Sometimes I feel like I’m wearing a sign. “I listen to people’s problems for a living, ask me how!”
I don’t think they know that I’m a social worker, specifically. But people seem to know I’m in a helping profession. It happens all the time. A lady in the deli will start unloading to me about her struggle to stop drinking. A parent will start complaining about their out of control kid on the bus. Once, I was strong armed by a four year old into reading three different books with her while doing my laundry. (One of them was Dr. Seuss, so that was kind of cool.)
I don’t know if it’s my kind eyes, my welcoming smile, or my helpful nature that shines through in my sunny disposition. (Probably not.) For a long time, I wondered. But finally, it came to me.
Social work fashion.
I generally try not to dress like a social worker. But just as people start looking like their significant others (or their dogs) I think we start to look like our professions.
We can all spot a kindergarten teacher a mile away. Those large sweaters with bright colors and stimulating designs, often reflecting the current season, are a dead giveaway.
I had an interview a while back. A friend of mine was familiar with the agency, and asked me to describe the woman who interviewed me.
“Well, she was older. And she had long grey hair, in a ponytail. There were pictures of cats all over her office. Honestly, she looked like someone who’s been a social worker for a really long time.”
She knew exactly what I meant.
The older social workers tend to have a look. I’m not sure if it’s form following function, but it’s there. Sensible slip-on flats are ideal for the on-the-go worker who still needs to look professional. In the summer months, something along the lines of Birkenstock sandals are in order. A long skirt, preferably in a floral pattern, really ties the outfit together. And one can never have too many cardigans.
I don’t usually dress like this. I also never have cat hair on my clothes. But I still look like a social worker. How?
Maybe I’m a part of the younger, hipper generation of social work fashion. I started off in dress shoes, I honestly did, but almost two years into this job, it’s Chucks, or…Chucks. I have two pairs now, so that’s kind of professional. The kids like the purple ones. I’m always on the move, running to homes and schools, and sometimes away from drug deals. I’m not going to get caught in a bad situation simply because I thought heels would go better with this outfit.
I only own one floral skirt. Honestly. It’s been agreed upon in the office that black skinny jeans are the new dress pants.
My hair is long, as I haven’t had time to get it cut in a year or so. Whatever, I’m busy. So it’s
generally constantly in a ponytail. On the occasions I’ve worn my hair down, people act like I’m getting ready for the prom.
I also always carry a comically oversized purse, in which I can fit my notebook, water bottle, book for those long bus rides, iPod,
Taser, smartphone, etc.
My work means I’m in different climates all the time. The office is always either too hot or too cold, because budget cuts mean that we can’t regulate the temperature. Then I’m walking to home visits and getting sweaty, until I sit in people’s homes and freeze. So this means layers. Which means, yes, cardigans.
In this profession, “sensible” is the name of the game. The longer name of the game is, “we don’t get paid all that much, and this was on sale.” But I think we can pull it off. There are some adorable, styling people in this profession. (Not just me…well, mostly me, but others as well.) Just because Mariah Carey was applauded for growing a mustache and dressing like she’d been attacked by the Frump Monster in order to portray a social worker, doesn’t mean that’s an accurate reflection on us all.
We’ve got a look, for sure. So I leave you with these words of wisdom: make it work.