The strictest dress code I’ve ever had to abide by was during high school, but it was not set by my high school. The dress code was for a choir competition/festival that our choir took part in. (Why yes, I AM a nerd. Why do you ask?) We were only there for about three days, but the outfits for those three days were so thoroughly vetted and measured and calculated that every year when the festival rolled around, my brain had to work overtime. Recently, I wondered how much of that stress was about putting together the outfits and how much was about me being a sweaty high school mess with major social anxiety going into a different social setting. Was it really so difficult to put together an outfit that fit a dress code, or did I just MAKE it difficult?
To try and answer that question, I set myself the task of abiding by the dress code for a work week. This was a short work week, because Labor Day happened, so it was only four days. That was a comforting thought to me. Only four days. I could do that. Probably.
The first step was trying to remember exactly what the dress code entailed, so I called my sisters. During my fact-finding mission, I heard several conflicting stories, so I cobbled together these rules based on my recollection and eye witness accounts. We think these are the rule, but we’re probably forgetting stuff. The main thing was to compile a set of rules to consistently follow throughout the week. As far as we could remember, these were the rules:
- No trousers.
- Skirts must be long enough to touch the ground if you kneel. That means the hem has to hit below the knee, not right above it.
- Shoes must have a backstrap. Basically, no flip flops or slides. Shoes have to stay firmly on the foot. The backstrap was the part my sisters and I all agreed on, but I also thought the heel had to be two inches or lower, so I kept my shoes short and secure this week.
- Straps on tops or dresses must be at least three fingers wide. Like a boy scout salute.
- No low cut necklines, no visible midriffs.
It’s really not that complicated. I own skirts and dresses. It’ll probably be fine, right?
I leaned into the back-to-school feeling for this look. The elements are pretty basic – a dark denim skirt that works with the length requirements, a collared shirt with little buttons and midsized flowers, a navy blue bomber jacket, and a very worn out and very well loved pair of oxfords. I even wore my glasses.
What a cute little nerd. I wanted to steal my own lunch money from myself. About halfway through the morning, I pulled my hair back into a bun and that really just finished off this look.
I felt like a young student in this outfit. Not a college student or a grad student, but a grade school student. Like there was somebody else in charge of my day and my schedule. Like somebody else bought my three-ring binder, lined paper, and packs of pens. It was a very correct dress code outfit, but it owned me, rather than me owning it. But there is something a little bit comforting about not feeling in charge of everything. Responsibility overwhelms me every once in a while. A little part of me wishes that my mom still packed me a lunch, because she always packed us great lunches.
The slight weirdness of this outfit was feeling young and small and cute, but still having all the responsibility that goes along with being an adult. I have a house to keep up, meals to cook, a detailed and complex job that requires brain power and organization, even some management duties. I don’t think it looked inappropriately young or like a schoolgirl costume. It looked fine, but it did not kick start my day. One thing I realized this week is that I rely on clothes to remind myself of all kinds of things. One of the things I sometimes need a reminder of is that I’m an adult with plenty of responsibilities today and I can’t let them slide into tomorrow, or tomorrow will get pretty darn crowded.
I tried on two dresses that I thought were long enough before I settled on this dress. Knee length is a pretty squidgy measurement. As it turns out, most of my knee length dresses hit above my knee. It’s a good length on me and definitely doesn’t look too short, because I’m very short. But according to the dress code, all those dresses that almost worked were out of the running.
Out of all the outfits this week, this was my favorite. The dress comes from a Brtish clothing company called Monsoon and the blazer is an old standby. I felt like the teacher, not the student. The outfit ticked all the dress code boxes (hem is long enough, shoulder straps are wide enough), but it went beyond the measurements and also had presence and personality. The print is the star of this dress, but the fit is nice as well. The blazer elevated the fit and made the outfit look intelligent and professional. Low, practical heels and a necessary camisole completed the look.
I ran late this morning, so I needed something that I knew worked, so I basically refreshed the outfit from the first day. I wore the same skirt, because knew it was long enough, and added a very safe shirt. The print t-shirt is my friend when I’m in a hurry. I wore oxford shoes again (in a different color) and threw on a dark cardigan instead of the bomber jacket.
With a strict dress code, some kind of uniform is almost unavoidable. I only had my self-imposed dress code for four days and I already had a “safe” outfit to rely on. Basic skirt + printed shirt + jacket + flat oxfords. There’s nothing wrong with a uniform. I know people who wear black every day and love it. I don’t like wearing black every day, but I’m not opposed to a uniform. When it isn’t dress code week, my uniform would be skinny jeans + print shirt + a dark jacket + flats. It is simple, flexible, and reliable. What is your favorite outfit formula?
It was the last day and I was going a little crazy, so I decided to try something completely different. No more knee-length skirt. Go for a full-length skirt. It was hot, so I didn’t want to wear a jacket or even sleeves. No sleeves. Do I think this is the best shirt to wear with the skirt? No. I don’t. But it did fit the dress code. It has a high neckline, the shoulders are more than three fingers wide, it doesn’t show my midriff. I wore sneakers, I cuffed the bottom of the shirt, which made sense when I left my house and then immediately ceased to make sense. Do you know why nobody cuffs shirts? Because it looks stupid. I had mine cuffed all day Friday, so now I’m an expert on how stupid it looks.
But even with everything checked off the dress code list, there are hidden issues with the outfit that the dress code does not address. For example, the skirt turns pretty sheer in sunlight, so I needed a slip to make it work appropriate. The top has a high neck, but the arm holes are stretched out, so I needed to be careful that I kept my bra hidden at the sides. It would have been better to wear a top with thinner straps and have smaller arm holes. Those issues aren’t covered in the dress code guide book. Most of the time, there is no manual when it comes to getting dressed. It’s easy to make modesty seem all about measurements, because measurement is concrete and understandable and easy to verify. Wouldn’t it be simpler if all we needed was a tape measure to make sure we’re being modest? If only it were that easy. Modesty always requires wisdom, even when there are lots of rules.
It’s easy to hear Modesty Always Requires Wisdom and take the opportunity to sneer at dress codes, but dress codes can be very useful, especially as we grow up. They are like modesty training wheels. Dress codes are a lesson in contentment as you refine your judgement. The goal is to go beyond the letter of the law and learn to be appropriate in any circumstance you find yourself in. You aren’t supposed to stay in the measuring hemlines stage forever!
I had a fairly loose dress code through high school, a stricter dress code throughout college, and then I started working in a tech department with a group of guys and at that point, I think the department dress code was You Must Wear Pants. I think shirts and shoes might also be required now, but it is still very casual. At this point, my dress code is minimal and I have to rely entirely on my judgement, so every getting dressed every morning is a challenge and a privilege, because my managers trust me enough to let me dress however I want. Now that there is no manual, everything I learned while I was under a dress code helps me determine what I should wear now that I don’t have a strict dress code. And now I get to wear jeans, which is great. This week made me REALLY MISS JEANS. I didn’t realize how much I loved them until I couldn’t choose them.
At the beginning of the week, I wondered which would be more difficult: finding clothes that fit the criteria or my emotions about the criteria. EMOTIONS, HANDS DOWN. I could have worn an ugly sack all week and fulfilled all the dress code criteria, but I would have felt self conscious and feeling self conscious would make me less productive and less social. Clothes and confidence are very closely tied for me. I know other women who feel confident when their hair is done, or their makeup is on, or their stomach looks flat. It’s like war paint or armor. Now, I know that I’m still just as competent and intelligent in ripped gym shorts and a hoodie, because Gym Shorts Ashley is the same person as Blazer and Dress Ashley, but I sure don’t feel as competent.
I have social anxiety. If I let it get the better of me, it would be debilitating. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at faking being okay in social situations, but there are so many things I am afraid of. I’m afraid of phone calls, I’m afraid of meeting people, I’m afraid of crowds, I’m afraid of the terrifying improv game of life, I’m afraid of people making fun of me. When I let the fear in, I lose my words, stumble over trying to communicate what I mean, turn red, and feel like I’m falling down a dark well. I just want to run away and hide until everybody is gone. That’s why it is so important for me to keep it at bay.
The other day, somebody said, “Wait, you’re an introvert?” I was shocked that they even asked. Of COURSE I’m introverted and shy. It seems so glaringly obvious to me that I almost laughed. But it has been a long time since I let the fear take over, because the Lord has strengthened me and brought me out when I get in over my head, which is all the time. I make myself to do things I’m afraid of every day. You might laugh, but I make myself to talk to people when I grab coffee at work and introduce myself to people I don’t know. SO intimidating. I love people, but talking is scary. Even writing this blog is scary, because I don’t know how people will react to what I say. Words break down. What if can’t make people understand what I’m trying to say?
The main way I combat fear is to remind myself of everything I already know. Remember that God is greater than my fear. Remember that God loves me. Remember all His blessings to me. Remember that I have the ability to speak, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Remember that my love for people always needs to outweigh my fear of people. Remember that I’m called to be courageous. I can’t just remember these things once and have them stick forever. I have to re-remember the truth every single day. I love Bob Dylan’s song A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – in the end, he just decides to tell what he knows to anybody in hearing distance: “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it, Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking, But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” I know the truth. Now I need to tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, then repeat.
I wear clothes that remind me to be brave, because if I ever decided to disappear, I’d be way too good at it. I might always need training wheels for wearing my heart on my sleeve. This may be one battle that I fight until the end and that why I need every reminder I can get, every chance I get. Confidence doesn’t start with clothes and it definitely doesn’t end with clothes. The clothes I wear are just one tiny reminder that I already have every reason to be confident, because my confidence is in Christ and I don’t have to try to create a false little confidence from my looks, a few inspirational quotes, and thin air. Thank the Lord.