Our clothing is a good reflection of who we are, the image we want to project to the world, but choosing what to wear for work every day can be a chore. So what would happen if you decided to wear a work uniform? Green Party MEP Alexandra Phillips chronicles what happened when she decided to minismise her work wardrobe down to a uniform of green dresses…
Just a few short months ago, I worked for a national health charity. I don’t think anyone paid particular attention to what I was wearing, bar the odd person in the office and perhaps my mum.
I like using my clothes as a means to express myself and like most people, I want to look presentable when I’m outside of my house. But I’ll admit that between juggling seven-days-a-week jobs and being a mother, my sartorial choices often take a backseat to other more pressing issues.
Since I became an MEP in May this year – and particularly since I’m that rare breed of young, female MEP – I’ve become painfully aware that my appearance matters, at least a little bit more. My photograph is taken at least once a day by journalists, EU parliament teams, or for my social media feeds. I have meetings to attend, committee sessions to be in, and Brussels journalists to meet in corridors. I’m under much greater scrutiny than before.
When you’re holding public office, looking suitably smart is important. I don’t object to this, but I do mind that the appearance of women is constantly under the lens of society’s criticism.
What we wear, how we appear, what we are saying or ‘flaunting’ with our fashion choices, or even just our body shapes – this is the narrative that surrounds our entry into public spaces every single day. And men simply aren’t subject to the same levels of observation.
I look with some envy at my colleague Magid Magid, whose trademark DMs, bold black and white slogan T-shirts and backwards yellow cap are both his brand, and his uniform. It’s not just that he looks great that I’m slightly jealous of, but rather the time, effort and energy he saves when getting ready. And he’s not the only one. Mark Zuckerberg made the headlines in 2016 by talking about his choice to wear a ‘work uniform’, saving mental exertion every morning by whacking on the same combination of trousers and T-shirt. Job done.
I think there’s a value in saving time like this, and in freeing yourself from the strain of having to decide each day what would look right, what fits the occasion, and what won’t attract unnecessary attention, yet still reflects who you are. Shaving minutes from your morning regime is always welcome when you’re busy, but the real concern I have is that the mental force we expend on minor choices can distract from the more serious ones we need to make.
As a woman in politics, I need all the creativity I can muster to rise to the challenges that we face both as a society and a continent. In European parliament sessions, on the committees I sit on and in the meetings I attend, I need to bring energy, lateral-thinking skills and my profound desire to practically, comprehensively and creatively help to solve the challenges that lie before us.
On top of this, I am keenly aware that I am one of a minority of young women in the political arena. We are underrepresented almost everywhere in the world of politics, and as in other spheres, we have to work harder than men to make our voices heard. I’ve been mistaken for a secretary or staffer when I’m with male colleagues on more than one occasion, despite being the same age as they are. After a recent TV appearance, someone tweeted a sexist comment about my ‘pins’.
Wearing a work uniform: how to dress for work
Beyond this casual misogyny, I think my clothes play a part in how I am considered, and this shouldn’t be the case. I tend to oscillate between smart power dressing, such as a trouser suit and kitten heels, to a more relaxed smart-casual dress paired with a statement necklace. Sometimes I feel overdressed, sometimes a little underdressed. It’s hard to get it right when my days have such a variety of activities, from parliament sessions to direct action to meeting constituents. Basically, I’m tired of wasting time choosing what to wear each day to ensure that I’m treated with the seriousness that my position commands.
That’s why I decided to trial wearing a ‘uniform’ to the European parliament and in my work as an MEP. I want to see what happens when I know what I’m wearing every day – and what the reactions are to my wearing the same type of clothing over and over again.
I’m anti-fast fashion and I believe in circular economies, so my uniform will be three dresses handed down to me by my sister. She gave them to me during the election campaign for MEPs. Crucially, they’re all green – after all, if I’m going to wear the same thing on repeat, I want it to be on brand with my party.
Clothing is a part of how seriously – or not – we are taken. Wearing a work uniform won’t free me from others’ scrutiny. It might even increase criticism at first, as I pitch up wearing the same three things at every EU Parliament event. But I hope that after a while, as my appearance remains static, what I have to say may be heard more loudly. Beyond this, my days are full of decisions. I don’t want clothing choices to distract me from the ones that really matter.
Wearing a work uniform: day 1
It’s day one, and I’m wearing the first of my outfits – a dark blue Whistles maxi-dress with green daisies. Given that it’s the first day of the experiment, no one has remarked on my appearance or looked twice at what I was wearing. It’s something I’ve worn plenty of times before, so it really it feels no different to normal. That said, it was nice to wake up this morning and know exactly what I was going to wear – and even have it hanging over the back of my chair, ready to put on.
I always wear the same items with all my outfits: my Fiorelli backpack and patent vegan M&S kitten heels, paired with either my Miss Selfridge biker jacket, or a blue Jigsaw suit jacket. This dress, being a bit smarter, goes well with the suit jacket. Knowing all of this beforehand gave me an extra 10 minutes in the morning to sit with my son, which was a very welcome bonus (although I narrowly avoided having his breakfast all over me, which would definitely have complicated the start of the experiment).
The odd thing was that even though I had a few meetings and some constituency business, I actually ended up having a rare life-admin and childcare-heavy day. I therefore spent the day feeling a little overdressed.
Wearing a work uniform: day 2
I had a lovely start to today as I walked into the office wearing the second of my outfits (a long-sleeved green Missguided dress) and one of my colleagues said I looked nice. Even though I’d worn this dress a number of times, I hadn’t worn it on Parliamentary business yet. Hearing that you look nice is never a bad thing, but it felt particularly gratifying since I really had put minimum (or actually, no) effort into selecting my clothes for the day.
I had eight meetings throughout the day, met a group of students from the north west of England, and attended parliamentary sessions. In the evening I had a meal planned with my four wonderful staffers. What I was wearing felt great for all my parliamentary business, but usually I would have thrown on something different to go out for dinner – not necessarily to look more dressed up, but just to feel a bit fresher after a full day of work. However, I am a stickler for doing things properly and changing would be cheating, so I spent the evening wearing the same dress I had been wearing since 6am that morning.
My staffers were all so tired after the mammoth day we’d had, I’m not sure if they would have noticed if I’d changed anyway.
Wearing a work uniform: day 3
Today is the last of the three outfits – a green leopard-print Urban Touch dress. This is my failsafe dress – I wear it often, as it’s smart but not too formal, and I love the colour and the pattern. Again, it was great to have my clothes already laid out on the back of my chair, and definitely shaved off some time in the morning, as well as some mental energy in terms of having to think about what goes with what, and which items are clean. However, I had a sudden realisation that I needed to clean the other two outfits very quickly, so I popped them both in the wash and hung them out to dry. Fingers crossed they’ll be dry by tomorrow…
I had another really busy day in the parliament in Brussels. My diary was chock-a-block with meetings, plenary sessions and in any gaps I had, conference calls. My colleague Scott Ainslee launched an initiative called London Loves EU, which invites people to submit selfies – so I was very pleased to be wearing something suitably on brand for the green party, and which I think makes me look nice for a selfie. After work I spoke at a cycling conference – usually I might have dressed down a little for this (or, more to the point, got into the spirit of things in my lycra cycling gear) but I stuck with the dress and felt smart, if not a little out of place.
Wearing a work uniform: day 4
Back to the second day’s outfit – the long-sleeved Missguided dress. I felt as if I got some odd looks today from other MEPs in the parliament corridors. All week I’ve been meeting to discuss the Green New Deal with parliamentary colleagues, and so today it felt like I was repeating the same things in the same clothes, which gave me a vague sense of déjà vu.
I felt I needed to mention to one of my colleague’s staffers why I looked exactly the same as two days ago, and why the green theme is so consistent with my outfits. It wasn’t that he’d said anything per se – but I was conscious that in our second meeting of the week I was wearing identical clothing. He looked a little bemused but seemed on board with the clothes recycling aspect, as you might expect for an environmentalist. It’s hard to explain to men why the judgements passed on women’s appearances are such a big deal. When I explained the experiment to my female staffers they got it, understanding immediately why I might want to try it. But I think for many (though not all) men, it’s hard to understand something they’ve never experienced.
Still, despite my slight unease and pressing need to explain, it is really nice to know exactly what you’re wearing each day – and today’s outfit felt like the right kind of thing for my many meetings, conference calls and team catch-ups.
Wearing a work uniform: day 5
Today I had a couple of meetings before heading back to the UK on the Eurostar. I wore the first day’s outfit, the Whistles maxi dress, again. I would normally opt for something more comfortable and less eye catching when travelling, but I stay in the dress all the way back to London and down south to Brighton. It feels a bit tired to be wearing it again – especially as I was wearing it as I left the UK – and to be honest, sometimes it’s nice to just wear black and be a little more incognito.
To some degree, the clothes we choose reflect how we’re feeling, as well as what is clean and weather appropriate. There are days where I’m happy to wear a pillar-box red dress that you can see from half a mile away. But there are also days where I don’t want to be noticed by wearing bright colours. Being restricted in what you wear has benefits in terms of saving time, but it doesn’t allow the creativity that comes with choosing what to wear each morning.
Ultimately, the outfit was suitable for everything I had to do, I think I just would have preferred to wear something else!
Wearing a work uniform: the verdict
It’s hard to say whether wearing the same three dresses gave me more time to think, as in effect I spent most of the week thinking about the experiment. I was also quite conscious of other people’s reactions, and I felt very aware that I was wearing the same things as I held meetings with the same people. However, I think that in time I would just cease to care, and in the long term it would free up some time in my daily life and remove a whole section of thought from my head and routine, which is definitely a positive.
In general, one thing I would say is that having clothes on the back of your chair ready to wear when you’ve had your shower is a huge mental and literal time saver. An extra 10-15 minutes in the morning to check emails, tidy up, or just to sit and get your thoughts in order helps you kick off the day and can leave a little space for ideas to occur. When you’re pressed for time, creativity can be squeezed in between obligations and responsibilities – and windows of time for thought are a blessing.
In terms of other people’s judgements… again, it’s hard to say. Drawing attention to yourself with what you wear is hard not to do as a woman. In a sense you can’t win – things will be perceived as too “outlandish”, too “frumpy”, too “young”, or in my case, too much of the same. No one said anything outright during the week, but I certainly felt conscious that I had the same things on repeat. Ultimately, other people’s reactions are not something I can control, and so the key is to wear things I feel good in, without losing precious time and mental energy deciding what that is.
I don’t think I’ll carry on the experiment in a rigorous way, but the dresses I’d selected are appropriate (and on Green brand) for pretty much all of my EU parliament work, and I’d like to keep wearing them each week. One thing I will definitely be trying to do from now on is to leave my clothes for the next day out the night before – we’ll see how I get on!
Images: courtesy of author, Getty / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise