My father-in-law had a couple of boxes of books he was going to donate, and said I could take anything I might like. I love browsing for books, whether it’s at a used bookstore or in a couple of copy paper boxes in someone’s basement. As I sifted through the titles, I came across a couple of keepers, including a collection of John Cheever stories, but as I reached the bottom of the second box, I hit the jackpot. A book entitled The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, written in 1977. The same year Star Wars came out – though nowhere in the book is Princess Leia’s bun hairdo suggested.
The author of the book was a man, of course. Who else knows more about women’s fashion than men? This particular man’s name was John T. Molloy, who was also the author of Dress for Success. This book was devoted to how men should dress at work and was a bestseller at the time. Telling that he didn’t title that first book, Dress for Success for Men. After all, who can be successful outside of the kitchen except for a man?
Molloy’s bio on the back cover described him as a Wardrobe Engineer. Yeah, such a career exists, although you won’t find a degree program for it at MIT or Purdue. If he lived on Golgafincham, the fictional planet from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series that sent all it’s people with useless professions into outer space, I’m sure he would have been among them, along with the hairdressers, phone sanitizers and, yes, personnel managers.
Molloy states that his book is not sexist. Yet it oozes with sexism. By 1977, the women’s liberation movement had been in full swing for a decade, but apparently, he didn’t get the memo. Even the cover is sexist, the men looking up at a woman, dressed both for work and an evening out. Their heads are turned, but I have no doubt they’re salivating.
But Molloy’s philosophy goes beyond the cover. He believes it is a man’s world, and in order for a woman to succeed, she must dress for men. His advice includes:
Never wear pants suits: I guess no one gave Hillary Clinton the memo. Of course, hers aren’t made of 100 percent polyester and bought of the rack at KMart.
Don’t take your jacket off in the office: It makes a woman look less professional. No matter that all the men are in their shirt sleeves while you are sweating to death.
Wear only skin colored pantyhose: Anything else turns off men. Apparently, they want the illusion that you’re wearing nothing at all (which is generally the case today – I rarely see women wearing pantyhose anymore).
Never make an emotional decision about clothes: Because, you know, women are incapable of logic thinking.
Pants are “ultrasexy”: Maybe that’s why he advises against wearing them. Just the sight of a pair of well-tailored slacks must make him unable to think of anything else.
Molloy doesn’t stop at giving mere fashion advice. He also offers advice to about how women should decorate their offices:
Having flowers on your desk makes you look like a secretary: I wonder how he feels about cacti?
Photos of children are acceptable, but a women must not keep a picture of your husband on her desk: Although it’s fine for men to have pictures of their wives. I guess our fragile male egos will be threatened if there’s even the hint of another man in the room.
Women should avoid drinking anything but white wine or sherry, and then only one: Even if the men all around her are downing tumblers full of scotch.
Molloy goes on to tell women how they should dress to attract certain types of men. Working class men like their women to be dressed up more than they are. Doctors want women who are wearing the latest, most expensive fashions. There is even a chapter on how an executive’s wife should dress.
All this is based on Molloy’s research, which, as far as I can tell, is done by asking other men what women should wear.
It’s easy to laugh at the book, shake our heads and say, thank God we aren’t like that today. But in some ways, we still are. The internet abounds with tips on how women should dress at work. Pintrest is loaded with photos of what is appropriate and is not appropriate. Companies create long, detailed dress codes, which in some cases, haven’t moved into the 21st century. Until about a year ago, one Korean-based airline prohibited female flight attendants from wearing anything but skirts (I doubt they had any male flight attendants). Another company required women to wear heels when meeting with clients.
As for Mr. Molloy, he continues to dish out fashion advice on his blog (his last post was January of this year). And while it’s easy to make fun of what he said about the workplace of forty years ago, he is right in that, like it or not, image does matter, and a lot of people of both genders could use lessons on how to present a more professional image. Much of what is in the original book is a reflection of the time, not of Mr. Molloy, who often has some good advice. I suppose that’s why he updated it with subsequent editions of The New Women’s Dress for Success. Although in it, he still counsels women not to wear pants. I guess ultrasexy has no place in the office.