- April 28, 2021
The term “dress code” always seems to fall short of the imaginative promise its double-meaning suggests. The idea of a “code,” for the way individuals or collectives present themselves is like a recipe or incantation for bringing identity, power, recognition, attitude, and persona into the world.
Many architecture offices, like other professional practices, are notorious for imposing dress codes on employees in something like an employee handbook. Some outline a list of what cannot be worn or what is not considered appropriate by the company. Within the text of these office manuals, we can imagine a sort of atlas of the body that delineates the “acceptable” from the “unacceptable,” with bare shoulders, exposed midriffs, and various modifications like tattoos and piercings, being the most common territory of the “off-limits.”
Approaching this task by way of inclusion might seem easier. “Just provide a uniform!” one might think. A monogrammed coverall or a pocketed apron really brings a shared sense of purpose to an office. Such mandates, though, are regarded as tyrannical in most workplaces, or at least, beneath the imagined liberties of the “white collar” realm. Who would want uniformity anyway? As such, indices of “source codes” for what to wear to the office can’t really be found by looking through office manuals or other company regulations for sections on dress codes or office attire. Most are obscurely worded or problematically open-ended, peppered with phrases based in class and gender like “dress respectably,” “office attire should be appropriate,” “look professional.” Forms of workplace discrimination veiled in a dress code.
Today these codes are increasingly disseminated in the hypnotic din of programming blocks of reality makeover and fashion shows cramming the schedules of various network and cable television stations such as A&E, Bravo, E!, and TLC. Shows, like “Style by Jury,” “What Not to Wear,” and “Extreme Makeover” are apparently innocuous enough to enjoy a ubiquitous status as the default channel selection on televisions in every single waiting room, building lobby, and gym across the country, and almost always with the audio muted. The solutions proffered in each show are remarkably repetitive. Once the invasive diagnosis has been delivered, a frenzied rush of semi-coherent video editing—a shot of a department store directory, a neatly organized clothing rack with a dizzying array of options, a pan across the stocked dressing room with “appropriate” choices made for the subject—gives way to the transcendent and oftentimes disturbing bliss of the newly made over “after,” accompanied by a satisfying musical arrangement. A cursory viewing of any of these shows reveals a distressing pattern for all of their conforming “transformations.”
Perhaps the most telling documents and references on this topic can be found in the archives of one of the most obsessively controlling and strictly regimented entities for performance and presentation: The Walt Disney Company. Various editions of their internal documents and training resources, one titled “The Disney Look,” are surprisingly explicit evocations of how to carefully fine-tune an army of public-facing employees, or “Cast Members,” including photographic and illustrated examples, and tables of specifications for details like fingernail length (¼ inch) and earrings (no larger than a quarter). The terms “natural-looking,” “neutral,” and “conservative color and style” appear over and over again.
Like Disneyland, many architecture offices are theme parks that trade in conservative nostalgia and stolid prejudices about how “professional” presentation should appear and perform. Unfortunately, these are places where many of us cannot be ourselves.