Split Image of a Flower and the Portrait of a Man

What Happens When Men Don’t Conform to Masculine Clothing Norms at Work?

Ruby Lynn

Harvard Business Review
August 31, 2017
By Ben Barry

Every morning, men make a seemingly mundane yet crucial decision: what to wear to work. Most pull out some variation of the charcoal, navy, or black suit from their closet. Some might add their own twist: a polka-dot pocket square or colorful socks.

This probably isn’t surprising. In Britain and North America, the suit is the most culturally accepted form of office wear for men. But what do we make of the men who reject the solid-color suit and opt for, say, an embellished jacket and sequined leggings? This question is not as trivial as it may seem. I have found that the way we answer it has important implications for how men feel at work, and also influences organizational cultures in ways most managers might not consider.

Over the past three years, I conducted a research project on men, masculinity, and fashion. Fifty men between the ages of 22 and 78, all residing and working in and around Toronto, Canada, invited me into their homes and gave me a tour of their wardrobes. These men varied across races, ethnicities, body types, sexual orientations, occupations, and clothing styles. We talked about how they made clothing choices each morning, as well as the memories, experiences, and feelings they attached to the garments hanging in their closets. While some of these men grabbed a navy suit and white button-down shirt for work, many did not — making clothing choices that defied masculine appearance norms when dressing for their jobs.

These choices are what performance studies scholar Madison Moore calls “fabulousness” — a way of dressing and styling the body that not only disrupts gender codes but also introduces new forms of identity into the world. It’s more common in the arts and fashion industries, but men also choose to dress fabulously in professional organizations. However, doing so creates a particular conflict. Dress codes, whether written or unwritten, are common in workplaces. Unless you work at a fashion magazine or a cabaret club, these codes mostly conform to dominant gender norms that aren’t especially welcoming to men who wear feminine styles. Because of this, many men save the sequined tops for the nightclub rather than the office. Fabulous men police their clothing to avoid “masculinity dilemmas” at work: situations where their behaviors and appearances are in contrast to the dominant ideas about what it means to be a man.

The sidebar “Inside the Work Wardrobes of Five Fabulous Men” contains vignettes of several participants from my research (using pseudonyms to protect their anonymity). Their stories highlight both how men make clothing choices for work and their everyday experiences of wearing outfits that challenge masculine norms. These men represent the range of demographics, occupations, and clothing styles in my sample. They also represent varying degrees of fabulousness, from subtle to full-on.

All told, these five men regularly chose dark jackets in lieu of colorful tops when they engaged in activities with high rewards, such as interviewing for a promotion. They often opted for solid colors instead of bold patterns to avoid awkward or hurtful exchanges. The size of organization or type of industry didn’t affect whether they tempered their styles: In both large hierarchical organizations and freelance creative fields, they toned down fabulous outfits when they perceived or experienced backlash for wearing them. More often than not, work required the participants to conform to masculine appearance norms.

The experiences of Mark, Nigel, Harry, Richard, and Olu, and the others I interviewed, raise important questions for both employees and managers to consider, particularly as companies pay more attention to employee authenticity, inclusion, and belonging.

Why Is Clothing So Conventional Within Organizations?
According to my research, and that of others, conventions come down to the gender norms that underlie business (and society). Most organizations valorize traits associated with masculine norms. The emergence of the capitalist economy played a large role in setting this gendered organizational norm: As work was separated from the domestic sphere, home became feminized and work became masculinized. In this way, the business suit was seen to embody masculine traits, and became synonymous with corporate success. In contrast, people who enjoy wearing fabulous clothing (like other activities considered feminine and associated with women and marginalized men) are often denied opportunities and become seen as “problems” in organizations.

My interviewees seemed well aware of this stigma. While they took great pleasure in color and sequins, they were cautious about wearing these looks to work because they faced both subtle and not-so-subtle sanctions. Mark and Richard opted out of wearing fabulous looks to avoid microaggressions from their colleagues. Some of these would come in nonverbal forms: puzzled stares or eye rolls directed at colorful jackets. Others would be verbal, with certain words drawn out or emphasized in a condescending tone: “Only you can pull that look off!” Wearing fluorescent pink or leopard-print tights left Nigel and Olu open to critique for looking “unprofessional” — a euphemism for not fitting into white, straight, middle-class masculine norms. The disturbing implication underlying these comments is that the men’s clothing choices made them ineffective at doing their jobs. But how men dress isn’t a measure of how good they are at their jobs. Why, then, is it used as one?

Why Are We Threatened by Men Who Don’t Conform to Masculine Norms?
As I noted above, my participants were the targets of condescending remarks and punishments when they wore vibrant jackets or nail polish to work. Why did these looks make their coworkers and managers uncomfortable and upset? One of my participants, a 35-year-old marketing manager named Dave, offered a clue. Dave wears traditional masculine outfits at work, favoring neutral colors and avoiding shoes that “clip-clop, like high heels.” Dave wasn’t only uncomfortable with the idea of wearing clothes that he described as “prissy” or “dainty”; he was uncomfortable seeing them on other men. Dave couldn’t really explain why he felt this way, other than repeating that these styles looked “too feminine,” and he “didn’t like that.”

Dave’s few words likely express something deep about men’s fear of crossing gender boundaries at work. Dave was not only worried about being seen as feminine; he was also scared about being seen as not masculine. While masculinity is often held up as the epitome of strength and power, it is actually quite a fragile identity because it is always at risk of being broken. Gender has long been presented as a straightforward binary, but in reality, we all embody various degrees of masculinity and femininity in different ways, at different times. By wearing feminine clothing rather than the ubiquitous business suit, fabulous men force Dave to confront the supposed naturalness of his masculinity — and thus his power — by calling out the multiplicity of ways men can enact gender at work.

In many ways, fabulous clothes suggest to some men that the inherent power they posses (particularly white, straight, middle-class men, like Dave) is man-made, and therefore can be lost. Most of what these men have been taught, come to believe, and experienced as men is undone when they see other men willingly, happily, and openly embrace femininity. And embracing femininity through clothing is one of the most visible manifestations of testing the boundaries of masculinity, and thus of men’s “natural” power.

Why Should Managers Care?
The men I interviewed felt that conforming to masculine clothing norms at work would bring organizational benefits, such as getting a promotion or funding for a project. But at what cost?

Wearing somber, buttoned-up outfits turned my participants into men that they are not. Yet research suggests that workplaces where creativity and innovation are at a premium nurture and encourage people’s authentic differences. These studies have focused on the mindsets of employees, but clothing and appearance are also ways in which people make their unique perspectives visible to the world. Richard’s patterns and prints expressed his passion for painting, while Nigel’s combination of sequins and leather showed his interest in Afrofuturism. For these men, clothing was essential to their sense of self: It was how they expressed their identities, beliefs, and personalities. By censoring their fabulousness, my participants felt forced to mute core aspects of themselves — and so their organizations are unlikely to fully tap into their unique mindsets.

Further, some men are even affected physically when they are forced to wear conventionally masculine business clothing. Olu recently attended a family event that required him to wear a suit. “If I could have had an allergic reaction, I probably would have. It was definitely a very hard experience to wear it…because suits are so rigidly masculine,” he says. Olu isn’t in a career that requires him to wear a suit, but what could his artistic and creative talent bring to a more corporate environment? Managers are unlikely to find out, because the masculine dress codes of these workplaces keep men like Olu far away.

To be clear, it is sometimes necessary to suppress our whole, authentic selves in certain work situations. For example, we might focus on the aspects of our personality and experiences that best connect with potential customers during sales meetings, or we may hide our humor and enthusiasm when we manage workplace conflicts. But, for the most part, the ways employees dress shouldn’t affect their feelings about how well they can do their jobs. What are organizations losing by perpetuating white, straight, middle-class masculine norms of appearance? And how could they benefit if they let these norms go?

My interviews offer a couple of possibilities. Nigel, a sixth-grade teacher, explained, “My students are building identity, and the process is figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t work.” He sees his role as creating a safe space for students to engage in that process. When some of the boys in his class wore nail polish, he believed that his own appearance choices were benefiting that work. If Robert felt he had the ability to dress fabulously at the hospital where he is a physician, bringing his interest in painting to work as a result, it might make him a more creative thinker when doing research and a more empathetic person when meeting with patients.

I recognize that the idea of men wearing sequins or leggings may make some people uneasy; embracing diversity in clothing at work isn’t what everyone is used to seeing or doing. After all, while historical images of wealthy European men show them in red heels and lavish trims, fashion and flamboyance have been put into opposition to masculinity since the late 18th century. But we need to question the logic driving the opposition to men who wear more traditionally feminine clothing at work. Why do these men look unprofessional to some people? Why do we think the office is not a place to express ourselves through our clothing and appearance?

It’s likely that our answers will lead us back to the same place: maintaining masculine power. But holding onto the “superiority” of masculinity at work just isn’t worth it: It alienates many employees, requires them to act inauthentically, and creates environments that stifle productivity and innovation. Fostering workplaces that celebrate diversity in clothing might appear to primarily benefit fabulous men, but in fact it helps everyone feel comfortable to be themselves at work — even, ironically, the men who hold fast to masculine norms. Men who live and breathe the dominant ideas of masculinity pay a high price for it: Research has connected such beliefs to poor health, shorter lives and emotionally shallow relationships. The costs are just too great for everyone, at work and in life.

We can begin to change the script that most men enact every morning by thinking through the questions my research raises and exploring ways to address them. What might a new script look like? Here’s a good start: When they look into their closets and decide what to wear to work, I hope my interviewees eventually replace the question “How fabulous is too fabulous?” with the statement “This is fabulous!”