It’s time. After multiple false starts and a brief period where work-from-home felt endless, businesses are finally heading back to the office. Of the many questions on our minds, one of the most immediate is, what on earth am I going to wear?
Overshadowing the excitement of once again having a reason to get dressed (and subsequently show off the new garments I acquired during the height of my sad pandemic shopping), I find myself lost in the malaise of “professional dressing.” Workplace fashion spikes my blood pressure and sends my anxiety into overdrive, a response that began in the days I worked in a non-profit office and continue now whenever I need to speak on panels or attend business related events. As a fat person, I know my professional competency is weighed against my plus-size body and how I’ve chosen to dress it. Plus-size people have to push back against the presumption of sloppiness and laziness that anti-fat bias in the workplace carries with it.
In most countries there is still no legal recourse for workplace fat discrimination. It persists as a searing shame I have felt on multiple occasions: surprise from professional contacts that I can be both fat and a hard worker, or underhanded remarks that I look “different” than who they pictured working in fashion. Aside from my own lived experiences, research affirms how ingrained anti-fat biases are in the workplace, permeating hiring practices, promotions, and workplace treatment from both management and workplace counterparts. So for my straight-sized colleagues, getting dressed for the office is a simple act, but for plus-sized people, how we dress impacts how we are treated, opportunities offered, and the trajectory of our careers to a much greater extent. The way we dress has to eclipse these preconceptions. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a blazer.
“This particular subcategory of dressing well in the office, as a way to be a powerful person in professional settings, is something I know well,” says Alexandra Waldman, the co-founder and creative director at Universal Standard, “I know that when I worked in a very formal, very highly regulated environment in the banking industry, I was very much aware of the limits to my wardrobe and the obstacles of trying to fit into an environment like that.” Her past career experiences were just one of the culminating factors that led to co-founding Universal Standard, the only brand in North America that offers sizes 00-40 in all the apparel they sell, including a substantial workwear section.
Designing from a place of frustration is not a unique story, either. Lauren Chan, founder and CEO of Henning, still winces as she tells me her pants once tore up the back as she was on her way to conduct a major interview for Glamour. “Henning was born out of my need for strong workwear pieces while I was working at Condé Nast. My peers were in incredible, well-made designer clothing, and that comes with status and confidence,” Chan, who also works in New York as a plus-size model, says. Chan describes her client base as, “Lawyers, filmmakers, politicians— those that work in high-level, executive, or high-profile positions who have had the biggest grievances when it comes to finding work-appropriate clothes. I want to give those high-powered women a bit of extra confidence with clothing—the confidence that they deserve to have when they get dressed.”