A Doctor’s Dress Code Dilemma

I have received an invitation to a event.  It’s a retirement cocktail party, but as usual in Canada, there was no dress code on the invite and now I am not sure what to wear.  I lived in Australia for 5 years, and rarely received an invite to any event, professional or otherwise, that did not include some sort of dress code.  Business casual,  black tie, cocktail, etc.  Something to let you know you weren’t going to be the only one in a sequined dress.  Remember the tarts and vicars dress code debacle in “Bridget Jones’ Diary”? My husband and I did attend one wedding in Canada some years ago that specified black tie for the reception.  I raced around to find a black tie gown that would fit my post pregnancy, breastfeeding body and a tux for my husband.  The dress code was roundly ignored by most people at the reception, with most of the men in suits, not tuxedos, and certainly most of the women not in what I would consider black tie attire.   A few years later I shared a summer birthday party with my twin brother and decided to put a dress code on the invites.  I was putting on a catered dinner and a full open bar and wanted the night to be special. The invite said, “no shorts, no jeans, no ballgowns.”  It was an ill-advised attempt at humour.  I really just wanted people to dress up a bit, without looking like Cinderella.  All I got was a lot of confused guests phoning and emailing me asking what it meant.

Now there seem to be two different camps when it comes to dressing. Those that believe it’s what on the inside that counts, and those that believe it matters what you put on your body.  The older I get, the more I fall into the second camp.  Fuddy-duddy-dom here I come. I don’t even like the F.C.U.K. t-shirts that were popular when I lived in England.  FYI that stands for “French Connection United Kingdom”, but is supposed to be provocative. Now I am a surgeon, and spend a great deal of time wandering around the hospital in a pair of what essentially looks like ill fitting pajamas and a pair of comfy running shoes.  Scrub greens are one size fits none basically.  So it may seem counterintuitive that I think it matters.  But it does.  I will confess that I am a fan of the show “What Not To Wear, “ which I think makes a good point with their message that it does matter what you wear, even if only to make you feel better about yourself. Over the years, dress codes have become more and more scarce.  There is usually a social media story somewhere about how some girl has been sent home for wearing something inappropriate to school.  I agree with having dress codes in schools- there has to be some guidelines, or eventually, someone pushing the envelope will show up at school naked, which I think we can all agree would be inappropriate.  And we know how teenagers love to push the envelope. In fact, I would love it if there were uniforms in all schools in Canada, including public, but that looks unlikely to happen soon.  Uniforms are the norm in Australia. What is school if not a practice for the real world?  I agree that not hiring someone because of sexual orientation, gender, race, age, or disability is inappropriate from a human rights point of view.  But just going to be brutally honest here, I would not be likely to hire someone to work for me who is covered in visible tattoos or piercings, or dressed inappropriately.  These are choices people make, not human rights issues.  All sorts of vulnerable people pass through my office, and I need them to trust not only me, but also my staff, who represent me.  As for youthful stupidity when it comes to tattoos, maybe the decision to get that full face tattoo speaks to your judgement about other things?

For physicians, the dress code represents a dilemma.  Pediatricians have been told NOT to wear the white coat, it intimidates their young patients.  I KNOW my older patients would not appreciate me trying to be more relatable by wearing jeans to my clinic, but my teenage patients might.  If you have a diverse practice, like I do, you’re between a rock and a hard place.  But hey, at least I’m allowed to wear flats to work if I choose to. (Shame on you Cannes film festival).

Now in Australia, in spite of being sticklers for dress codes in social events, I have never seen more inappropriate attire in a professional setting.  Ripped T-shirts worn to a hospital setting by resident staff, exposed flesh over the top of  too tight pants by hospital staff, and swimwear underneath cover-ups to work.  I was the examiner for a clinical exam some years ago, where medical students had to come into a room where both a simulated patient and I were waiting to assign them a task.  They had to perform an appropriate abdominal examination, the idea here being to simulate an office setting.  A female medical student opened the door, and my first thought was that someone had gotten lost and was looking for their friend in the nearby emergency room.  Huge celebrity style sunglasses were perched on top of her head serving to keep her bedhead hair off her face. She was wearing a undershirt style tank top, through which you could clearly see her bra, somewhat appropriate trousers, and plastic flip flops.  The eyebrows of the simulated patient shot up (as did mine I’m sure).  She proceeded to perform completely competently during the exam and we bid her goodbye.  The simulated patient shook his head from side to side once she’d left- “Didn’t think she was in the right room!”  We had a laugh as I confessed I had been thinking the same thing.  Now what would have been his opinion of her if it had been a real clinical setting?  Would he have been able to take her advice seriously?  I’m not sure.  Maybe she dressed that way because it wasn’t a real patient, who knows.  I asked the dean about it and turns out there is no dress code for medical students.

Unfortunately, a lot of our interactions with people will be brief and people are judgemental.  First impressions matter and your appearance, as well as your demeanor, counts.  I didn’t say that this is right or wrong, it’s just a fact.  Now it has been a long while since I have worn the doctors’ white coat.  I’m not even sure I own one anymore.  We don’t have a formal dress code at the office or at the hospital where I work but there are some unwritten rules I follow.

  1. I don’t think someone wants to discuss their breast cancer with someone wearing yoga pants. Exercise gear should be out of the question.
  2. Open toe shoes/sandals- I don’t know why, but I just find toe cleavage inappropriate in a professional setting. Possibly unsafe as well for those working with sharp objects, although that could be a slippery slope to all of us working with patients walking around in HazMat suits.
  3. While we are talking about cleavage, butt and chest cleavage should also not be on display at work.
  4. Cutouts, tank tops, crop tops, sheer tops, camisoles, ripped jeans, visible undergarments (male or female). Just not appropriate.
  5. I do dress down on the weekends and evenings. I do on call, but it’s my weekend too, and I think it’s ok to send that signal to the patients. I can’t sit around in a pair of pumps and business suit in case I get called in. Worst case scenario, I get into scrubs before hitting the ED to see a sick patient if I’m in something inappropriate, like a tennis skirt (that happened once).

My advice would be try and wear clothes that fit, make you feel good, and give you some confidence in yourself.   I will follow that advice myself when figuring out what to wear to that cocktail party next month. Females in particular will have all aspects of their appearance scrutinized and commented on.  This gets 10 X worse if you get pregnant, but that’s a story for another time.  Learn to take a compliment graciously and ignore (ok try to ignore) the rest.  Think about what message you want to send to those you are going to meet for the first time today.  I cringe when I think of the horrible getup (to call it an outfit would be offensive to the word outfit) I was wearing the day I met my future husband for the first time in a hotel lobby in Nairobi over a decade ago.  We fell in love over the next two weeks in spite of it. I guess what’s inside does count sometimes.

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