Fashion and Adornment at Work

Activity Description:


Appreciating mini-rituals of self-presentation at work and along the work-family frontier


Students are nearly always fascinated with the semiotic complexities of the fashion system. Terry Turner’s marvelous ethnographic essay, “The Social Skin” (1980), on central Amazonian adornment, might be usefully paired with selections from Rubinstein’s Dress Codes (1995) or Lurie (1981), such as their discussions of uniforms or the clothing challenges faced by women executives, perhaps supplemented by Brook’s (2000) tongue-in-cheek but often insightful discussion of the lifestyle and consumption patterns of the new “meritocratic” elite.

In interviews, close attention might be given to how clothing signals and mediates transitions between home and family domains. How do workers distinguish between their “work look” and their “non-work look”? What actions (taking off a tie, putting on slippers, etc.) signal to a person that he or she has “returned home”?

Students might be encouraged to develop a portfolio on workplace clothing, drawing on women’s and men’s magazines, apparel catalogues and other mass media sources (including internet chat rooms on office and work clothing). Particular attention might be given to clothing choices that foreground work-family tensions (such as maternity clothes for women professionals) These portfolios might be the object of small group discussion or critical essays.

Activity Source:

Suggestion submitted by Mark Auslander, Brandeis University