In early 2016, I completed a service learning project at Dress for Success Columbus. I love the work done at DFS, and I understand that women need to “look the part” in order to succeed in a business environment – both before and after they get a job. That said, I’d like to talk about the broader societal pressure we place on women vs. men in the white-collar world.

The DFS Volunteer Manual gives an overview of “Wardrobe Basics for the Professional Woman” (p 6). I believe the list is given to women as they are having their employment/interview suiting, but they include it also to DFS volunteers as a guideline for their dress code. I went to kohls.com and added all items on the DFS list – as cheap as I could find them – to a shopping cart. (Kohl’s is a relatively cheap store and I knew I’d be able to find all the items on the list; I’m not endorsing the company.) My total, with tax, came to $405.17.

Purchase notes: when the list suggested multiple items (i.e. “shoes”) I chose two styles to get an estimable minimum price. For “jewelry,” I chose one set of earrings, one bracelet, and one necklace. I did not include any lingerie, hair/nail products, or makeup. I didn’t keep consistent with sizes; heaven help the professional woman that can’t find these items in her size, or doesn’t know what a “shell” is, or doesn’t feel these items fit with her personal style, or is plus-sized. And heaven help the girls in sweatshops that made her clothes! Taking into account style, size, and clothing ethics – plus adding lingerie, makeup, and a nail set – would probably double the price to $800 or more.

One might argue that this DFS list has a hint of classism, because what woman can actually afford to go on an $800 shopping spree? Even assuming our clients get a $25,000/year job, that’s about two weeks of their pay – for clothes that won’t even last them one full work week, because this list only includes two shell shirts and two blouses. And as I outlined in a post on my personal blog, to purchase a full set of “wardrobe basics” could cost over $12,000!

This expectation only truly applies to women. There is at least one male’s equivalent to Dress for Success; it’s called Career Gear, and it has eight locations throughout the US. Compare that to Dress for Success, which has 128 locations worldwide. Men have professional attire expectations too, but they don’t need to buy bras or differentiate between pants, skirts, and dresses or buy accessory scarves or jewelry or makeup or worry about their nails. According to the DFS list, “Nails should be either natural, groomed and buffed to a shine or painted conservatively” (p 6); so on top of working and maintaining the house and/or her child, the working woman is expected to take at least an hour a week to maintain her nails. What list has ever told men that they need to make sure their nails look good enough for a job interview?

DFS does great work, and they give their clients far more than this list suggests; for the employment suiting, the women get five full outfits that they can mix and match – including accessories, personal care items, and lingerie if they need it. But ideally, women shouldn’t have to worry about appearances in a professional setting to the extent that they do – an extent that is at least double what a man might bring to a work setting.