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Workplace chic, or inappropriate?

First lady Melania Trump turned heads on Thursday,

First lady Melania Trump turned heads on Thursday, when she wore her "I really don't care. Do u?" jacket to a visit to McAllen, Texas, the heart of the family separation crisis. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Mandel Ngan

I recently went to work wearing some very high-waisted dark red trousers and a black button-down collared cropped top that just brushed the top of the pants. I thought I looked workplace-chic. When I came home, my roommate said in disbelief: “Did you wear that crop top to work?”

In the 2018 “gig” economy, many young people are wondering, “What am I allowed to wear to work?” The question, of course, does not include those of us who have landed jobs at JPMorgan Chase or big law firms. It also doesn’t apply to jobs that always required casual wear — think lifeguards or coffee-shop baristas. But for those of us who find ourselves getting dressed for the expanding sector between the formally dressed economy and the laid-back market, there’s a lot of room for error.

For young women especially, a lot can go wrong when trying to find an “appropriate” outfit — too tight, shows too much shoulder, too masculine, too sexy, too casual. It’s hard to know. If I’m allowed to show my knees at the workplace, is it OK for a tiny sliver of my midriff to be exposed from time to time?

Some young people have visions of sitting around at Vice headquarters on bean bag chairs wearing jeans and a baseball cap. At places like Google and Facebook there is no formal dress code. New gigs like Uber driving, website designing and freelance video production have pulled the ‘workwear’ norm toward a much more casual medium. As we increasingly emphasize ability, old-fashioned depictions of “well-dressed” become less important.

Quartzy notes, “Brands such as Anne Klein, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, J.Crew, and others that have long sustained themselves by providing women with work clothes are failing to make the situation much easier. They’re being pulled in different directions, or can’t provide any compelling vision of how a modern [woman’s] work wardrobe should look. Many are struggling to keep themselves, and workwear, relevant.”

This kind of struggle exists for many women well before they enter the workplace. Consider all of the young women sent home from school for wearing leggings, or off-the-shoulder tops, because “it may distract young boys.” Or the Cornell University student who was criticized by a professor for wearing cutoff shorts while practicing her dissertation (she ended up presenting her real thesis in her underwear to make a point.)

It’s a difficult line to walk. When you’re in your 20s, you want to show off your individual style. Plus, perhaps you’ll wear something not too boring to be perceived as fresh and innovative. But you also want to be respectful, taken seriously and treated like a grown-up.

Perhaps the better question to ask is: What not to wear to work? As a new working woman, these are the only things I can say for sure so far: Never wear anything that you’re desperate to change out of all day. Always bring an extra sweater in the summer to compensate for the AC. Also, it’s probably a bad idea to wear a jacket with “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” graffiti-ed on the back if you’re doing humanitarian work.

It may give a bad impression.

Isobel van Hagen is an intern with Newsday Opinion.

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