Business attire for older women: what does it mean?

One of the nicer things about being a visible Invisible Woman is that now people know where to find me and that means I receive invitations. The most recent was to the launch of Harnessing the Power of the Purse – a revelatory piece of research on female investors, put together by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Andrea Turner Moffitt under the banner of the Centre for Talent Innovation. It’s possible that you heard Hewlett on Woman’s Hour talking about her book Executive Presence and what it means to be a woman in what remains predominantly a man’s world. I was invited to attend at the House of Commons (intimidating) and the dress code was “business attire”.

Rather like Lynne Truss in Making the Cat Laugh, I suffer from middle-aged havering about what to wear when I go out. Never mind that here was a golden opportunity to do the networking thing and learn something new (not to mention nosey around the inside of the House of Commons), what I was worried about was how elastic the term “business attire” is. This is a source of much angst now I’m in my 50s, and I think it’s something many middle-aged women cast adrift in the employment market suffer from. Figures released this week by the Women’s Business Council state that 2.4 million women are not in work but want to be. “Women are a key source of untapped potential, which we need to harness to boost economic growth in the UK,” says Ruby McGregor-Smith, the council’s chair, yet women over 50 consistently report being frozen out of the job market. Take Gerri Spiers, a former PA, who after applying for more than 1,000 jobs has taken to walking around London wearing a sandwich board proclaiming: “Immediately available. Interview me now!” I checked with Spiers this week and she’s still looking. I admire her enormously for having the courage to do something positive, but lately I’ve started to wonder if being an outspoken fiftysomething woman looking for work puts another black mark against us in addition to the fact that we are older.

Anyway, back to “business attire”. I pulled myself together and went. I wore a black blazer over a short black dress over black fitted trousers and wedge-heeled trainers (because it was raining and, you know, heels). This was not classic business attire, but then nor was anything else I saw, which is interesting but I suppose not in the least surprising. The only common denominator was heels – despite this summer’s trend for flats and despite the expectation of spending a couple of hours on our feet. Interestingly, among a wide age range, there were few trousers, a lot of dresses and a lot of colour. In fact, in the light reflected off the river, the whole room looked like a gorgeous oil painting with a palette of red, cream, green, blue and pink. Nor, thankfully, was there any evidence of the hyper-groomed, body-conned style of workwear so beloved by female candidates on The Apprentice.

I was reminded instead of women such as Jane Shepherdson of Whistles, Harriet Green at Thomas Cook, or Angela Ahrendts, who has just moved from Burberry to Apple – all of them women of power and authority and all beautifully dressed in a “not trying too hard” way. The main thing is feeling comfortable – both in the sense that what you’re wearing is comfortable and also in being comfortable in yourself because you’ve judged it correctly. And for this you don’t need the purchasing power of a high-flying executive. The simplest thing is to have a couple of frocks in which you know you will always feel your best. Something like the beautiful vintage-inspired Bette Bow dress from Saint Bustier or the Harper dress from Hobbs. Cos has a wide range of dresses that will do the dress/trousers combo that I find myself regularly adopting. I’d go for this draped-neck dress and wear it with fitted cropped trousers, heels and just one piece of jewellery.

I’m glad I got a grip on my own wobbliness, not least because, otherwise, I would have missed seeing at least 30 top-flight businesswomen changing out of their heels in the Central Lobby at the end of the evening, which delighted me no end and made me feel strangely happy to be a woman. Even an underemployed middle-aged one.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation