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From finance to costume design: does your job dictate your make-up routine? Why office-appropriate is over

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With society’s strict ideals about women dumbing down their make-up in the workplace, these women refuse to conform by bringing defiant, bold looks to the boardroom

Words: Catherine Turner
Photography: Sarah Brimley 

With perfect eyeliner flicks, defined eyebrows and graphic earrings, Alison Dogilewski (above), 36, could be anything – a dancer, a teacher, a pilot perhaps. The fact that she has invested time and put thought into the ways she looks might lead people to assume she works in a so-called ‘feminine’ environment; she is actually a corporate banker. Like an increasing number of women, she has chosen to express her true self in the workplace while refusing to tailor her appearance to conform with her masculine environment.

Outside the workplace most women are cosmetic chameleons. Taking make-up free selfies one minute, then false lashed, full-lipped siren pics the next. “With the explosion of social media, it’s all emotive: ‘This is what I want to say about myself’,” says David Horne, academic make-up artist and founder of House Of Glam Dolls training school in London. “But while this form of self-expression can make you feel more powerful it doesn’t mean equality.” Not when, for many women, expressing yourself through your make-up at work is still considered a real no-no.

“There’s still a lot of conservatism in some industries,” observes Lisa Eldridge, make-up artist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Face Paint. “I see successful female City traders in strong make-up looks, but I think you need lots of balls to do it as the old guard still rules there and whether or not you like it, you will be judged. People think if you’re wearing lots of make-up, you’re spending time on that rather than paying attention to the job.” This mistrust may hark back to make-up’s roots in the theatre, when cosmetics were seen as artifice and even a means of deception, suggests Madeleine Marsh, historian, academic and author of Compacts And Cosmetics: Beauty From Victorian Times To The Present Day. “The term ‘make-up’ originates from the theatre and from this came slap and slapper, the now familiar colloquialisms for wearing too much make-up.”

Though individually we might not be enslaved to fit into a certain image of beauty, the subconscious assumptions of others about our appearance can still affect the way we are perceived professionally. One report found that a third of bosses (male and female) think women wear too much make-up to work but equally wouldn’t be impressed by make-up free looks.

Pride and prejudice

A recent study by a team including Nancy Etcoff, Harvard professor and author of the book Survival Of The Prettiest: The Science Of Beauty, asked a panel to rate photographs of women wearing make-up and no make-up. The respondents’ reactions were fascinating and unsettling. Women in make-up were considered to be more likeable, attractive and competent than those without. Further, women with light make-up or natural looks were the most favoured while those with glamorous make-up were seen as being less trustworthy. In other words, the ‘old slapper’ idea of too much make-up indicating character deficiencies kicked in. The implications of this prejudice at a time when potential employers are regularly clicking on social media platforms and making snap judgments about future staff are significant for anyone who dares to break away from a bland, inoffensive office look.

Of course there are plenty of us who are happy in our own skin and comfortable going to the office barefaced or with minimal make-up. This also suits the fast moving work landscape and culture where portfolio careers, self-employment, LinkedIn networking and FaceTime interviews blur the line between on and off duty. For those who like to express their dynamic, bold characters through their make-up in the office where, let’s face it, we spend the vast proportion of our time, life isn’t so simple.

These days, we are negotiating unwritten rules (new and old) when it comes to appearance in the workplace. Ultimately, we need to manage the image we project intelligently and consciously and decide what make-up works day-to-day for us. Eldridge is inspired by the challenge: “Criticism of women wearing make-up goes back decades but now we have the freedom to wear false lashes if we want, or red lipstick if we want. That’s liberating.” For those contemplating a bold look she believes there are ways to use it to your career advantage. “I’ll wear flicked up eyeliner for a business lunch,” she says. “It’s good to bring a little attention to eyes as they’re expressive when you’re speaking.”

It’s that same freedom of personal expression that is motivating women across the working world to reflect their core identity – whether as a Fifties screen siren, a romantic hippie or cyber punk – in the office. Inadvertently they are also providing themselves with an instant visual brand. A strong look makes you recognisable and memorable – key advantages in a competitive work environment. As Marsh says, “Make-up can make you feel better, as well as having the potential to make your clients and colleagues feel good too.” In the tradition of the earliest beauty rebels, we met five women who have faced prejudice and put-downs to express their true selves through their appearance to find out why it’s so important to be strong in our work and to keep our identity…


“I want to be memorable, but not for the wrong reasons”

Alison Dogilewski, 36, banker and co-founder of luxury fashion brand, 1947 Bespoke

Alison Dogilewski

“In a professional environment like finance, you need to be taken seriously. I was only 20 when I started work on the trading floor of an investment bank and I was one of just seven women among 400 men, most of whom were 20 or 30 years older. It’s a high- pressured business involving a vast amount of assets so I wanted to appear grown-up but in a way that didn’t compromise my femininity.

I’ve been wearing strong eye make-up since I was a teenager and have refined my look as I’ve grown older. I’ve always adored the elegance of Dior’s ‘New Look’ of the Forties and Fifties – the bold eyeliner and brows to complement the wasp-waisted silhouettes are the inspiration for my look.

My working day starts at 6.45am so speed is of the essence. I cycle to work, shower and do my make-up there. I’ve got my routine down to under eight minutes and the effect, I believe, is simple but bold. I don’t wear lipstick. My nightmare would be to come out of a client meeting and discover I have lipstick on my teeth so I avoid that scenario altogether.

I have never been to work without wearing make-up; it’s part of my uniform and I’d rather be late than bare-faced. First impressions count in my world and appearance is a huge part of that.

No-one has given me negative feedback, although one client recently commented in a morning meeting that I looked ready for a cocktail party – which I took as a positive. Strangely, it’s the women who don’t wear much make-up that come up for criticism and I have heard of senior managers gently prodding colleagues to present themselves better with clients. It’s outrageous.

Ultimately, I want to be memorable, but not for the wrong reasons. When my clients sign up, they’re buying into all of me and my presentation – as well as my work – is an important factor.”


“I resented being told to wear lipstick for work”

Ashleigh Williams, 28, customer service assistant at Pretty Small Shoes

Ashleigh Williams

“Have you ever been told how you should look? What you should do to fit in? I have. In a previous job, I was told what make-up I should wear to my job in a department store: a base, mascara and, crucially, bright red lipstick. I’d always felt make-up – choosing to wear a lot or a little – was a very personal choice. If it’s not the look you’re used to, being told how to look can be slightly uncomfortable. I did resent it.

To make my manager’s request all the more pertinent, at the time I wasn’t particularly used to wearing make-up at all. Growing up, I never took an interest in beauty, since shopping for dark skin products was so difficult. When I was a teenager, finding foundations or base colours to match my skin was near impossible – there were light, or very dark foundations, but nothing that matched mine. So when I found myself in a job where I was told to ‘dress up’ my face, it didn’t come naturally and I felt uncomfortable in make-up.

However, when I left that role, I found that my perceptions of make-up had changed. Instead of ignoring the beauty counter, I was interested – and, thankfully, the diversity of make-up for people of colour had taken on a whole new level. Not only that, but I realised when it wasn’t forced on me, I quite liked applying my ‘work face’, and making myself look professional.

I have quite a simple look for work – mascara, sometimes a black-winged eyeliner and a berry red or purple lipstick – it gives off a confident impression and makes me feel more assertive.

Working on a shop floor means I’m always on show and making sure my make-up looks good helps me feel self-assured. When I’ve taken extra time on my make-up in a morning, I feel like I’m going to have a better day and can take on whatever it brings: strong face, strong game.”


“My look lets me show my creativity”

Anna McCombie, 27, costume facial hair designer

Anna McCombie

“I’m glad I work in an industry that doesn’t promote homogeneous beauty standards. I find the idea of working in a corporate situation, where you’re required to look a certain way, quite troubling. I’m lucky with my work – it may sound unusual but I make facial hair for actors so there’s a lot of scope for creativity. In fact, my colleagues would be more surprised if I came in looking completely natural as opposed to my usual vintage style.

For me, make-up is a genuine expression of my personality. I wear it because I want people to know who I am and to let them know that I accept whoever they are too. In that sense, make-up can be both a connective device and an empowering one. I like to think my signature vintage style is a look that suits me but also gives my appearance individuality. When I show up somewhere and my look is different to the general vibe, I feel like a badass. I can’t help thinking, ‘Yeah, I got this!’

When I was younger, I was a complete tomboy and my transition to make-up was difficult. I grew up in a very conservative town in Idaho where 85% of people are Mormons. There wasn’t a lot of scope for glamour. I started out buying cheap make-up like my first liquid eyeliner from the dollar store. From there, the baby cat flick began to emerge in my routine.

It wasn’t until I moved to London and studied theatrical hair and make-up design that I truly embraced the vintage vibe. Before that, I’d always been inspired by shows like I Love Lucy growing up. Nobody had any preconceptions of me here, so I was free to reinvent myself without people’s judgment. When I go home to Idaho now, I get the sense people don’t approve of my look, which is sad. For me it’s empowering and lets me show my creativity. It’s given me the confidence to no longer care what other people think.”


“I refuse to conform to the staus quo”

Grace Sarfarazi, 34, senior legal manager

Grace Sarfarazi

“There are so many conventional ideas about appearance – especially for women. We should look flawless or, in a corporate environment like the one I work in, we shouldn’t stand out too much. I refuse to ‘fit in’.

I’ve always worked in corporate environments – every job I’ve had has been in the City. It’s full of grey suits, grey walls, navy dresses and black shoes. The status quo is that, if you work in business, you can’t express yourself. I don’t think anyone should have to conform to that.

Day to day I wear a lot of colourful make-up. Sometimes that’s three different shades of eyeshadow, coloured eyeliner and often a strong lipstick too. People new to the company jump to the conclusion that I’m an airhead but soon change their tune when they realise I’m drafting a complex legal agreement for a multi-million pound deal.

When I first started my new job, I got a few raised eyebrows. It’s the judgmental nature that societal ideals create. But once colleagues got to know me and saw that I get the job done, they stopped caring about what’s on my face.

At my previous job I was taken to one side by HR and asked to ‘tone down’ my make-up. It didn’t sit well with me – I found it offensive. I didn’t say anything and pared it back for two weeks, but then just went back to my normal ways. Nobody mentioned it again.

For me, wearing make-up at work is about being able to be expressive and reflect the fun side of my personality. The thought of wearing no make-up at the office horrifies me.

Now everyone at work knows my make-up goes with my personality – confident, vibrant and doesn’t take herself too seriously. They wouldn’t ask me to change and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere that would.”


“With make-up, I have more self-belief”

Kate Payne, 32, marketing manager

Kate Payne

“A few years ago I spent time working from home but I found that when I was in a tracksuit without make-up, I couldn’t get in the right frame of mind to work. Now, as a marketing manager I spend 20 minutes every morning applying my make-up. It helps me focus my thinking and feel prepared to enter the workplace.

When you look smart you instantly feel more prepared to meet people and I’ve found that when I have make-up on, I’m more likely to voice my opinions and have more self-belief, which is key in my profession.

When I was a child, my mum taught me how to put on foundation and I’d borrow all her lipsticks. She takes such pride in her appearance that I grew up learning all the tips I needed from her.

My style is simple but makes an impact. On a day-to-day basis, I wear a pink, purple or red lipstick – anything that’s bright and eye-catching. As well as adding a blast of colour to an outfit, it’s also a way of showing people I meet that I’m creative and fun. Make-up gives you the chance to express your personality, which means a lot to me. Every day I’m meeting new people so it’s important to give them a sense of what I’m about.

My friends are all equally as obsessed with make-up as I am – there are about four of us who own the same bright purple lipstick called Heroine from Mac.

I’ve worn less make-up than usual at work if I’ve been unwell but I’ve never been in the office without any on. My colleagues would instantly notice so I’d feel quite self-conscious and unprepared to work with a bare face. It’s there to give me a professional look and a confidence boost, it would feel strangely intimate if a colleague ever saw me without it.”


Hair and make-up: Lou Box at S Management
Thanks to: Rida Studios

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