When our new director joined us at Anonymous Agency, she shook things up a bit. One of the things that caused the most tension was the dress code. No jeans, except of course on Friday. I’ve always wondered what it is about Fridays that make my unprofessional, gauche dungarees (I’m trying to bring that back) suddenly work appropriate. We were supposed to, and I quote, “inspire our clients to lift themselves up.”
I don’t know if the H&M sale rack is capable of such a lofty goal, but all right.
Dress is a tricky thing, in the helping professions. Especially a profession like social work, in which you’re often trying to act like you’re just one of the guys. Expert? I’m no expert, that would be you, ma! We’re partners here. If anything, you’re above me. Can I help you fold that laundry?
You can’t show up at someone’s home wearing a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and expect them to trust and relate to you. You also can’t roll up in your jammies and expect that your opinion will be treated with respect. Clothing is one example of “use of self.” Anything can be an in with a client. My cute, affordable bag from Marshall’s gets young moms chatting with me. My purple Chucks and matching glittery nails make my teens think, maybe there’s something to this nut who keeps showing up at my school.
What about the way our clients dress? What does that say?
Remember when I said they won’t take you seriously if you’re in your PJs? That is decidedly a one way street. My clients are routinely in pajamas when we meet. I remember a lot of discussion when Amber, of Teen Mom fame, wore pajama pants to welcome a CPS worker into her home. “If she’s trying to make a good impression, wouldn’t she throw on a pair of jeans?” asked people who have never done this work. I pointed out that I’m happy if people are wearing pants of any sort when I show up to their home. Seriously, gentlemen. Take the time to throw anything on. Pretend not to be home. Just don’t answer the door wearing boxers, or I will assume that anything dangling out of them is something you want removed.
But hey, I’m in your house, you have a weird work schedule and little kids that don’t sleep like humans, you go ahead and wear what’s comfortable. (Provided they are pants.) At some point in the last several years, though, it became acceptable to leave the home in pajama bottoms, and even to attend appointments in this state of dress. I don’t judge someone’s parenting based on this, but oh my god make it stop. Invest in yoga pants.
Speaking of pants, I don’t think flesh colored leggings should even be sold. You look half-naked and it is alarming. I mean, that’s just solid fashion advice. It got social worky for me, though, when a client wore them to a session. I told her that we had a bunch of t-shirts, nice new ones, that had been donated, back in a storage area. She needed to make sure they fit, which meant that I wound up standing in a glorified closet with a seemingly pantsless woman taking various tops on and off.
This was not covered in Human Behavior and the Social Environment.
In the summer, things quite literally heat up. I think we’re too hard on girls for dressing “slutty.” It’s way too subjective, and who likes wearing clothes when it’s hot and humid out? But there is a time and a place. I understand that you’re heading to the beach after this, kiddo, but a family team conference is not the place for a bikini and a mesh coverup. I say “kiddo” because she was sixteen. It got really interesting when I spoke with her mom in private about something entirely unrelated, and came out to find her draped across my male coworker’s desk like some kind of olden-timey lounge singer. His discomfort was entirely appropriate, and made me laugh a lot, so it wasn’t really a problem.
Of course, it is not just girls who have questionable attire. I have had to say, numerous times, “I am not going to sit alone in a room with a fifteen year old boy with his entire rear end hanging out. Pull them up right now so we can talk.” They like to talk about sagging as though it’s a right. I try to be respectful of what’s important to the kids, but that’s where I draw the line. I want them to get fired up about things that actually matter. As soon as they pull their goddamn pants up.
We’re always wondering what messages clients are trying to send us. Is picking your child up from school reeking of weed a cry for help, or a big old “fuck you” to everyone involved? Is wearing a t-shirt that says “Absolut Drunk” to your intake appointment indicative of laundry day having come and gone, or of seriously atrocious judgment? (I could really use some advice on that last one, to be honest.)
Like everything else, it’s case by case. Dress is one of many forms of expression that give us some insight into what clients are thinking, and how they’re living. We don’t want to be judgmental, but we don’t want to be stupid, either.
I think we can all agree that the only truly inexcusable things are Crocs.