Fashion and The Female Geek – First Steps

This is part of “Ask a Geek Feminist” series! Questions are still being taken at the Ask A Geek Feminist post – so ask away!

I’ve got some general questions regarding dress code…

I’ve never been terribly observant regarding fashion matters, but it seems to me that male geeks can get away with a much sloppier wardrobe than female geeks. Is that just my impression or have others noticed anything similar?

What’s considered a suitable professional wardrobe for front-line geek feminists trying to be taken seriously?

“…I suggest that manners and etiquette, like language and fashion, are fundamental means of communication and self-expression. And, as with language and fashion, manners and etiquette adapt effortlessly to social change.” John Morgan, introduction to Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, 2001.

On the heels (no pun intended) of my post about girls, stereotyping and the colour pink (‘Does It Mean A Thing If It ‘Ain’t Got Pink Bling? Gender Differences, Toys And The Psychology Of Color‘) – apparently Barbie’s now an engineer? Sign Of The Times: Barbie’s A Tech Geek:

Mattel put the selection of Barbie’s 125th career in the hands of online voters for the first time… To create an authentic look for techie Barbie, designers worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for the doll. She wears a binary code patterned T-shirt and is equipped with the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset and laptop travel bag.

It’s interesting that they have the endorsement of the Society of Women Engineers and National Academy of Engineering in the creation (as I look at the doll, I notice that the article forgot to also mention the vibrant pink high-heels, laptop-logo and glasses – what, no contact lenses?).

I guess I’m in favor of changes to a doll which has traditionally perpetuated a rather narrow-portrayal of women – and yet it’s still limited by its portrayal of ‘geek-chic’. The blog post title says ‘Barbie as Tech-Geek’ – why not Barbie as educated or technical-savvy? Why is one of the most popular dolls on the planet (arguably, the most popular) – still posed on her toes and biologically impossible?

And what on earth does it mean to be ‘geek-chic’ anyway? Apart from sounding rather nifty when you say it aloud?

I’m going to see if, by responding to this question by a reader, I can address not only how to be taken seriously as a ‘front-line geek feminist’ – but also how to maintain a standard of comfort that is (quite frankly) essential to a woman who has plenty of ‘geeky’ passions that occupy her time and keep her on her biologically-accurate toes.

Despite the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ – we do. Some companies do have a written dress code, some rules are unwritten and we follow the lead of senior management when considering building our wardrobe.

We’re not dolls. But we’re can’t ignore that there are eyes upon us and that a little might make them ponder ‘Maybe I can be like her one day – and doesn’t it look fine to be her?’

I should point out (and I snapped my fingers with a ‘jinx!’, as another question submitted quoted this exact same study!) that we cannot ignore the influence of environmental factors for both men and women, who are interested in choosing technical-related fields as a career – ‘Of girls and geeks: Environment may be why women don’t like computer science‘:

“These studies suggest objects such as science fiction books and Star Trek posters communicate whether or not a person belongs in an environment. “Instead of trying to change the women who do not relate to the stereotype, our research suggests that changing the image of computer science so that more women feel they fit in the field will go a long way to recruiting them into computer science,” said Cheryan.

“We want to attract more people to computer science. The stereotype is not as alienating to men as women, but it still affects them as well. A lot of men may also be choosing to not enter the field because of the stereotype. We need to broaden the image of the field so both women and men feel more welcome. In workplaces and universities we can do this by changing the way offices, hallways and labs look. The media can also play a role by updating the image of computer science. It would be nice for computer scientists in movies and television to be typical people, not only computer geeks.”

While this clearly refers to the office environment in terms of the image it portrays… what of the image we portray?

My job has had a rather odd byproduct over the years – I’ve ended up collecting a few etiquette guides. One that I’m particularly fond of is ‘Debrett’s Guide’, simply because one of the key points they make is the idea that manners involves ‘making everyone comfortable‘. I have taught for the last decade in all-female schools, which have annual ‘etiquette’ classes for students before they attend the graduation ball. The lecturers for the session talk about how they have advised on functions attended by royalty, red-carpet and dinner parties, what is correct address, how to use cutlery and even the right way to interact with others.

Students are intrigued. Even if they choose to not attend the ball, they ask questions about behaviour and expected standards at formal events. What is paramount? Respect for fellow attendees – ‘even the Queen has in mind that the rule is to make everyone feel as included as possible, and that also means the way you dress and act’.

Maybe it’s old-fashioned, outdated, a remnant of a best-forgotten era… but I think I learned something from the experience that I carry with me in my professional life.

You have to be comfortable. There is no point in being distracted from the important things in your life by a impractical item of clothing that has you pulling or tugging. But it’s vital, in my opinion, to make other people comfortable about how you dress as well – to make a statement about how you should be viewed in a symbolic fashion via – fashion.

I personally view ‘geek-chic’ as standing up for your priority to be polished both professionally and in the way you present yourself.

Firstly, there’s the notion of the ‘capsule wardrobe’ – which depend entirely on your lifestyle. In essence, it’s the idea of having a handful of items that are fairly easy to dress up or dress down. It’s dependent on cost, it’s dependent on how far you’re willing to search for items and you shouldn’t feel as if you’re limited to just plain colours or styles just because they’re ‘in fashion’ or ‘they’re safe’.

Looking your best, week after week, requires finding colours that will team happily together, making interesting combinations from a limited number of pieces and finding what suits you in terms of those. Using a mirror that you can see all of yourself in, assess what meets this criteria. Black may always be back – but so can be navy, camel, dark grey, khaki, beige and taupe, brown and dove grey. Patterns and designs are a great way of bringing these together in a more interesting way, but then, I’ve been known to spend more on t-shirts with logos, than shoes.

It essentially boils down to deciding:

1) What makes you comfortable? Your typical ‘range’ when it comes to clothing? Pick out three to four favorite items from your wardrobe that you’d wear to work and brainstorm variations.

For example, in my wardrobe – black pants, black boots, a buttoned-up long-sleeve shirt. I’m comfortable in these items – the pants are baggy enough to either keep me warm or cool in a variety of conditions. My boots – I can stand in these for hours and they keep my toes warm when getting to and when working in the office. The shirt covers my arms, it’s got a nice pattern on it and I can leave it buttoned or unbuttoned as I wish (it’s a man’s shirt, in fact).

So – what are some common factors? Obviously comfort. And then I realise that I do a lot more moving about than I realise in these items. I get public transport, I run to meetings, I’m moving through crowded rooms and although I’m sometimes at a desk, I don’t like to be kept limited by what I’m wearing when I have important things to get done.

Therefore – it’s not only warmth, but practicality. So why not skirts that are A-line, or long, with slits in them (I have few ‘tango-style’ dresses that do this) which allow me to move fast and unhindered when needed?I added bright tank tops and chemises under my long-sleeved shirts. I began looking at the boots I liked and started researching ones that could have a heel and yet were well constructed to handle my busy lifestyle and not hurt my feet.

Why a heel at all? Well, I’m a ballroom dancer and for me, being comfortable in heels helps me on the dance floor. I tend more towards retro-designs, as in the picture – ribbons as ties, patent leather that has a nice sheen. When you’re just after an added decoration to lift a look, consider items like scarves, or subversive decoration, such as jewelry by KissyFace, which features Carl Sagan on a broach.

I can’t be fussed with my hair that often – so I use colourful and interesting-looking headbands and bandannas to keep my hair back (and out of the way of my work). If I’m styling it long, I often use the classic chignon style and spike an interesting item like chopsticks, arty-looking pencils or even a stylus through it.

I look for sturdy, interesting handbags that can sensibly hold necessary items and avoid juggling too much technology by having an attractive laptop bag with compartments. I have three in everyday use – the basic handbag, one for portfolios and work-related items that are A4 size (usually I keep these in cardboard folders so I can tuck them in neatly) and the laptop bag. Note – interesting, useful handbag does not necessarily mean ‘has a fashion label’. I wear a coat with a good lining and is a larger size, as I know that I may have to put it on over other items and that it needs to be strong to put up with a few seasons wear.

More often than not, when I find I am just too comfortable with something – I have to recognise that a much loved item of clothing has indeed had its day and either dye it a different colour or find something similar and new. I’d rather be breaking in something new that I’m proud to wear, than hanging onto something fraying because I’m letting it dictate my look. It’s not doing either of us any favors!

2) What’s the message you’d like people to have about you if asked about your style?

I know that on occasion, I like it when people recognise that I support certain causes or groups, that I’m a fan of certain sites or shows – or even that I work for a particular company. So, I’ll wear short sleeve shirts with a long waistcoat or jacket – so the logo is obvious but I’ve subtly dressed up my overall appearance. I’m honest about what colours I like and if I can, I’ll add something that’s red or silver in some form (such as a watch-band, glasses-case, a hair-tie) in recognition of that.

If I’m wearing boots or shoes – they’re shined. If I’m asked to present on something, I have a jacket that I can throw over anything and it is recognisably more formal than my usual office wear – so people know that I’m representing my team. Shoe-polish, ironed shirts (or better, items that don’t wrinkle!), tucked-in shirts, replacing socks and stockings when they get holes in them (I keep a spare pair in my desk) are standards that I’d think could be maintained by anyone in my office – learn the settings on the washing machine / care instructions, it saves a lot of time on wear, tear and eventual cost!

I like to think that ‘polished’ is a message that people would have about both me and my work. Sometimes the neighborhood dry-cleaning place can help with that or use Denver cleaning services to help you around.

3) What’s your budget?

I’ll save up, I’ll use eBay and I’ll check out second-hand if need be (sales I usually avoid, as I more often than not make big mistakes!) – but I won’t settle for cheaper items with poorer quality material or colours or style that don’t suit me, just because everyone says ‘but an office needs a skirt-suit’. Quality is better than quantity – just as a man uses ties, pocket handkerchiefs and socks to change the ‘tone’ of an outfit, consider jewelery, socks and tights, hair ties and belts.

I was pushed into buying a cheap peppermint-coloured jacket and skirt when I first got a job, and it was never worn. I was told a certain hairstyle was ‘in’ and that high-heeled Mary Jane shoes were standard-fare. They’re not. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you must have something and put yourself out financially to ‘be in’.

I look for what I like and if I do think I’ll get significant wear out of something (and this doesn’t happen very often), I’ll buy two of an item and put one aside. I recently brought two nice, good quality cardigans from one particular label, in two different colours, for example, and plan to return for another when there’s a sale on in the store.

I wear my USB key on a attractive laynard or necklace and I cheer myself up by wearing the bowler hat on the way into work on occasion. Maybe I’m quirky that way, but for me, it’s a nod to an earlier version of Debrett’s, when bowler hats were often worn on the buses and trains heading to work.


Cheryan S, Plaut VC, Davies PG, & Steele CM (2009). Ambient belonging: how stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(6), 1045-60 PMID: 19968418

16 thoughts on “Fashion and The Female Geek – First Steps

  1. Kylie S Post author

    Thanks so much, Mary! :) I’ve been trying to find more links, so this is really helpful.

  2. Melinda

    This was an extremely frustrating post to read, not the least because I haven’t observed the original question to be true. You kind of blew right past it and started giving fashion tips.

  3. Katie

    I have to say I agree with Melinda. My housemates leave fashion magazines lying around the house, full of the message that women should spend time, money and effort on physical appearance – if you actually took the the advice in those magazines seriously, you would have a full-time job just choosing the right make-up and clothes to fit your personal style, your body shape, your skin type, or whatever. Ugh! I was a little put out to see that same sort of thing going on on the Geek Feminism blog. Of course there are some people who like that sort of thing and that’s great, but it’s really not for everybody.

    1. Kylie S Post author

      Melinda – Did you want me to start judging men’s appearances in the workplace with a blog-post? Commenting on why they dress as they do? Is that useful? That’s the only other ‘spin’ I think I can see from the question given… I’m a little lost as to your point. I wondered if it’d come across as man-bashing or (something I can’t do) a historical investigation as to the clothing standards in technologically-orientated workforces.

      The best I could think of was ‘perhaps – and just perhaps – if someone isn’t going to be “on site” for their job and can do it remotely, businesses may have got in the habit of relaxing dress standards for that particular group if they are not often seen by their customers’. Maybe you would have preferred if I did that, but there wasn’t much to be said.

      I have noticed, as I was writing this, that you wrote: “Is it true? Is it true for some technical communities but not others? What should you do when you encounter it? What’s the tradeoff between doing what you need to do to keep your career moving forward on the one hand and in perpetuating some kind of ugly expectations on the other? Etc. It’s a topic that hasn’t been resolved in lo, these many decades, and keeps coming up. I’m not sure that immediate acquiescence is what the person who posed the original question was looking for.”

      “…immediate acquiescence”? No. Absolutely not. Where did you get that? ‘Ugly expectations’? Wasn’t aware I was suggesting supporting those. Career moving forward? Of course. And yes, dress standards do count – which is why I focused on that. That would be something positive to suggest, if done in a practical way. Which I hope I did.

      I found no research on the matter when looking around for dress standards, beyond the research I already gave about environment. Beyond my own survey going around asking males about ‘why do you dress that way?’, I couldn’t think of much I could do in the short term (which, frankly, could be as antagonistic as going around the workplace asking women the same question)…

      What to do when encountering it and it makes you uncomfortable -? Pointing out that there are such things as dress standards (is that a useful tip? To suggest some?), pointing out that focusing on your career is important (well, it is) and acknowledging that appearances do, as much as it is problematic, do make a mark. I brought up etiquette in that regard, seeing it as relevant.

      Therefore – I chose to focus on:

      “What’s considered a suitable professional wardrobe for front-line geek feminists trying to be taken seriously?”

      I don’t suggest – as you can see by the blog post I wrote – that it should be a full time job, Katie. I give some (as I see it) fairly basic suggestions that should (if not eliminate the issue) at least be of some use, as there are certainly other things that occupy my and other’s time.

      Maybe it’s ‘not really for everybody’, but when I see a question, that is not that dissimilar to others posed, I’ll try to answer it. There were some very helpful links via Mary as well, so, even if this article seemed too much like a ‘fashion magazine’ (??) Katie, maybe those links would suit you better.

  4. Melinda

    Right, and I think there are more questions here than answers. Is it true? Is it true for some technical communities but not others? What should you do when you encounter it? What’s the tradeoff between doing what you need to do to keep your career moving forward on the one hand and in perpetuating some kind of ugly expectations on the other? Etc. It’s a topic that hasn’t been resolved in lo, these many decades, and keeps coming up. I’m not sure that immediate acquiescence is what the person who posed the original question was looking for.

    As I said, I haven’t found it to be the case but I’ve tended to work in plumbing-type jobs (operating systems development, network protocol design). I can see where it might be more true in applications and new media environments but I don’t know that that’s true.

  5. Melinda

    No, Kylie, I’d rather you didn’t judge anybody’s appearance in the workplace. If there are feminist issues around it, I think it would definitely useful to address those. Fashion tips, not so much.

  6. Kylie S Post author

    “If there are feminist issues around it, I think it would definitely useful to address those. ”

    Good, Melinda. Next time, you can ask the question then, and someone will address it. I addressed the one I was given.

    1. ConFigures

      “I addressed the one I was given.”

      You addressed the second one of the ones you were given. I found your post interesting, not least as a ballroom dancer, myself. It was extensive, and I followed some of the links you gave, too. Thanks.

      But by not even addressing the first question with a simple “I don’t know” or
      “I haven’t noticed that”, you did give the impression that you didn’t notice it or didn’t think it was important, and I wasn’t surprised by the reaction you got.

  7. Melinda

    So, is this supposed to be about feminism or is it about pretty much anything to do with women? I mean, fashion tips? In a “feminist” blog? Seriously??!!??? How’s that work, exactly? That is to say, what’s the connection? Surely there’s some substance there, beyond “It’s my blog and I’ll write what I like.” I suppose that’s true but you can call a cube a sphere all you want and it doesn’t make the corners go away. How is this “feminism?”

  8. Clare Gryphon

    I have to agree with Kylie here and what has been writen, many woman who are professonals and are considered “geeks” would realise the tone that Kylie was writing in and the reasons for it.

    Of course fashion is a feminist issue a huge one, this is one writen for woman by woman and sharing ideas to me that is part of feminism.

    This is a great blog on this very issue.

  9. Melinda

    Okay, turn it around: How do you know that you’re not taken less seriously as a woman technologist if you worry about your appearance and how you dress?

    1. pfctdayelise

      Taken less seriously than male peers, or taken less seriously than female peers that don’t (appear to) worry about their appearance?

      As a woman, no surprise, you can get the worst of both worlds, because there is no unmarked dress. Whatever you choose to wear must mean something. Even trying to opt out of fashion is a fashion choice. If you are too dressy, you can’t be serious enough. If you are not dressy, you might be too unfeminine which we all know is just unbecoming and unpleasant to have around the office!

  10. Kylie S Post author

    What a good question, Melinda! I hope that you send it into the ‘Ask’ section. :)

  11. Lindsay

    I think that a more straightforward introduction to the blog would have cleared up a lot of this controversy. Something like “Advice for female geeks who want to express their geek culture while still respectfully following the standard business-attire dress code.”

    Business attire dress code standards in the dominant culture do differ by gender, so offering gender-specific office clothing advice isn’t automatically unfeminist.

    For what it’s worth, as a wholeheartedly nerdy girl who’s new to the office setting I did appreciate some of the fashion advice in this article very much.

    For example, I didn’t realize that geek-specific jewelry can be part of a respectable work outfit. Normally, I assume that dressing too expressively would take away from the work-appropriate appearance of clothing. I have some lovely earrings made out of old circuit boards that I have debated about wearing to work, which I might wear to work tomorrow in honor of her advice.

    I wonder how subtle a Pac Man pendant would need to be before I could wear it in a business meeting…

  12. Jen

    This is a very confusing post. I think I understand and generally agree with your points, but it doesn’t seem to fit the question as I understood it. It went off in another direction that didn’t seem to have much to do with the original question.

    I do think that male geeks in my field (tech) are more casual, or sloppier, than in other fields. Jeans and t-shirts are standard. Fortunately, they generally are for me, too. But I will also wear a skirt if I feel like it. If the guys wear whatever makes them comfortable, I wear whatever makes me comfortable – with a dose of common sense, of course. :) If you get any sort of backlash for doing that, I don’t think that gently pointing out the double standard is unprofessional.

    I feel it’s very difficult to set rules or even guidelines for this type of thing. I’ve worked in tech my whole life, but even within my own career, I’ve been in different environments that have different expectations and requirements. The best advice I could imagine is to carefully examine your own individual environment and make your judgments accordingly. If you’re judged negatively for adhering to the same standard of dress the men do, chances are there are deeper problems in the workplace that are going to interfere with you being taken seriously.

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