Dress Code: Communicating the Appropriate Message

Background

I am a 26 year old female who is currently working for an intellectual property firm in administration; an area I have worked in throughout my career.

Dress code is something that I have always been interested in, in relation to the workplace. Over time I have come to appreciate that it is hugely important and that, as a person with Asperger syndrome, there is a need to get it right.

Being consciously aware of what others think of me in this sphere, and of taking care to improve my appearance, have delivered real benefits for me from a working perspective. Doing so has also reduced feelings of inadequacy internally and increased my self confidence tremendously.

Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

I sighed as I walked into my boss’ office for what seemed like the millionth time that day. I could have sworn that I had worn a path into the carpet from my desk to his door. I plopped down and awaited the talk that I knew was coming.

He started with the usual talk about being a team player and having a good attitude around other people in the office, but then he mentioned something new: my clothes.

I walked away confused, sat down at my desk and pulled out the employee manual. According to the checklist for women, I was dressed appropriately according to the rules.

The environment I was working in however was atypical for women. It was a warehouse that supplied federal and state institutions across the US. It had a small area for offices, and wasn’t very big at all; people were working in close proximity to each other and so we were all very self aware.

Moreover, the culture throughout the organisation was fraught with tension. Everyone was very critical of each other and there was a high turnover of staff. I was concerned because this was my first job out of college and I was hoping that it would have been a more welcoming environment. Against that, it never occurred to me that my dress code could be a contributory factor to any negativisms towards me.

So, what was I doing wrong?

Technically I was following the required dress code, but unconsciously, I was missing out on some unspoken rules. The appropriate office wardrobe can be a source of confusion for many with Asperger’s Syndrome, but can also be a key to success within the workplace.

I have always felt and appreciated that rules were there for a reason. I have overall, generally welcomed rules such as dress, for I felt that they took some of the mystery of choosing an appropriate outfit for each day. For someone with Asperger, this gave me a kind of structure to adhere to that I welcomed.

A uniform can be good at times for this reason, and when I was younger I attended schools where there was a uniform. I felt that this took a lot of uncertainty out of picking out something socially acceptable to wear. In other words, the choice was made for me; it was something that previously I had never had to worry about.

Throughout my career I have worked in many different environments and the required dress code has often differed. Some had a standard shirt that I was required to wear, but the majority requested business casual. Of course, there is a wide room for interpretation in this, and it could be confusing for someone with Asperger to know exactly what was expected of me as far as dress went.

In one of the environments that I worked in, the company required me to wear a blazer each day. I loathed wearing this as I felt uncomfortable: it made me too hot, I didn’t like having so many layers on and I felt that it restricted my arm movement. As a result and, with hindsight, I wasn’t as productive or pleasant as I could have been.

I had never, however, thought that the way that I dressed affected my attitude or the quality of work that I was able to produce – or how I would be perceived by others. I guess I viewed dress codes as something that were mildly irritating at the worst and, generally, that productivity standards would increase if people got over their hang-ups about the way people looked and simply got on with the job instead.

During my time with the warehouse company, I wasn’t conscious of the fact that what I was wearing put me apart from my coworkers until I was told about it from my boss.

Though, as mentioned, my dress code satisfied the requirements as laid out in the corporate manual, it differed, and was odd, in other ways: I matched patterns incorrectly, like putting stripes with dots, or put clashing colors together.

Sometimes my clothes were worn and fading was obvious. I also wore socks with characters on it or bright designs and my shoes were not the type that you would wear in an office. I had always made an extra effort to make sure that both I and my clothes were clean, but sometimes, they were wrinkled, or were too big and ill fitting.

In other words, my dress fell short in subtle ways and this is what caused confused in me initially. Though I was following the rules technically, the office I worked in put a big emphasis on dressing with style, and that cost a lot of money to keep up with current fashions; something that was not really feasible to me. Besides, from my perspective, I was dressing respectfully and couldn’t see or appreciate why there was a problem.

However, dressing appropriately and in the right style is important and doing so doesn’t have to be a confusing or scary process for a person with Asperger. Although it took me awhile for me to learn, I can credit my first job with teaching me some of the basics about looking presentable and what some of the “unwritten rules” are in this area.

As mentioned, looking back on my initial experience, there really was nothing wrong per se with the way I dressed. But, with hindsight, I can now see how it made me stand out, and why it contributed towards me not being seen as a team player as the whole.

My clothes were not torn, or dirty, and I never dressed in anything that was revealing or inappropriate for my size. However, I dressed in a way that was at odds with what the company wanted. The office in the warehouse company placed a lot of emphasis on dressing professionally and being fashionable and age appropriate. These were the two main areas that I failed in.

I had always found formal clothing stifling and hard to work in. I do not feel comfortable in dresses all the time, and I absolutely cannot wear high heels or hosiery.

Consequently, I dressed in a fashion that would have been more at home on a much older woman. I took fashion advice from my mother, and she put me in some of her old corporate dresses from the 80’s. So, not only was it out of style, but I dressed like a 40 year old woman at 19. This drew attention to me by making me appear different and out of touch with my work colleagues!

This situation also had an adverse effect on my self-perception. The materials and styles were technically appropriate corporately, so becoming aware that I was falling short by simply only satisfying this requirement made me hurt and angry. I did not show too much “flesh”, my skirts were always below my knee, I never wore open toed shoes and I never wore denim, so, to me, I wasn’t doing anything contentious.

In addition, there were other aspects of my dress code – ones that were related to having Asperger – also came to bear influence. These reflected certain aspects in general about dressing that I simply cannot tolerate.

Hosiery, for example, makes me break out in a rash, and I don’t like the feeling of my legs completely enclosed in tight fitting material. I also don’t like wool and many synthetic fibres, and so prefer cotton instead. Consequently, I almost always wear slacks and have to reside in clothing made of material that agrees with me to feel comfortable and at ease so as to be able to work effectively.

The way I wear my outfits is also important. I have a preference for button down shirts, and my arms must be covered at all times, whether I am at work or home. I also have special foot needs, being as I am orthotic and wear a very unusual shoe size as my feet are abnormally small for a grown woman. Wearing high heels puts too much pressure on some parts of my feet causing immediate and a degree of pain. All of the corporate business suites, however, are accompanied by this type of footwear but it’s something that I just can’t wear.

These dress issues manifested themselves in other difficulties. I was subjected to a degree of victimisation at work. The people above me were critical of me even though my own boss thought that my work was outstanding. He did, though, think that I needed to dress better.

Because of my AS (which was undiagnosed at the time), I was often quiet and reserved. Being a receptionist in a busy office with lots of people approaching me, the over-stimulation of the phone and extra duties made me anxious and “unfriendly” as they put it. Whenever I was quiet and concentrating on my work, others mistook this for being depressed and I got called in to talk about this several times.

I believe that my dress code, which clearly differed from others, and being not the norm, added, and contributed, to this situation negatively. This experience overall motivate me to explore the issue of the way I dressed more closely and made me determined to get it right.

Review

Dressing for a corporate environment doesn’t have to be a strain on your wallet and can be an easy process with the right resources and mental outlook for someone with Asperger.

There are some basics that I have come to appreciate should always be adhered to.

As well as always being clean, unworn and generally presentable, ones’ dress code needs to closely match the requirements of the working environment in which one is operating. It should comply with the “corporate manual” but, also, with the style generally espoused and chosen by colleagues. Doing so reduces “differentness” in relation to colleagues.

Personal care and hygiene is also important. A grooming routine is the basis of looking well. Clean skin, hair, and teeth speak wonders about a person. Perfume or cologne should not be applied too liberally as there are other people that can smell you too.

The key overall is to ask for help in presenting oneself and choosing appropriate clothing or suiting. Many department stores or online vendors offer the services of a free personal shopper and can provide options when buying whole outfits, complete with appropriate accessories.

There are basics that should be a part of every wardrobe and certain rules that should always be respected. For women skirts should not be above the knee, blouses and shirts must be pressed, of a good length and should be chosen in neutral colors. For men, dark suits, for example, are generally safe and non-contentious. Shoes should most likely be black and closed toed for women and there can be room for individuality – on patterns, ties for men, and accessories for women for example.

It is basically about common sense; seeking professional guidance is not necessary in this area. Always check your company’s dressed code requirements, and it never hurts to ask a peer: “how do I look?

As an extension of this, I sometimes ask some close friends to help me by coming shopping with me. I, in turn, help them in the process of clothes selection by letting them know beforehand what is, and what is not, appropriate in my office. Whilst I wouldn’t say that I have role models, I do watch fashion shows and read up on fashion pages on the internet and in magazines to acquire a basic level of literacy and understanding in this area.

My experience has taught me that paying proper and appropriate attention to the way I dress can have an important impact on my career development. A well dressed person can send the impression of intelligence, and competence, which in turn can be beneficial in securing promotion to higher, more senior and responsible positions.

Importantly, I think that the area of dress code is one where one has to take personal responsibility, as I don’t think that a person can expect any special considerations or concessions in this area. Codes are there for a reason in the corporate world: to provide a structure that everyone fits into. They also set a tone or way of working that a company may want to implement.

In addition, I don’t think that many organisations can be expected to give leeway to those with Asperger, as I don’t think that most employers will ever fully understand how AS affects everything a person does. Dressing comfortably, as opposed to, politically to feel good and optimise performance is a concession that I suspect most firms would be unwilling to make.

Overall, I am now much more conscious of my dress sense and self aware of the impact that shortcomings in this area can have. For example, I am very careful about the way that I dress now for any event and continually evaluate what I am wearing in general. Addressing these issues has help mitigate some of the traits inherent with having Asperger, and which can prove a hindrance in the workplace.

Finally, while taking care of how I present myself, I also refuse to allow any possible negative impressions of how others perceive what I wear to affect me internally. I think that if I were to worry unduly about what other people thought, then it would consume me.

I know that I am fundamentally different to everyone else, and that I will never be entirely like other people – I have accepted that. However, if I have taken care to address the aforementioned issues in relation to the way I dress, then I know I will feel comfortable and at ease with myself in the eyes of others.

I always want to make a first good impression – and in general – on others in a work environment. Dressing appropriately in respect of an organisations needs and my own requirements is an important part of that.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome