Feb Dec Jan 2012 050

A Tale of Two Wardrobes

My roots of empathy baby and I dressed for our audience.
Me in my roots of empathy classroom last year.

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.

headshot two colour
Kim and I putting our best selves forward.


“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.

About Danielle

Danielle is an Early Childhood Educator,blogger, self admitted ECE geek, Preschool teacher, Mother and project coordinator for The Images of Learning Project. These days she juggles presenting, conference calls and blogging with playing with her daughter and nursing her son. She looks forward to the day where she can once again finish her morning coffee.

9 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Wardrobes

  1. Excellent article. The excuse “our wages aren’t high enough to afford a professional wardrobe” doesn’t cut it. Several of the best dressed women I know buy all or part of their clothes at retail shops or yard sales. No one should be out of the house with any part of her underwear showing, especially not at work. Don’t tell me that it is the style or that everyone does it. It is trashy.

  2. I am in the process of opening a daycare for children with special needs, and I have been struggling with the dress code question. At my husband’s company dinner, I took the opportunity to ask some couples with young children how they felt about dress codes at daycare centers. They gave me great insight into this issue. For one couple, professionally dressed staff was the deciding factor when they chose one center over another. They said it made them feel more confident that the center and it’s staff were more professional and would provide better care. Locally, the feedback I have gotten is that people feel my competitors do not hire trained professionals because their staff looks so rag-tag. I think that having a professionally-dressed staff will give me a competitive edge. I also think that having a tiered employee hierarchy will motivate my employees to make an effort to look and act professional so that they can move up within my company instead of moving on to greener pastures. I can’t afford to pay everyone very well, but I want to pay my best employees well enough to want to stay.

  3. We all want to be judged by what we do and what we know, but the reality is that we are also judged by appearances. Walk down the street or walk into a business and ask yourself honestly if you are judging people by their appearance. The first impression that you give affects how everything else about you is judged.

  4. I too have 2 wardrobes! I am a professional, I want to be recognised as one, so I dress like one. I sometimes buy a more expensive piece of clothing but I expect to get paint on it at some point, and that’s okay becuase it’s my work wardrobe! (and it indicates what a fun, productive, hands-on day I’ve had).
    I am constantly astounded at the very casual work attire of most of the long-day-care educators at my workplace (kindergarten and long-day-care) -tracksuit pants, baggy tops and running shoes. There is a lot of chatter about low wages and little respect for what we do. Why don’t you start with dressing like a professional!!? I truly believe this would go a long way in changing people’s perceptions.

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