The Psychology of Women's Workplace Fashion (2023)

A pair of sandals nearly derailed my academic career.

At least, that’s where it started. And to me, something so trivial represents the not-so-trivial burdens of women trying to succeed in the workplace.

Despite a fairly conservative upbringing, I never realized that a bit of toe was considered risqué in the professional world.

Having been raised by an at-home mother, I didn’t have many female workplace role models while growing up. During my student years, I would gaze in admiration at some female physicians, the ones who managed to look smart, unflappable, and unmistakably feminine at the same time. The statuesque middle-aged ER attending who stood tall in the midst of chaos, with long bare legs in a trim pencil skirt and stylish heels. The caring family practice physician-mentor in her white coat, accented by hip cowboy boots and glittering, tribal earrings. These women had a certain look: polished, glamorous but also open, warm, and wise. It was a balancing act I admired and aspired to pull off myself: expressing your femininity but still being tough and smart.

I grew up as a classic nerdy girl, who put studies first, fashion a very distant second (or tenth rather). I had thick glasses, braces, over-permed hair, and, as one high school summer camp roommate cruelly put it, “wore fourth grade T-shirts with shorts down to her knees.” On some level, I even feared fashion as a beacon of female vapidity, sexuality, flirtiness, and popularity–an array of qualities that felt far from my experience. I dressed like a tomboy during college in Connecticut, in baggy plaid shirts, jeans, and chunky black shoes.

When I went to medical school in Virginia, I realized after meeting my glamorous family practice mentor that I was a budding professional, someone to rely on for my knowledge, my poise. And like it or not, appearance was part of the picture; I needed to project a certain image to my patients. I also found in time that I just plain enjoyed fashion as stress relief, an artistic hobby, and a way to connect to others through what I call “fashion socializing,” i.e. the exchange of fashion-related comments and compliments. I concluded that I could still enjoy brains with my Balenciaga, intellect with my Issey Miyake.

I moved to New York City for my residency training program. Manhattan was a great playground to continue my professional and personal style development. When I myself became an attending physician and head of a team, I felt that it was time to rock some divaliciousness with fitted suits, colorful skirts, and shoes shoes shoes.

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I would still wear scrubs during dreary overnight shifts and clunky clogs or sneakers if bodily fluid spatter or needles were a potential concern; but on the unit during morning rounds, walking around with my team in tow and interviewing people, I enjoyed the chance to project my dream vision of female authority. Patients responded favorably; I even had one tell me she was upset that I wasn’t her doctor, simply because “you dress cute.”

I was promoted to a Unit Chief position at a venerable hospital just outside the city in wealthy Westchester County. I was excited to be running an all-female unit, with nearly all-female staff. I was ready to be a beautiful, strong Glamazon leader. But there were unforeseen challenges ahead. I was replacing a beloved older female leader who had departed abruptly, leaving a loyal team behind. Coming on board, I felt less like a Glamazon and more like the meek second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the one who would never earn the respect of the uptight housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Early on, one summery day, a female co-worker said, “You are wearing open-toed shoes.” I was wearing a pair of dressy sandals. I didn’t think much of it. I’d worn similar shoes many times before at my previous job—peep-toes, espadrilles, wedges, etc.—and received the usual happy compliments. They weren’t flip-flops or Birkenstocks, which are admittedly perhaps too casual. They were fab.

The next day, someone slipped a copy of the hospital’s dress code under my office door. The passage about not wearing open-toed shoes was highlighted for me in green.

Really? Despite all my years of education, despite being the Unit Chief, despite being on point about medication interactions and suicide risks and various other major matters, I was being chided for my shoes?

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I truly didn’t understand what was wrong about open-toed shoes for women in a professional environment, as long as they were dressy and formal. Especially in the summer. With a dazzling pedicure. In terms of hospital safety as well, this was a standalone psychiatric facility where toe-associated safety risks were minimal (as opposed to an emergency room or surgical floor). I suspected the note wasn't just about hospital rules: it was about having me fall in line.

Then I looked online and realized that there were several places that considered open-toed shoes taboo for professional women. Even recently, a February 2014 article in The New York Times noted that “those who work inside the Beltway abide by one of the strictest dress codes in the country.” People have been asked to leave the House floor “for offenses as minor as open-toed shoes.” Even less restrictive arenas than Congress mention this standard. An article on business casual dress codes mentions the open-toed shoe taboo, which also crops up at law firms and in corporate settings.

This rule surprised me. It reminded me of the scandalousness of women first showing their ankles back in the Edwardian era…over a hundred years ago. The insistence on closed toes even smacked of the old Chinese beauty standard of women binding their feet into immobile crushed stumps. Was a little toe really so provocative, so distracting in the workplace? Was it a sign of loucheness in women, a frippery better suited for the beach than the boardroom?

My confidence in my ability to lead wavered from that point on. If I could get in trouble for my shoes, what about everything else? My voice, my hair, my clothes, let alone my clinical judgment or my decisions involving patients’ lives? There was no similarly trifling way to undermine a male leader’s authority.

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Chastened, I wore nothing but ballet flats for the next few years. Being a young, soft-spoken Asian-American woman, I felt no one naturally respected me as a leader. The shoe incident only deepened this insecurity. It was deflating to find that I could still at this stage be the oddball, scolded or mocked for my appearance. From that point on, my confidence continued to sink, and I had a very stressful tenure. I felt like a teacher getting overrun by a temperamental classroom, and no one would settle down unless I yelled. Then, they would just think I was crazy.

After a few more miserable years, I quit the world of academic medicine and switched jobs. Gingerly, I began to wear some dressy sandals again (ironically, at a military office—but I was allowed to as a civilian). One of my patients asked where to buy my newest shoes and got them for his wife. Female soldiers gave a knowing wink as if to share what they wore out of uniform.

I informally polled some friends about open-toed shoes for women in the workplace and found an interesting and clear generational divide; Gen Y and Millennial women seemed fairly clueless about the rule, and even indifferent. (“Why not wear dressy sandals in the summer? But not with pantyhose, please.”) Older women, many of whom had long been working at law firms, businesses, and clinics, had been brought in line with the closed-toe rule. Interestingly, I could not find any guys who felt that open-toed shoes were inappropriate.

The open-toed shoe standard does not seem to be a majority view, but is still endorsed by a sizeable number. A survey done in 2012 by the Adecco Group, a global staffing company covering multiple industries, noted that 35% of the 1,010 respondents thought open-toed shoes were inappropriate in the workplace (as opposed to 76% who thought flip-flops were inappropriate).

I wonder why this standard has to exist at all. I could not find any evidence of where the taboo originated. Probably, like Eve from Adam’s rib, female professional garb evolved from the standard male garb: neat necklines instead of ties, skirts instead of slacks, closed-toe shoes like male loafers. And as these norms have evolved, I can see why there are workplace guidelines addressing chests and hemlines (although the hullabaloo over Hillary Clinton’s once showing a little cleavage was ridiculous). But why toes? I thought the raciness of feet was more the purview of fetishists, and not some mainstream distraction.

Is it really a problem that women have this little bit of freedom, that they can indulge in a wider variety of footgear than leather loafers? (Sadly, I can think of no fashionable equivalent of the dressy sandal for men. Paging Johnny Weir to prove me wrong!) Equal playing field means equally dull feet?

Or is it more that the message of leisure and casualness signals a threat to workplace values? That fashion is a form of female dilettantism, an invitation to not be taken seriously?

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In truth, fashion can be powerful. I have found it a valuable therapeutic and professional tool in my job as psychiatrist. I’ve elicited fascinating comments and conversations from patients, both male and female, who would otherwise fear me or see me as little more than a closed-off nun. (Footwear reactions provide a cornucopia of Freudian data.) Fashion can bond people, can communicate in uplifting, confidence-boosting ways, and can bring beauty into drab corners. Perhaps this feminine touch is still too much of a threat to male-dominated corporate culture. And many women are too quick to judge one another for challenging the status quo.

Whatever the reason for the taboo, I say this: it’s time to get rid of this outdated standard for professional women, and take a small, open-toed step in the right direction.

Note: A version of this essay was originally published on Work Stew in September 2014.


What are the 4 psychological reasons consumers participate in fashion? ›

Many psychological factors help explain what motivates us to be fashionable. These include conformity, desires for variety seeking, the need to express personal creativity, and sexual attraction.

What is the psychology of fashion style? ›

Fashion psychology is an interdisciplinary field that examines the interaction between human behavior, individual psychology, and fashion, as well as the various factors that impact an individual's clothing choice.

What does psychology say about people who dress well? ›

You are What Others See

It can positively represent you as someone who is confident, sophisticated and smart, or it can negatively represent you as someone careless, indifferent or worse: a failure. The most tangible benefit of dressing well is that it helps you identify yourself to others without saying a single word.

Why do men still rule the fashion industry? ›

Because of the stereotype matching, men more readily fulfill our notions of what a manager should look like. And when you're in a female-dominated profession, there are fewer people that have the ability to match it.” In the fashion industry, these preconceptions are amplified.

What are the 4 P's of fashion? ›

The four Ps are the key considerations that must be thoughtfully reviewed and wisely implemented in order to successfully market a product or service. They are product, price, place, and promotion. The four Ps are often referred to as the marketing mix.

What are the 4 fashion personalities? ›

There are four main style personalities—expressive, romantic, classic, and relaxed— but most people will display aspects of two or three personalities.

What are the six fashion personalities? ›

Instead of five taste buds, we have six style personalities: relaxed, classic, polished, soft, magnetic, and creative.

What is the summary of fashion psychology? ›

Fashion Psychology is the integration and utilization of the science of psychology and the industry of fashion to create manageable therapeutic tools that ultimately assist in the development of desired results in both clients' perceptions of self, their behaviors, and moods as well as targeted objectives within the ...

What are the psychological issues related to fashion industry? ›

This constant worrying about being thin enough, being liked by a designer, or, in general, being good enough to model causes a breakdown of your self-image, and this breakdown paves the way for eating disorders to develop. It's a way of controlling something because you feel everything else is out of your control.

Does dressing well at work make a difference? ›

Dressing professionally can help form a positive impression to people you meet in the workplace. This is especially important for interviews and when meeting upper-level managers who make hiring and promotion decisions. The initial judgments people make about you can influence their long-term opinions.

Does the clothing you wear affect your psychological processes? ›

The scientists concluded that clothes systematically influence wearers' psychological processes. But also these psychological changes depend on the symbolic meaning that we ascribe to different types of attire. So, if we wear clothes that symbolize intelligence, we feel smarter.

How does the way you dress affect your personality? ›

Your dressing sense reflects your personality, character, mood, style and what actually you are as an individual. People wearing gaudy clothes with loud make up are generally extroverts and love partying. You really can make out what sort of person an individual is by his/her dressing.

Why does women's fashion change more than men's? ›

With some exceptions, women interact with fashion much differently since they don't take the time to tailor their clothing due to their clothes being cycled through frequently throughout the year. Women want to obtain a particular look to fit in with their peers and don't prioritize the perfect fit as much as men do.

Is the fashion industry abusive? ›

Our research found all women garment workers had witnessed or directly experienced gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in their workplaces, perpetrated by male supervisors and managers who drive them to meet unreasonable production targets set by fashion brands.

When did men stop dressing feminine? ›

Despite hose, long gowns and full-skirted coats remained acceptable and fashionable parts of the male wardrobe until the first half of the 20th century, though their mainstream popularity declined rapidly in the 1800's.

What are the four 4 major factors that influence consumer buyer behavior? ›

Psychological, Cultural, Social and Personal are the four factors that affect consumer behaviour.

What are psychographic factors in fashion? ›

It classifies the target market's feeling toward consumer goods (e.g., what they want & why, how they carry on their everyday lives, what they value, how they make choices when it comes to what they purchase, etc.)

What are the physiological factors affecting fashion? ›

Physiological Factor

It includes age, skin color, body structure, height of the person, etc. With growing age, people change their choices. So, fashion is essentially guided by such principles as well.


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