professional dress

Business Couture & Professional Aesthetics

Colleague: I don’t know… they’d probably tell me that wearing this printed shirt isn’t business casual.
Me: It’s not. It’s Business Couture™.

Yesterday, at the Center for Inclusivity, we had an engaging discussion about Vocation & Identity. We discussed how the word ‘vocation’ were different from ‘job’. We shared how we decided which work was worth our time and effort and how our identities intersected with your work.

These days, I call myself an interdisciplinary bridge-builder. I’m deeply interested in the work of writing, the creative and performing arts, higher education, emerging adulthood, and faith & spirituality. I’m interested in finding connections toward holistic visions of success and social justice. 

Yet, my understanding of vocation / work does not just include what I do. It also includes my professional aesthetic. My choices in ‘professional’ dress reflect more about where I’ve been and who I am than what I’m doing.

On Following Her Footsteps, Amina Doherty explains:


“We exist in a world where Black women’s bodies are contested spaces, where our fashion and style choices are heavily policed, where we are told what to wear, how to wear it, for whom to wear it, how much we should cover (or uncover), how much we should spend – how to ‘be’ everything but ourselves. We exist in a world that privileges thin, white, heterosexual bodies”

Michael Riley, Stylist and Higher Education Professional says, “As persons of color, we are often read as inherently unprofessional“.

Michael Riley

Michael Riley & I, posin’ in our Business Couture.

Thus, the way I practice, reframe, and re-mix “professional dress” or “business casual” into Business Couture allows me to push the confines. Stated simply, Business Couture is anything that allows me to come to ‘werk / work’ and slay. It is a theory that I’m living into each day. Here’s what that looks like for me, these days:

You’ll notice my favorite crop top from the last style post! As a card-carrying member of #TeamCurves, I’ve often been discouraged from crop tops. However, in my visions of Business Couture, this piece is a staple for me to get the lines that I want.

I have significantly less hair than my previous post! This has really amped up the role that accessories play in communicating my professional identity (and saved me a lot of prep time in the morning). In the first picture (far left), I’m wearing my “A Lil Bougie” pin from Tees in the Trap. (Yes, I absolutely do wear that to work). It’s a lighthearted and subtle code-switch, and my students always launch into discussion when they see it. However, it is also a reminder to think about class privilege, explain the references and / or jargon that I engage when I’m doing my work, and to check in with those who keep me accountable to the work.

The wooden earrings (center pic) were obtained at the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia, which “celebrates the coming of another year for African Americans and Africanized people around the world”. They can be a bold choice for the office but… #unbothered.

Business Cotoure 1

Glitter, sequins, and bedazzled shenanigans are absolutely a part of my professional aesthetic. In an older piece, titled “For Colored Gurls Who Consider Blogging & Glitter When Chronic Illness Gets Too Real…”, I explained that allowing my body to be bejeweled allows me to experience pleasure & “luxury” in my body, given the chronic amounts of sickness that are also in my body.

Business Couture means making space for things that aren’t quite casual, aren’t quite formal, aren’t quite… anything… and making it all work. This is something that I’ve had to do with my own lived experience: curate comprehensive works, aesthetics, initiatives, plans, from a variety of places, contexts, and needs. Pictured above is my Lauren Conrad bedazzled shirt and skirt (total cost around $25, as I got the pieces on clearance), and my Clarks knee boots (good for living with chronic plantar fasciitis in both feet while looking fly).

Palazzo pants and V-neck shirts are a part of my aesthetic. Again, as a curvy woman, I’ve been told to stay away from things that “attract attention” (**eye roll). This was discouraged both in secular systems and in “sacred” spaces. Yet, my ethic and aesthetic of Business Couture acknowledges two things:

1) It is the responsibility of others to practice self control and to refrain from sexualizing the frame that I inhabit.

2) This particular body that I inhabit is temporary (I know it sounds a bit mystical, but I’m going somewhere). Things can change at any moment: if I fall ill, my skin color can dull. If I cut my hair, it has the capacity to grow back at this point. There are a variety of factors that determine the amount of space my body takes up at any given point in time. My body is temporary. Understanding this has allowed me to a lot spend less time agonizing over what others believe I should be covering and hiding, given my current weight / shape / frame, etc.

Let me be clear, the way that I experience gender discrimination, given my aesthetic, is not the same as someone who is trans*.  I would be remiss to exclude the understanding that my cis-gender privilege is real, and that this must be worked through in a variety of ways (that could be an entirely new post).

My hope, then, is that this conversations on who gets to be read as ‘professional’ is built upon, remixed, and re-interpreted for a variety of contexts and lived experiences. The concept of Business Couture is something that I’m still working through, wrestling with, and exploring. It is a concept that, I believe, must be lived into and is likely flexible enough to take however it is lived into.

Professional Dress? YAAAAAHS.

One of my favorite posts from The Feminist Wire is “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics” because it acknowledges and explores what ‘professional dress’ is and means for women of color. As you know, I’m always excited to talk about style and style politics as I also navigate my identities as a woman of color, a student affairs professional, a writer, and an artistic soul.

In “You Betta Werk…”, Dr. Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass-Amherst and trailblazer of important work on style politics, asks the questions:

  • How do you incorporate your personal fashion sense into your professional attire?
  • Do you think women and/or men of color in the academy face unique challenges that are (directly or indirectly) linked to a politics of dress and adornment?

Today, I’m adding my own answers to the questions, along with pictures and examples of what professional dress looks like for me. (Shout-out to my colleague, N.S. for the photography and for her on-point make-up & nail tips from @san_bellisima)

My Personal Fashion Sense

A few staples of my personal fashion sense that I incorporate into my professional wardrobe include a) mixed prints / colors / textures, b) detailed, eclectic accessories (hair, nails, & jewelry), and c) showcasing art.

  1. Mixing lines, textures, & prints
Pictured in my office with one of my favorite work outfits: a crop top sweater with a zig-zag pattern and a pencil skirt with a lipstick pattern.

Pictured in my office with one of my favorite work outfits: a crop top sweater with a zig-zag pattern and a pencil skirt with a lipstick pattern.

I typically like to push the boundaries of what ‘professional dress’ means by incorporating surprising elements: the crop top, the leopard print jumpsuit. However, I pair them with more traditional elements and pieces: the pencil skirt, the cropped blazer, the leather shoes. This is what pulls my look together (and makes it really easy whenever I’m transitioning from day-to-night looks). I know that crop top is not the first thing most people think of when they think of professional wear. However, when you pair a crop top with a high waist pencil skirt, the results can be fabulous and SNATCHED! 

Leopard print jumpsuit in black and brown paired with a burgundy blazer & caramel colored leather shoes

Leopard print jumpsuit in black and brown paired with a burgundy blazer & caramel colored leather shoes

I wear my prescription glasses every day and I usually like to get a few funky frames in neutral colors that will compliment each outfit. I also mix prints according to the tasks I have for the day. If I’m going to a conference, I may work with a more neutral color scheme but keep the prints. If I’m working with students, I’ll incorporate a bit more color or items that are on trend in the season.

Conference Wear: A lot more subdued with color but still utilizing print and a pop of color (lipstick: Ruby Woo by MAC)

Conference Wear: A lot more subdued but still utilizes print and a pop of color (lipstick: Ruby Woo by MAC)

2. Accessories… and then more accessories.

I know many people go by the style adage, “Less is more” buuut… I am not one of those people. For me, accessories are what make the outfit uniquely yours. Hair, makeup, nails, shoes, jewelry are all things I use to signify a style that says, “This is Jade”.

A Closer Look: For this outfit, I've incorporated my favorite head wrap and a body necklace. Since these items do stand out, I chose to do simple earrings, no bracelets, and a dark muted lip color to balance things out

A Closer Look: For this outfit, I’ve incorporated my favorite head wrap and a body necklace. Since these items do stand out, I chose to do simple earrings, no bracelets, and a dark muted lip color to balance things out

I don’t wear too many soft colors at work, due to the fact that I already look very young (and I hate the question, “May I ask you how old you are?” In WHAT world is that okay to ask?! I ranted about that here). However, every now and then I just can’t pass up a good pink that makes my skin tone POP.


A Closer Look: I cannot resist a good lip color. This is MAC’s Saint Germain lipstick with a pink dazzleglass on top for shine.

3) Showcasing art.

As you can see from the pictures above, I see fashion and even professional dress as a way to incorporate art. Typically, I do this with my choices in hair and nails.

The Challenges Linked to “Politics of Dress”

One of my favorite academic articles is Tara Yosso’s ‘Whose Culture Has Capital’ (2005). In this piece, Yosso challenges the notion that only dominant culture holds worth and wealth. I bring her work up here because most of my style politics incorporate the question, “Whose Culture Has Style”? I’m always asking, ‘Whose culture is seen as the standard for professionalism’ and making choices to challenge that in ways that still allow me to inhabit that office / professional space.

As a millenial woman of color, there is also some identity management that goes into my style choices: if I wear this, will I look to young? As a woman, there is identity management: if I wear these bright colors, will people take me seriously? As a woman of color, there is identity management: if I wear my hair naturally, will people bash me for it? Will people immediately equate and associate the art on my nails with what they perceive to be ‘ghetto’? (For more on identity / impression management, check out Leary & Kowalski’s work, 1990). Getting dressed is a political act because in seconds you are making decisions about how you will (or will not) challenge societal norms. Finding that line and working with those nuances are things that I’m figuring out each and every day.

I figure it out, mostly, by doing and then by writing. So, if this topic interests you, here are a few other pieces to check out:

In the comments below, please leave a few of your favorite resources OR style staples!