What does women’s business attire look like in 2019? A fashion expert weighs in after legislature ‘bare arms’ controversy


WATCH: One day after a sleeveless protest at the B.C. legislature a fashion expert looks at how the definition of business attire for women is changing. April Lawrence reports.

Erin Acton is a business professional with a closet full of sleeveless dresses. She wears them to speaking engagements and other formal events and was stunned to hear Thursday they wouldn’t be considered professional in B.C.’s legislature.

“I see a ton of women in business who are incredibly professional, incredibly successful, wearing sleeveless outfits all the time and they look amazing,” Acton, a business coach and Managing Director of eWomen Network Victoria said.

On Thursday female journalists and staff at the legislature went sleeveless in solidarity after several colleagues were told by security to cover their bare arms.

A Twitter photo of their dress code protest caused an online uproar and raised bigger questions about the policing of women’s work attire.

“I think it’s almost always women who are the subject of these discussions,” said Finance Minister Carole James on Thursday.

The decades-old dress code at the legislature calls for a “conservative contemporary approach”but one fashion consultant says the definition of business appropriate for women has changed.

“I feel like we are kind of moving toward not so conservative with our workwear wardrobe,” said Jodi Bryans, a fashion stylist at Mayfair Mall in Saanich.

“You do see a lot more sleeveless dresses especially after Michelle Obama, she kind of made it a thing and it’s going strong and it’s not going away any time soon,” she said.

But when Michelle Obama wore that sleeveless dress 10 years ago, it wasn’t without controversy.

“She was eviscerated by the conservative pundits about showing her arms,” said UVic Technology and Society Program Director Janni Aragon.

Since then other female leaders, including the Premiers of Ontario and Alberta, and Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, have gone sleeveless in the workplace.

And when former Prime Minister Kim Campbell tweeted last year that bare arms on television news anchors undermined their credibility, it was Campbell herself that became the target of backlash.

Experts say there is no question expectations are evolving.

“It used to be in retail banking women couldn’t wear slacks,” Aragon said.

Now most sleeveless blouses and dresses are considered appropriate. But they say now it’s time for dress codes to catch up.

April LawrenceApril Lawrence

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