One Year of Wearing “The Work Uniform”

Are Work Uniforms dead?  I vote “no.”

I hear that someone declared the work uniform “thing” dead, which it may very well be from a 2015 professional work attire Buzzfeed clickbait trends perspective, but remember that 35 to 40 percent of North American employees wear uniforms of some kind – dictated by their employers – so the reality is that work uniforms will never die!

Work uniforms serve many purposes, from personal protection to cleanliness to professional identification, and to improve productivity in the workplace.  From tourism to manufacturing to cable servicemen, uniforms are prevalent in every industry. In manufacturing, operators wear long sleeve uniforms with smooth profiles to protect their arms and legs from reagents, machine heat, and other dangers in the workplace. In Silicon Valley, it’s an unstated uniform for software engineers to wear jeans and a t-shirt.  It makes them happy and productive, and that makes their employers and colleagues happy in turn. Namaste, I say.

Ok, it’s not all a rosy picture for the Work Uniform. Google trends says the Work Uniform is a bit down since its peak in late 2015 (likely from trends in Buzzfeed articles and the like), but this post is about the subjective question of whether or not the self-imposed work uniform is a dying trend – or if this writer views it as a trend at all.

work uniform

Why I wear the (self-imposed) Work Uniform

For those of us who are enjoying the unchained lifestyle of outta bed, showered, styled, and out the door without wasting a single brain cell on monotonies – the self-imposed work uniform is oh-so-very-alive.

It’s not that I’m not a particularly expressive or creative person.  In fact, I used to perform in the theater, and I love the limelight!  Performance and creation are orchestral in my life, but that doesn’t mean I have to wear them on my sleeve (literally).

It’s also not that I don’t want you to notice me or pay attention to me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

What the (self-imposed) Work Uniform gives to me

I wear a uniform so that the things I have to say have the best chance of being well constructed and heard.  So that I don’t spend all of the moments between the actual critical moments adjusting my outfit, applying more lipstick, or judging myself in the mirror because today I don’t look my best. So that when I speak, what I have to say has been given the right amount of thought – because I didn’t waste all those moments between the actual critical moments. So my energetic little brain can keep ticking all day about the meaty healthcare problems I’m trying to be a part of solving, instead of ticking away at personal style problems that, to me, frankly do not make rank.

My uniform assures me that when I speak, the audience is not  looking at my outfit and thinking of how trendy it is. It assures me that the statistical difference between my self-confidence yesterday and today is exactly zero point zero.  It assures me that it will let my physical being be the blank canvas for the efforts I’m trying to forward with my life, my personal and professional pursuits alike.

The uniform is so much less than it’s been blown up to be, and yet it’s also so much more.  It’s my way of telling you that what I have to give to the world is more important than the way I look and the brands of clothing I wear. It’s my way of bringing my best self to work each day; a self free of the webs that keep us from reaching our fullest potential.

A moment of doubt

There was one moment in 2015 that caused me to doubt the Work Uniform. After wearing my work uniform for almost 6 months, I was feeling pretty comfortable in the outfit. My takt time for getting ready in the morning was down to about 25 minutes, including shower, making my green smoothie, and drying my hair, which had grown quite long (side note: I also can’t seem to justify the time it takes to get a haircut).

I was having a scientific discussion about nanoparticle design with one of the senior scientists at my company, and after about ten minutes, he interrupted me to say, “I just have to tell you, I really didn’t think you were a researcher.   You dress so nicely, I just always assumed you were a lawyer or in business development.”

Ouch. Or is it Yay?  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.  I thought about it more, and asked some questions about his assumptions – which were fair.  People who work in the lab tend to ascribe to the “Silicon Valley software engineer” work uniform, since they never know when they could spill a clothing-destroying reagent on themselves. I used to design batteries, and I still have my “acid wash” jeans which are literally dotted with holes where acid ate through the denim!

I decided to brush that one off, but I found it interesting that the work uniform also made a subtle statement about my role in the organization.  More on that later, perhaps.

Hats off to all who express themselves however they wish

However you express yourself, keep doing it.  Be real, be alive, and be authentic to who you are.  Me?  I’m an operations zealot, remember?  Efficiency is in my DNA, so I will continue to wear my work uniform – this simple black sheath dress with a funky collar – until it no longer serves me.

Work Uniform


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Erika Written by:

Operations zealot, writer, & art lover tackling sustainable development by day and dreaming up her next backpacking adventure by night.

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