I was raised by a bank executive and a tradesman. Both my parents had two wardrobes, one wardrobe for work and one not for work. My father’s work wardrobe consisted of steel toed boots and coveralls. When he was home he wore jeans, t-shirts and comfortable shoes. My mother’s work wardrobe consisted of suits, skirts, blouses, dress shoes and simple jewellery. When at home she wore pressed pants, casual blouses and pretty shoes.
When I went to work at my first childcare job I followed suit and part of my closet was dedicated to work clothes and the other part of my closet was designated non work clothes. My work wardrobe consists of pressed pants, blouses, skirts, blazers, cardigans and simple jewellery. My other wardrobe consists of jeans, leggings, vintage tees, flip flops and party dresses. I quickly realized this wasn’t how early childhood care and learning professionals worked. Most had one wardrobe clothes that were comfortable, affordable and practical.
I heard many reasons why this was the case. Our wages weren’t high enough to warrant a separate professional wardrobe. We work with paint, bleach and mud why dress up. It’s just easier to come to work in comfortable clothing. All of these reasons sound perfectly legit to me.
Here is where I am conflicted though. I think that what is inside matters most. In the area of caring and educating our youngest members of society, a person’s character and ability to connect with children and families in meaningful ways is more important….. but….. yes there is a but, we are underpaid and we are not given a lot of respect in our communities. Could our lack of a professional image be contributing to that lack of respect?
Last year when I decided to return to the floor after an almost two year break, I put my name out there for subbing. I was immediately hired to work a permanent position at the community centre I am at presently. I was also hired to be a sub in another community centre in the city. At my place of employment you are more likely to see people dressed in professional and practical attire.; skirts, trousers, blouses and cardigans are common place. I am paid a living wage, I have excellent benefits but most importantly it is the most respectful place I have ever worked. I love going to work. After a preschool session one day I headed to the other community centre for my orientation for subbing. During my orientation the childcare coordinator for the centre informed me I was too dressed up for working in child care. I was taken aback by this as I was wearing a simple pair of black trousers and a black cotton button down shirt with ballet flats. I listened though and when I went for my first shift I pulled out my most casual outfit. I wore a pair of denim jeans with the cuffs folded up, a cowl neck sweater and a pair of ballet flats. When I showed up in the daycare I was informed by the manager I was too dressed up. The manager, who told me this was wearing layered tank tops with her bra straps showing, rolled up jogging pants and sneakers with the laces undone. I didn’t last long at subbing. I removed my name off the list. I was paid poorly, there were no benefits and I didn’t feel anyone felt respected there. I have been thinking about my two wardrobes ever since.
“It’s an act of respect for the people you are working with the get dressed up for them.”
Richard Van Camp
I put my best self forward every day for the families, children and colleagues I work with. Part of doing that is making sure I look professional. We are educated women and men who care deeply for children and families. As a field we have a specialized knowledge that needs to be shared with our community. We must advocate for the practices that we believe in. We must articulate why we do what we do.
Now imagine sharing that specialized knowledge and articulating those practices to a parent, a colleague, a community member, a politician, the media or a board member dressed in layered tank tops, an exposed bra, rolled up jogging pants and undone sneakers.
Last night while watching What Not to Wear(Kim and I love this show, it’s what we watch when we are sharing hotel rooms), the host Clinton Kelly said something about appearances. What he said paralleled conversations Kim and I have had about values of our programs. It went something like this “Your clothes don’t define you, but they say something about you and are they saying what you want them to say?” When I go to work it is my goal that my wardrobe says I take pride in what I do, I care about myself and your family and I am a professional.
My professional wardrobe is always practical; fabrics are usually stretchy, washable and durable. Shoes are comfortable and more often than not flat. I do wear jeans to work but they are usually a more professional cut and they always always have Lycra in them. My wardrobe is purchased with a budget in mind, I never buy something I would be sad to see a finger paint stain on. Therefor sales racks are my best friend. I do invest in key pieces, a good pair of boots, comfortable shoes and a good warm jacket. I do have a personal style and I try to incorporate that as well.
I am not suggesting that we go to work with suits on. I don’t want to see our profession in a uniform either. What I am suggesting is that we honour the children, the families and the work we do when we put our best selves forward.
Here is another thing I remember about my parents two wardrobes. When they came home they changed. They got comfortable. To me it always seemed like a symbolic way of saying goodbye to one part of your day and getting comfortable with the next. In a profession that is grounded in nurturing and compassion sometimes we need a little symbolic divide between our professional and personal lives.