good for their careers and women the opposite?
Few crusades are more futile than fighting fashion commentary inveigling women to dress in a manner against their interests. Normally, I pay little mind to articles that discourage a refined look, figuring that a woman who falls for this stuff is already unlikely to advance in a company that she doesn't already own.
But what got my gut churning was the grossly unequal quality of guidance being offered, one next to the other. The rebellious suit piece was not a news story on the kooky fashions being paraded on the runways. It was impersonating serious counsel on dressing for business.
Is it a good idea to wear, as the women's article suggested, "quirkily mismatched" pieces to the office? One prominent designer, it noted, "sliced a blazer's sleeves into cape-like wings." A famous designer came up with it, so what could possibly go wrong?
For some reason, it didn't surprise me that the writer, Hayley Phelan, mentioned the #MeToo movement as a power changer justifying bizarre office get-ups. They evidently can include "bustiers" cut from men's suit fabrics. A bustier is formfitting lingerie designed to push up the bust.
The feature photo is of a model in a wild "gold corduroy ensemble" boasting exaggerated lapels and wide-legged pants. (They forgot the big red nose.) She's sitting cross-legged on top of a desk, so we also got to see her black fishnet stockings and roach-killer pointy shoes with ankle straps. ICYMI, heels with ankle straps speak not of power but of captivity.
There's none of that telegraph-your-individuality in the piece for men. Its unmistakable message is that your sloppy inner self needs containing.
David Coggins, an expert on men's dress and manners, is quoted as bluntly telling guys who don't tuck in their shirts at work, "Instead of aspiring to look elegant, you look like it's Sunday afternoon, you're living in squalor or you're still in college."
And here's the author, Jacob Gallagher, on men who leave shirts hanging out as a way to hide their gut. "This borderline 'maternity' look fools no one." Ouch, but on point.
By contrast, the piece for women directs its mockery at those who dress traditionally. They are not confident enough to "challenge gender norms," so we read, and thus they struggle "to conform to some preconceived idea."
For the fashion industry, the tailored women's business suits of yore had to die because they stayed in style year after year. But it's not true that they hide the woman within. Katharine Hepburn wore traditional tailoring to great seductive effect.
And if you want to get au courant about it, consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her conservatively styled suits. They make the 28-year-old socialist look as if she could be running General Motors as opposed to breaking it up.
Sisters, wear what you want, but do not labor under the delusion that sartorial rebellion in the office will draw anything more than stares. When it comes to most fashion advice, even in business publications, know that women are drawing the short straw.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.