Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway: Season 10, Episode 5, “It’s My Way on the Runway.” If you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen it yet — you stand warned.
Awesome! I’ve been wanting to write about fashion and work/ professionalism for a while, and this week’s Runway gives me the perfect chance.
“Appropriate work wear” is obviously a pretty flexible concept: it depends on what kind of work you do, what part of the country/ world you live in, whether you’re ambitiously climbing the ladder or are happy to stay in the job you have. But in this challenge, “workplace” was being pretty universally defined as “urban office.” And in most urban offices, the qualities most people want their workwear to express are: Competent. Organized and put-together. Powerful, but also approachable. Conscious of the prevailing social standards. Professional (obviously).
And with the exception of a few very specialized workplaces, one of the main qualities of successful and effective workwear is “not too sexual.” In most workplaces, and certainly in most offices, overt sexuality is seen as a distraction. Women especially have to be careful of being seen as “sleeping their way to the top.” It’s a fine line (and one that’s pretty much impossible to walk): women who dress too sexy are seen as sluts and bimbos and aren’t taken seriously, and women who dress too primly are seen as unfeminine, ballbusting killjoys. So while some degree of feminity for women’s officewear is accepted and indeed encouraged, it has to dial way back on the va-va-voom.
And it was fascinating to see how this week’s contestants — and judges — interpreted these concepts…. or failed to.
First, let’s snark about the failures. That’s always more fun, right? If you’re putting together a professional yet fashion-forward work outfit, here’s what not to do.
Nathan: Do not — repeat, DO NOT — put together an outfit around a one-sleeved, chiffony, “Wilma Flintstone vacations in Miami” blouse that you can’t wear a bra with. And don’t pair it with a pair of trousers whose primary message is, “Look at my crotch!” This look might have worked as resort wear — but for office wear, the message it sends is pretty much, “I’d rather be having cocktails poolside.” And Nina’s notion that this would be age-appropriate for a woman in her fifties is laughable. Women in their fifties (a) are often self-conscious about their upper arms, and (b) almost always wear a freaking bra already.
Gunnar: Do not put together an outfit around a blouse that makes even a runway model’s boobs look bovine. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that a racing stripe of floral fabric transforms what is at best a “high-end cocktail waitress” look (if the boobs didn’t look bovine, that is) into “fashion-forward office wear.”
Elena and Alicia: Do not imagine that “office appropriate” means “the moral equivalent of a sleeping pill.” Any one of these pieces would be a reasonably appropriate basic that you could successfully pair with a strong color or an interesting print. Put them all together, they’re like a glass of warm milk before bedtime. No, not even that pleasant. A sad glass of warm milk that’s been left on the nightstand too long and has become tepid. So boring as to be actually unpleasant. Pleah.
Elena again: Do not equate “big weird things on the shoulders” with “fashion-forward.”
Ven: It is not office-appropriate to wear a skirt that relentlessly puckers in at the crotch. It is not anything-appropriate to wear a skirt that relentlessly puckers in at the crotch. Not even porn stars dressing for the AVN awards want a skirt that relentlessly puckers in at the crotch.The blouse-jacket thing is fine, lovely even, but it’s looking very familiar. I think Dmitry might be right: Ven can sew like a demon, but he’s looking a lot like a one-way monkey.
Fabio: Make your fucking dress fit already. I cannot believe the judges put this one in the Top Three. I pegged it for the bottom for sure. Yes, the design is pleasant enough, although I’ve seen a zillion dresses very much like it. But that bunching around the waist was unforgiveable. It’s a dress I probably would have bought if it was on sale, worn once, realized that it didn’t really fit and bunched up at the sides when I walked, tried with a jacket that covered the bunching, realized that with a jacket it’s just another little black dress and the bunching is sort of uncomfortable and makes the dress ride up, stuck back in my closet, and donated to Community Thrift six months later.
Raul: A giant bib of weird ruffly flaps on the front of a blouse does not equal “office appropriate.” The hideous ruffles and bows of the Eighties “dress for success” look are not due for a revival. Any more than corpses in a cemetery are due for a revival. Blouses like this one should be treated as an invading zombie army. Preferably with flamethrowers. He so completely deserved to go home this week. (Nice pencil skirt though, Sonjia. Maybe a little butt-hugging for most offices, but I’d snap it up in a heartbeat.)
Dmitry: Do not make a beautiful, casual-but-elegant, near-perfect dress… and then wreck the entire concept with pointlessly trashy cutouts in the back.
This one kills me. If it hadn’t been for the cutouts in the back, I would have given it to Dmitry, hands-down. Simple but visually interesting. Conscious of current trends, but not chained to them. Striking use of color, but not flashy. Super-versatile: that dress could easily be paired with a jacket for a sharper, dressier, even more professional look… and it could easily be paired with flashy stockings and shoes and jewelry for “day to evening.”
But the cutouts in the back killed it for me. You do not do teasy, peekaboo, “look at the tempting flesh right above my butt” cutouts in the office. Not unless you work for Hustler. Fail.
So what did I like?
I don’t have huge objections to Melissa being the winner. I thought this dress was pushing it somewhat for most offices… but I could see it at a graphic design firm, or an art gallery. Mostly, though, I think I just liked it. Love the color. Love the diagonal zipper down the back. Always a sucker for “high-necked and sleeveless” — and in fact, I think it’s a very good way to stay elegant and restrained while hinting at sexiness. And I actually like the collar: I’m a sucker for a cowl neck, and I like this interpretation of it. I was very enthusiastic about this one when we first watched the show on Thursday. In the cold light of day, though… for most offices, this would probably be over the top. A little too much flash and sex. Especially with the little slit up the side.
So honestly, I would have given it to Christopher. That skirt was beautiful, distinctive, an unusual take on a classic style, classy while hinting at sexiness. And the outfit as a whole was 100% work-appropriate. True, the jacket and top weren’t super-exciting… but you don’t always want every part of an outfit to be exciting. In fact, you usually don’t want that. Especially not at the office. You usually want one or two striking pieces, mixed with some simple, well-made basics with nice detailing to set them off. And that’s exactly what Christopher delivered. His personality is like nails on the chalkboard of my brain… but he pulled this one off. Of all the looks this week, Melissa’s dress is the one I’m drooling over the hardest… but Christopher’s skirt is the one I’d actually wear every week.
Thoughts? Is there anything from this week’s designs that you’d wear to work? Or, if you don’t wear women’s wear, how would you react if your HR rep/ admin assistant/ IT person/ boss wore any of this to work?