New Series CorporateQ Explores Intersection of Style, Identity, and Workplace Gender Politics

transgress

[trans-gres, tranz-]

verb

an act of transgressing; violation of a law, command, etc.; sin.

Image by Renzo Spirit Buffalo
dapperQ Founder Susan Herr. Image by Renzo Spirit Buffalo

dapperQ’s tagline — “Transgressing men’s fashion” — was chosen with great care, especially the word transgressing. With its strong theological roots, the word is a nod to my Southern Baptist roots. It conveys the idea that those of us who transgress gender violate deeply rooted taboos. In the eyes of many, we do so at the peril of our very souls.

I’m reminded of these roots as I introduce a new series we are launching called: CorporateQ.  As the name implies, CorporateQ will bring readers the stories of those transgressing men’s fashion in the workaday world and, with that, a boatload of gender expectations. My personal experience suggests that CorporateQ is a whole new level of transgression. It’s one thing to dress dapper in our neighborhoods or at the bar; it’s quite another thing to imperil our paychecks.

The last time I wore a skirt was in 1996. It was an interview for a job I eventually won running a $30 million grantmaking initiative for Chicago’s community foundation. It followed more than eight years of increasingly prestigious positions in the nonprofit sector as an out lesbian.

Susan Herr with the frosted hair and big shoulder (pads).
Susan in 1990 with frosted hair and big shoulder (pads).

I’m smart and I work hard. But so do a million other folks. In retrospect, I’ve come to believe that at least part of my professional success is the masculine privilege that emanates from this butch dyke. I’m tall. I walk with a swagger. I was raised by two snazzy dressers and I’ve always tried to be polished in appearance. Once a long-term lover taught me the basics of power clashing, I really upped my game stylistically.  For the first 20 years of my career, my very presence violated gender norms, even if my skirt suits didn’t.

After I stopped wearing skirts, my corporate dress still fell well within widely accepted boundaries. That was the case through 2006 when I left the nonprofit sector to start my own business. In the ensuing years, I switched to men’s suits with an open collar or cravats. Again, polished and powerful but not threatening. When I launched dapperQ in 2009, I immersed myself in the world of dapper. But my bow-ties and neckties made appearances at social events, not business mixers.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve decided to go back to nonprofit sector because I want more meaning in my work life.  I’ve spent time polishing my resume and LinkedIn profile. I’ve really enjoyed the excuse for an intense round of networking.  I’ve begun interviewing. But the best of it? I’ve been able to begin building a whole new corporate wardrobe.

Susan rocking PoliticalQ in the 90’s with her old pal Tipper Gore.

When I interview with queer organizations, bow-ties are a no-brainer. But when I recently interviewed with an organization on the Upper East Side  that would have me raising money from folks who are a class or two or three above mine, I took pause. I want to get the position with the potential for greatest impact.  That morning I thought taking my foot off the throttle might be a good idea.  Ultimately, I went with the necktie which is, to me, the most transgressive of choices.  They interviewed me for the job but I interviewed them as well.  I’m in no hurry and it wasn’t a match. But I’m not saying I’d make the same decision tomorrow.  How I dress to achieve employment for a job that will ensure that I have maximum social impact is an on-going question.

That’s why CorporateQ feels so pressing. It is fueled by my very personal desire to learn how members of the dapperQ community are navigating this terrain. Here are just a few questions for you off the top of my head:

How do styles differ from place to place and industry to industry? What about folks in  traditional corporate settings? In smaller towns? In the South? What can you get away with in creative agencies that you can’t get away with working for the government? Or law firms? Or retails sales?

What about masculine privilege? It’s a man’s world in the corporate sphere. Do dapperQ’s have an edge? In addition to what you wear, how does how you wear your hair determine how you are received? How you walk?  How you talk? 

Have you experienced discrimination as the result of how you dress? I’ll be interviewing Jillian Weiss and Ezra Young who specialize in representing trans people who have experienced employment discrimination based on gender identity. (If you’ve got questions on the topic, please drop them to [email protected] re: corporateQ.)

What makes for the best outfits? Do you wear very traditional menswear or do you jazz up your color scheme to make a statement within your statement? Tie bars, cufflinks, collar bars, suspenders, bespoke suits, starch on your dress shirts – what takes your CorporateQ wardrobe to the next level?

These are just a few of the questions I’ll bet many of you have as well.

Over the past five plus years, dapperQ has featured a wealth of images that could be labeled CorporateQ. Two of the best series featuring those images are Seven Days of Dapper and Dress Smart – dapperQ Academics.   CorporateQ is a chance for us to learn more about the stories behind the dapper. We’ve already got three stories in the can. One sings the praises of their CorporateQ experience while the others provide more mixed reviews. Be assured that we won’t sugarcoat the challenges. But we will celebrate those among us boldly going where no (cis)man has gone.

If you are interested in being profiled, please write to [email protected] re: CorporateQ. Give us a few paragraphs describing your experience and include a photo or two if you can.  We are also interested in hearing stories of those of you whose location, industry or circumstances would never allow you to dress in a gender nonconforming manner and we can keep your experience anonymous.   

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