I bought my first bow tie in December 1980, as I prepared to fly from the Los Angeles suburbs to the grown-up world of Washington, D.C. I was heading to the halls of Congress--all sober suits and higher purpose--for an internship during my last year of college. The tie was a narrow pink paisley number, purchased to provide that feminine grace note for which my also-brand-new gray flannel skirt suit simply screamed. Black pumps and a pink Oxford shirt completed the ensemble. The result? Well, ugly is probably too harsh a word. Proper is probably pretty accurate. So is boring to the bone, dull enough to die from. But safe. So safe.
All the other adults in the congressman's office had pretty much clothed themselves from the same closet, this being the heart of the dreaded Dress for Success era. All of them save one: the Hon. Member of Congress himself, who had the fashion sense to wear a deep blue crushed velvet suit to Ronald Reagan's first inauguration--a black-tie affair that let all those wealthy Palm Springs matrons finally, finally don their full-length minks among the like-minded and in some actual cold.
The Hon. Member of Congress also had the bad sense to sport a mean salmon polyester number with orange top-stitching, alternated with its brother, forest green highlighted with mint.
He stood out. I, on the other hand, did not. What I didn't know then, but I do know now, is that I had actually wrapped myself in a 110-year-old Symbol with a capital S. Something my poorly paid and overworked sisters had worn as they made their way into America's offices after the Civil War.
"Women in offices tried to steer their own course: dark skirt, white shirtwaist blouse, often with a tie," says Valerie Steele, clothing historian and author who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "Already you see this in the late 19th century--women wearing ties. Every time there's been a big move toward women in the office, it's not the most functional item that's brought in, but the ones most symbolic of professionalism and authority."
As we slouch our way toward the Big MM in our cozy khakis and comfort-soled shoes, it's not a bad idea to rifle through the wardrobes of the workers who went before us--those men and women unfortunate enough to toil at a time when people heading to the office on a Monday morning looked far different from those destined for the garden on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
The modern office uniform has its roots around the turn of a different century, when the 1700s were bleeding into the 1800s. That's when men's suits and ties were really born, for better or worse. While our collar-wincing brethren might complain, Anne Hollander, author of "Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress," regards the men's suit as a design icon. "Suits do have a way of looking superior," she writes. Since the men's suit was born, she says, women's work wear has flailed about, striving toward a similar standard.
"This eventually had to mean women not dressing as men," she writes, "but finding a female way to wear clothes that look both sexually interesting and ordinarily serious . . . at the same time, the way men did. This took several generations to achieve."
No kidding. Interestingly enough, Steele notes, the advice that working women have received about what to wear when they go to work has changed not a bit in the last 100 years. The first real dress-for-success article was published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1907, suggesting that working women should not wear sheer shirtwaists or trailing velvet skirts.
"In the same way, [the early 1900s working woman] shouldn't be misguided and go 'severity mad' and make herself look 'ridiculously masculine,' " Steele recounts. "They claimed she would only be 'a feeble imitation of a man,' advice which has been endemic ever since."
Fast forward to 1959 and see how little had changed in the world of What to Wear to the Office, half a century notwithstanding. That's the year I was born, fated to buy the pink paisley bow by the time I was 21. It's also the year that famed costumer Edith Head wrote a book called "The Dress Doctor."
What did the woman who clothed Kim Novak (fitted slate gray suit, "Vertigo") and Barbara Stanwyck (trashy white outfits, "Double Indemnity") suggest for all of us working women? "Working wives must cultivate two separate fashion philosophies," she wrote, with her intimate knowledge of both. "No man wants a brisk executive-looking woman at the dinner table, and no man wants a too-alluring creature gliding around his office."