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‘People are embracing it’: How non-binary people are defining what they wear to work

In the US, where about 1.2 million people identify as non-binary, employers and employees alike are exploring what professional attire can look like

What should you wear to work if you’re non-binary?

It may not be the most pressing question that gender-nonconforming people face on the job, but in the United States, where about 1.2 million people identify as non-binary, employers and employees alike are exploring what professional attire can look like.

“I think people treat me with more dignity when I dress more masculinely, but people are way nicer to me when I dress more femininely,” says 33-year-old El Layla Johnson, a former restaurant server who is now a therapist.

For Johnson, getting dressed for work has been a struggle since adolescence.


“I just feel like there’s a manual or rule book that people receive and that my copy got lost in the mail,” says Johnson, who, like many non-binary people, uses the pronouns they and them.

Johnson recalls regularly crying while getting dressed for work at an upscale restaurant in Seattle. It wasn’t just that Johnson found the restaurant’s dress code to be ugly (though Johnson did). Johnson had a hard time finding clothes that fit at all.

“I’m 6ft tall, I’ve always had really big feet and wide shoulders but a small waist and a really big butt,” they say. “And so it is not easy for me to find clothing in the men’s section or the women’s section that fits me well.”

Now, as a therapist who works with LGBTQ patients, Johnson finds that their own agender identity can be an asset. “The fact that I have a rat tail and piercings and tattoos, I actually believe that people might feel more comfortable with me or relate to me more easily,” Johnson says.

Deciding what’s appropriate for work can be fraught for employees of any gender, especially in this post-lockdown-but-still-Zooming “power casual” moment. But many non-binary people report unique pressures that accompany choosing a work outfit.

For video call sessions, Johnson usually opts for simplicity. “I pick one shirt and I wear it all week and I hang it on the back of my office chair,” they say. “And that is great because it just takes so much of the consideration out of it.”

Other non-binary people consider their work outfits an opportunity for self-expression. Ginger Copes is a 32 year old who works as a digital producer for CBS in Philadelphia. During an onboarding meeting, employees were encouraged to bring their whole selves to work.

I just pull down the maxi skirt, and boom: I’m masculine again

—  Ginger Copes

Copes took the guidance to heart, ditching traditionally masculine looks in favour of maxi skirts paired with button-down shirts. To Copes’ surprise and delight, the response was positive. Several co-workers remarked that Copes seemed particularly confident and happy at work, Copes recalls.

“Feeling liberated in the way that you present is just so important because it will also reflect how your mood is, whether you’re dragging yourself to work or you’re showing up as 100 per cent yourself and you love it,” Copes says.

This feeling of liberation does not extend to all aspects of Copes’ life. Fearing violence in their own neighbourhood, Copes changes clothes during their commute home.

“I have denim jeans underneath the maxi skirt,” they say. “I just pull down the maxi skirt, and boom: I’m masculine again.”

Andy Izenson, the senior legal director of the Chosen Family Law Center in New York City, primarily considers the needs of clients when dressing for work. “My strategy in court is to be as invisible as possible,” they say.

For 34-year-old Izenson, “invisible” usually means a tailored grey men’s suit bought at a thrift store, a steamed white dress shirt and the occasional “fun” floral tie. Izenson settled on this approach after running a sort of gender-based cost-benefit analysis.

“I overshoot in a masculine direction under those circumstances because, one, that’s strategic for my client, and, two, I can’t predict whether someone’s going to look at me and think that I’m a man or a woman,” Izenson says.

“If they think that I am a woman in a suit, that’s fine, right?” they add. “That’s not weird. That doesn’t make anyone want to punch you.”

Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and the author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, has studied rules and laws related to dress since the Middle Ages.

People are embracing it and I don’t think it has been much of an issue

—  Samy Nemir Olivares

“Historically, there’s been a really strong norm, both in terms of law and custom, of enforcing a strict division between masculine and feminine attire,” Prof Ford says.

“One of the tricky things is that the norms of gendered dress keep shifting,” he says. “Determining what’s appropriate is always kind of a moving target.” As an example, he cited rules prohibiting women from wearing flapper-style short dresses to work during the 1920s.

“At the time, people said, ‘It’s not feminine, it’s masculine, but also it’s way too sexy’,” Ford explains. “But today we’d see that as recognisably feminine.

In the United States, it is legal for employers to enforce rules related to attire, hygiene and grooming. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has consistently been interpreted to permit different dress codes for men and women, and in 2020, the US supreme court ruled that transgender employees were subject to the dress codes of their gender identity, regardless of their sex assigned at birth.

While federal law prohibits employment discrimination against non-binary people, separate dress codes for men and women can leave non-binary workers in a puzzling place.

Samy Nemir Olivares, a 31 year old, ran for New York state assembly last year knowing that if he were elected, he would face a Capitol dress code in Albany that didn’t account for his genderqueer identity. During the campaign, he knocked on doors and attended fundraising events wearing kaftans and dresses as an overt statement about gender inclusivity in politics.

“Government, including the Democratic Party, needs to embrace and welcome that it is normal that people wear whatever makes them feel powerful and confident and secure,” said Olivares, who lost his district’s Democratic primary to the incumbent, Erik Dilan, in June.

During his campaign, Olivares championed the inclusion of non-binary candidates in state and local politics, a cause that was bolstered last summer when governor Kathy Hochul of New York signed the Gender Inclusive Ballot Act into law, requiring political parties to include an option besides “male” or “female” for those seeking party offices.

They don’t necessarily care what you wear as long as you’re shirtless and hot

—  Cooper Howell

At his job in public relations for the LGBTQ advocacy organisation Lambda Legal, Olivares has encountered little resistance and much praise for his style of dress. “People are embracing it and I don’t think it has been much of an issue,” he says.

Cooper Howell, a 34-year-old actor, moonlights as a bartender at the Manhattan gay bar Hush. Instead of jeans, they sometimes opt for a kilt as a reminder to be true to themself.

“They don’t necessarily care what you wear as long as you’re shirtless and hot and can talk to the endless throng of white gay boys named Kyle,” Howell says of the bar’s management. Working in such an environment, Howell will sometimes catch themself slipping back into a butch persona.

“I will retreat back into my old habits of trying to conform to male normative behaviour,” Howell says. Their voice deepens and wrist movements are restricted. “It’s just a really uncomfortable place to retreat back to.”

Honouring their non-binary identity has other rewards. “When I really let my personality shine, that’s when I really give the best service and get the best tips,” they say.

For Wendy Berry the human relations director at Rainbow Health in Minnesota, there’s an obvious solution to some of the problems non-binary people face when getting dressed for work.

“Dress codes can just go away,” says 44-year-old Berry. “Grown-ups know how to dress, and anytime when you tell someone what they can and can’t wear, you’re literally just wasting your breath.”

Lauren A Rothman, the author of The Style Bible: What to Wear to Work, disagrees. Rothman is the founder of Styleauteur, a company that advises individuals and companies on work-appropriate attire.

“I am thrilled when clients want to implement or update a dress code,” Rothman says. “But I think that dress code and hygiene standards need to be reset across the board.”

Rothman advises clients to create dress codes that rely on an overall impression rather than specific garments. “At a law firm, what we’re looking for is for your presence to have a trustworthy and executive nature,” she says.

“Whether you identify that as being a suit and tie or you identify that as being in belted dress, either works as long as it comes across polished and modern and clean, wrinkle-free. Those would be some of the words I would use in a dress-code guideline.”

For individual non-binary clients, Rothman maintains a list of retailers like Nordstrom, PacSun and Shein that offer gender-fluid options. Rothman also notes that a flexible return policy is a crucial element to welcoming non-binary people, especially for retail stores that do not offer gender-neutral fitting rooms.

Rothman, for one, is excited by the “massive shift” she sees happening in professional dress.

“As we all reawaken to what it means to walk into an office, you’ve got to own that office runway,” she says. “You want that sense of confidence and you want to empower and fuel your employees.

And some non-binary people are eager to focus less on their outfits and more on their work.

“I used to be that typical bureaucrat: I thought whatever you wore mattered more than what you have to say,” says 28-year-old Ace Sutherland. They recall being called out by co-workers in previous jobs for avoiding blazers.

Today, Sutherland is a representative for Equality New York, an LGBTQ advocacy group that welcomes their sweaters and polo shirts.

“I want to make sure that people that look up to me, people that I work with, know that I can dress however I want to dress and still have the same conversation that would be necessary at that time,” they say.

Kelli Dunham, a 54 year old community school director for Counseling in Schools, an education non-profit in New York City, jokes that her gender is “Can you please listen to my ideas now?”. Dunham says she was hopeful for a world in which gender and clothing present no barriers at work.

“The non-binary people in your workplace have so much to give,” Dunham says. “Don’t let stumbling over pronouns or the dress code make it difficult for what are going to be some of your best employees.”

“Maybe worst, too,” she adds with a laugh. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times