Do you prefer “fashion victim” or “ensembly challenged?”

26 11 2012

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.

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24 responses

26 11 2012
Addison Cooper

This was a fun post. One time I interviewed a family for a home study. The woman met me at the front door and started the interview. The guy was still in the shower. A bit later, he was ready for the interview. In his bathrobe. I was uncomfortable with it then – and I’m a guy! A few years later though, and now it’s funny. Addison – adoptionLCSW.com

30 11 2012
socialjerk

A male coworker of mine actually had to be taken off a case because the mother deliberately answered the door in a shortie robe every time he came over. It was always a little funny to me, and now he can laugh about it too.

4 12 2012
Addison Cooper

One of the first cases I took had an interesting back story. The former social worker had been a male, as well. The file contained letters from the client to him, “I can’t believe I’m already forty… I don’t look it, do I?” I went cautiously into that home.

26 11 2012
Nicole

I’m not in the social work field, but recently I had a co-worker call in sick, except it was a really busy week, so he opted to work from home instead. He swung by the office to pick up his laptop to do some work from home, but showed up in his black flannel pj’s with bright red hearts and fluffy slippers to come into the office and get his laptop. Needless to say, he endured endless jokes and teasing when he came back. Yes, there is a boundary with clothing – you have to dress nice enough to be respected in your industry but overdressing or not dressing up enough can backfire.

Great post.

30 11 2012
socialjerk

Thank you! That is a little bit adorable.

26 11 2012
Nadia

During my internship I wore nice slacks and heels… As I’ve progressed in my career, my uniform is jeans and a t-shirt. Wrangling kids in a high level of care (having to restrain, bodily fluids) and now in my “cushy” outpatient job – business casual just doesn’t cut it when I’m on the floor with my clients. I “dress up” now only when I have to go to court. Luckily, my supervisors support this and never crack down on opened toed shoes (as I’ll wear flip-flops) throughout the summer. That being said, I have days where I wis I could get away with wearing tank tops and yoga pants.

30 11 2012
socialjerk

I would sell my own mother to be able to wear flip flips to work. And I know I look my best in yoga pants, I wish our field would catch up.

27 11 2012
Haley

Soooo guilty of wearing crocs. But honestly, these ugly ugly shoes are like heaven and a pillow and clounds all rolled into one and wrapped around your feet. Plus I only wearing them in my house…walking the dog…food shopping… black tie events…

30 11 2012
socialjerk

Haha I assure you, I have plenty of fashion crimes of my own. I live in my boyfriend’s sweatshirts. It’s probably not a good look!

27 11 2012
Peaceful Social Worker

I used to work at a place where we were all pretty casual…..jeans and t-shirts type of dress. One colleague asked how we would dress if, the agency implemented casual Friday, pyjamas?

30 11 2012
socialjerk

I think they’re more acceptably if you spell them “pyjamas.”

6 12 2012
Peaceful Social Worker

LOL. How else do you spell them? (I think there will be a Canadian/American thing happening here…..) 🙂

7 12 2012
socialjerk

Yes, it’s “pajamas” here, but I find “pyjamas” to be much classier. A bit exotic, I suppose.

11 12 2012
Peaceful Social Worker

We are caught between the English and American when we spell here so I am easily confused. You will always be my neighbour though, and the colour is always with a u. 🙂

27 11 2012
carolynsocialworker

Crocs are wonderful. I wear nice plan black or brown ones and they look just fine (I have very small feet) under my black or brown dress slacks. Despite one of my colleagues wanting us to wear scrubs (she hates shopping) we tend to wear dress (but washable) slacks, dress shirt (with a minimal amount of boobage) and sweater/jacket. Occasionally one of us will wear a skirt. Those that start the job in high heels typically lower said heels quickly as there is a lot of running around for us. And we are all in a Children’s Hospital. Hence the need for washability.

30 11 2012
socialjerk

My old roommate, a nurse, wears Crocs to work. She said all the same things you did, and I get it for that field, really. I just wish she didn’t leave them outside our apartment, where people could have mistaken them for mine 🙂

27 11 2012
Going to Klown Kollege

I wear nicer looking crocs. It often seems to me that the people who write the dress code have no idea what the wearers actually do.

30 11 2012
socialjerk

I’ve noticed that with just about ever rule.

28 11 2012
Nectarine

Yes, pyjama pants please! I had to ask a client to put his on when he answered the door one day in nothing but “Depends”.

29 11 2012
carolynsocialworker

And this is why I am so glad I don’t have to do home visits!!!!

30 11 2012
socialjerk

And you win!

11 12 2012
Pauline @ NationalSocialServices

Haha..This is a really funny post. Well, in our office we just wear casual clothes, the typical jeans and shirts thing. But no pajamas or slippers allowed, it’s a policy in the building where our office is situated.

4 01 2013
Anne

I always say that as a social worker, you should go for an outfit that says, I know what I’m doing and its okay if your baby throws up on me:)
In relation to client’s inappropriate clothes, I once took a 4 year old to the hospital, he was being examined to see if he’d been sexually abused and the dad was the suspected potential perpetrator. To this appointment the dad wore a t-shirt saying ‘big down below’ with an arrow pointing down!

2 05 2013
How to impress ex-prostitutes | The whole sky

[…] the ones who break the mold. Think Ms. Frizzle.  In her excellent take on social work fashion, Social Jerk writes, “My purple Chucks and matching glittery nails make my teens think, maybe there’s […]

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