Sexy Secretaries


Reader Vanda popped this truly thought-provoking question into my inbox a few weeks back:

My question is about the term “sexy secretary.” I see it on a lot of fashion blogs and in articles but as an administrator in an office environment I have mixed feelings about the term. I would say that I lean towards a secretary look at work. I wear glasses and pin striped skirts and heels. I watch “Mad Men” for fashion tips more than anything else, I think. But I cringe a little when I hear the term “sexy secretary.” I want to look attractive at work (and everywhere!) but I guard my reputation at work with a vengeance. I fill my office with photos of my husband and am careful not to cross the line between friendly and flirting. Do you think the “sexy secretary” term brings us back to the “Mad Men” days of women being around the office for eye candy and office dalliances?

I’m DEFINITELY going to need some input from you all on this one, because I’m stymied. As I’ve mentioned before, I can be pretty dense when it comes to innuendo. I’d say a good 15% of my ensembles fall into the “sexy secretary” category, but I’ve never even considered how those ensembles might read to someone of a lascivious nature. I could be broadcasting, “wanton woman” vibes with my heels and fishnets and have no idea.

But I’m inclined to think not, for several reasons.

  • Generation gap: My guess is that older men – those who have some personal experience with the bad old days when secretaries were hired as eye-candy alone – might view a woman sporting a “sexy secretary” look as trolling for sexual favors. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think both women and men of younger generations are a bit more enlightened both in terms of style and in terms of coworker roles/behaviors.

  • Personality: Sure, a pencil skirt and deep-v blouse are sexy … but when they’re worn by someone whose personality is casual and goofy, or reserved and private, or anything BESIDES flirty and sensual, some of that sexiness is mitigated.
  • Position: And this is the one that I’m least sure of. I’m a communications coordinator. Coworker Cal – who can do sexy secretary like nobody’s business – is a development officer. We aren’t ACTUAL secretaries, we’re mid-level employees. And I think people see our looks as playful and retro-kitschy when we don them. But Vanda is an office administrator and the stubbornly literal people of the world might struggle with her sexy secretary looks more than they would with mine. This look is culturally iconic, and when worn by a woman in a secretarial role, it may be harder to get out from under that ingrained image. I wonder, too, if women in positions of power in office environments may encounter problems. Most of the female execs I’ve worked for have erred on the side of androgyny, and I can’t say as I blame them. It seems like a traditional, conservative or semi-conservative office environment would rebel against a female leader in pencil skirts and seamed hose. But I’ve never encountered either a secretary or an exec who sports this look, so it’s all conjecture on my part.

So I could be wrong. About all of it! Again, my flirtation radar is permanently broken and I have no idea how these looks affect observers. Additionally, I work in an office populated mainly by middle-aged heterosexual women. Don’t get many opportunities to titillate, and am just fine with that.

I want this to be a harmless, fun way for women to inject some retro sensibilities into personal style. And a harmless, fun way to feel sensual and powerful without beaming errant, “fuck me” vibes out into cubeville. But maybe I’m missing something.

What do you think? Do you do “sexy secretary” looks? Ever attract unexpected overtures? Think this term and its associated looks are dangerous? Would you agree that women in office administration or positions of executive power might be more subject to misinterpretation, or am I WAY off base?

Image courtesy zazie.

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    Hmmmm. Interesting food for thought, but I'm not sure that I have many answers. I did, however, notice on another style blog a couple of months back that a blogger had donned a "sexy librarian" style, but since her sister was a librarian, she called it "sexy teacher" instead. As someone who has worked as an educator at both the primary and post-secondary levels, it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I kind of thought, "Hmmm. Your sister doesn't like you to use the term because it objectifies her profession, but you found it totally fine to objectify mine." These kinds of things are what make third/fourth/sixteenth wave feminism so tricky. Sexy can be empowering, but it can also create circumstances in which a woman is objectified and demeaned.

  • Kim

    Great topic!
    I work in an academic environment, where the styles veer all over the place; everything from student-slouchy to professor-eclectic to Talbots-sweaterset-clad administrators. I fall somewhere in between and also outside of all of those and I've never pinned myself down to any one style, mainly because I'm attracted to so many.
    As for the sex vibe, I've worked in offices where it's blatant to the point of being uncomfortable. This here is the Old South, where good-ole-boy mentality still unfortunately rears its ugly head and it's something you never quite get used to. On the few occasions I've received an inappropriate comment or glance, I'm usually too shocked to retaliate until way after the fact (when it's too late) and I think this might be the case with a lot of women. While it's normal to want to express ourselves through our appearance and style, I think even in these modern times many women (myself included) hold back a lot for fear of garnering the wrong type of attention. But the funny thing is, at least in my experience, I feel judgment way more often from other women than I've ever felt from men.

  • Casey

    It's been awhile since I worked in an office, but when I did, I tended towards veering away from anything that conjured ideas of "sexy secretary". While I agree that some of the younger generations are more enlightened when it comes to self-expression and what we wear (e.g. just because I wear a pencil skirt and 5" heels does not automatically mean I'm sexually available or a tart), the old views still prevail in cooperate situations (at least in my experience). This may have just been the office I worked in too; which was at a land development/home building business, so we had a lot of "characters" coming and going throughout the day.

    I still try to keep in mind what my dress may convey to others in certain situations. While I don't change the essence of what I wear based on other people's ideas or viewpoints, I have toned it down sometimes (loose the sky high heels, button up the blouse, etc.) in order to present a more professional, less objectify-able persona. Does that make any sense? ;) lol.

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

  • Vanessa

    I totally get what you're saying about how the generational difference might have an effect. I SEE that point, but in a way, I disagree with it. Well, the part about how younger guys probably aren't going to assume it's okay to approach a "sexy secretary" for some tryst is probably right. However, I think thoughts about doing the provocatively secretary atop the fax machine are just kept private. Back in what you called the bad old days, it would probably be more acceptable for those thoughts to be shared. Nowadays there's a little thing called the sexual harassment policy, and guys probably keep their thoughts to themselves for the sake of their jobs.

    What I'm saying? I think the thoughts, the mentality, are to some degree still there. The sexy secretary is part of our sexual mythology, the same with French maids and naughty nurses (my future-lawyer boyfriend and I joke that when he becomes successful enough for his own corner office, he'll NEED a "big-titted secretary" to go with it). If it's part of common bedroom roleplays, I think you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who isn't excited by seeing someone fulfilling that role in real life. I know if I see a secretary in a low-cut blouse, pencil skirt, and high heels, I think sexy secretary. I think of her as a woman I would want to look like in private moments with me boyfriend. I'm a straight woman and a sexy secretary sends a strong sexual signal to ME, so I have a feeling men feel the same, only even more pronounced.

    I think the sexy secretary will probably never die. She's an icon. She is to offices what Hooters Girls are to Hooters.

    (sidenote: I also have doubts that secretaries AREN'T still often selected on the basis of sex appeal, though you seem to think they so. Women applying for most jobs are judged heavily on looks, so why would secretary be any different when it is such a fetishized position?)

  • Anonymous

    I thought the reader was talking more about the term than the look. The phrases "sexy secretary" or "sexy librarian" or "sexy schoolgirl" are now a bit offensive. The looks–that depends on how far you take it. A prim but body-,conscious work-appropriate look is a far cry from say a SNL skit costume in the same vein.

  • Judith

    I'm not in the work force but I've never considered the 'sexy secretary' look to be office attire. Whatever its origin, I associated it with a look that was a mix of conservative and feminine dress. I feel strongly about using the word 'sexy' as it is so overused and I think we send mixed messages about how we want our daughters to perceive themselves. It seems to undo everything Sal's site is about—-appreciating your body without flaunting it for the goal of capturing a guy.
    Rant over :-)

  • WendyB

    I'm not really sure what this means…I think it can be more your personal feeling in your clothes than something other people really notice. It can be the fit of your skirt and your jacket. I'm assuming we're not talking about exposing a lot of cleavage…

  • Gwen

    I'm wary of any look involving "sexy" at the office. I know people who get away with it, but they're either (a) consciously or not sacrificing upward mobility or (b) so spectacularly good otherwise that it's overlooked.

    I know there's also a generation gap, in that many women just a little younger than me (only 37 – ack!) don't think it's a big deal. These are also frequently the women who say to me "so what did feminism ever do for me, anyway?", so… I hope it works out for them, but I'm already doubtful of their awareness level.

    ::grin:: I just deleted a much longer bit saying that in the stereotypically male tech world, adding "sexy" would make my life harder. And in the stereotypically female admin world, adding "sexy" would make someone's life harder. Maybe it's easier in the middle, or maybe it's just not a good idea anywhere.

  • Rebecca

    I'm going with Vanda re. her concern about the term and the look. Femininity has its own inherent power – and I LOVE it. But deliberately "sexy"/flirtatious in a public (especially work) environment? Not so much.

  • Toby Wollin

    This is definitely a generational thing because younger women seem to feel it's ok to dress in a way that women of my age would cringe at. We already fought the 'grope wars' in the 70s and 80s and found our office armor in John Morris's 'Dress for Sucess for Women' – with the dreaded jacket, skirt, blouse and the little (horrid) floppy tie. I've never been able to figure out if young women feel that we second wave working women didn't get anyplace with that mode of dress and decided that 'if you can't beat 'em, join em' with closer fitting, shorter and lower neckline clothing. Or, if it's just that they haven't been in the workforce long enough. But women who are at the top of the game don't dress that way and young women who want to get to that level might want to take note of that. Actually, in my office the problem is not 'sexy secretary' – it's 'slob'.

  • Anonymous

    I am a secretary and usually take great offense to this term. However, I don't notice that anybody in my workplace (a law firm) actually sports this look, intentionally. Occasionally, I will wear what one could deem "sexy secretary", but it is never my intention to portray that. I think that it is a term that women should boycott. It is demeening. Women are not at work to provide fantasies for men. This is all that this is, and I think that Mad Men is bad for women (and men).
    Jocelyn

  • Sal

    Wow, lots of strong feelings about this topic, unsurprisingly. And it's making me realize that I've worked in fairly casual and liberal-minded offices thus far. I've honestly never felt ogled or out of place. Then again, I can't say as I ever show much skin or wear anything truly skin-tight …

    And I realize that this term may mean different things to different people. In my mind, "sexy secretary" doesn't mean cleavage and tightness, but a retro-influenced style of dressing with some subtly sexy overtones. Pencil skirts, fishnets, silk blouses, sheath dresses, pumps. But I'm sure this phrase calls up a variety of ideas and styles for a variety of people.

  • A-C

    In law school job related programs we're essentially taught to NOT be or look like secretaries. The reasons are the vast age ranges of attorneys, most attorneys are men and if you put yourself in a secretarial position, the people in your office won't ever see you as an attorney. So by even going the secretary route in dress, you're severely cutting off your ability to move up. Adding sexy only exacerbates that.

    Its part of the problem that many women in the law face, that they are not taken seriously because of their gender. You are either a bitch or a whore (in less fraught terms: bitch= woman who wants to get ahead and works hard and may step on some toes in the process; whore= sexy woman who gets her way by flirting or cavorting with her male colleagues). These of course are just perceptions, but its very difficult to find a middle ground to begin with and adding sexy clothing that puts you in a position of secretary rather than attorney doesn't help.

    While I'm perfectly happy wearing a pencil skirt or a fitted blouse or heels, adding everything up to dress in the costume of sexy secretary is best left for the bedroom or for Halloween.

  • Diana

    I worked as a school librarian in an elementary school a few months back, and while I love the "sexy secretary" look, I always kept it much more conservative there. I didn't want parents thinking I was trying to corrupt their children in some way. It's such a tricky issue, because I don't want to go to the opposite end with an androgynous look, but at the same time, if I over-play my femininity, parents/administrators might read it the wrong way.

  • Anna

    At first, I thought "sexy secretary" was just a descriptive term, something we throw around casually without meaning anything. But then, it occurred to me how much it would bother me if such terminology were applied to my own profession, teaching: how it would bring up ideas about Mary Kay Letourneau and other teachers who really bring our profession down. And I know that would bother me, not just because it objectifies teachers, but also because there are so many negative (and illegal!) implications in the term.

    Maybe my position is a bit different because I work with minors. Maybe we need to stop objectifying professions at all with such language. Maybe we could make up a new term, such as "retro sexy" or similar, to desribe the aesthetic we're trying to acheive with this look.

  • Angela Pea

    I agree that this is a generational issue, and I positively CRINGE at what I see younger women wearing to work. They have no idea how tacky they look, and are only squelching their own opportunities by dressing in a suggestive manner.

    I am a professional engineer, and I am the ONLY professional woman in my entire company. Do I ever dress sexy for work? No. Never. I have worked for more than twenty years to establish myself as a competent, intelligent woman and "putting on the vamp" demeans my credibility with my clients and coworkers.

    This is not to say that I've adopted the completely androgenous look, either. I wear beautiful clothing to work, with lot of color, interesting style and unique accessories that sets me apart from my male couterparts. I have gone for the soft slinkiness of velvet and a deep v-neck for formal work activities outside the office, such as dinners or parties; however, nothing, absolutely NOTHING is ever worn that even hints at being sexy for regular office hours. That kind of look is reserved for my husband.

    Am I old fashioned? Maybe. But I've thrived in the male dominated engineering world with a successful, fulfilling career, and I didn't have to flash my rack to get there.

  • Sheila

    Interesting. I do the "sexy secretary" look as well, but have never had any of my co-workers (men or women) misinterpret my look as trolling in the office. I'm in a corporate culture (I'm an administrator) and am easily one of the most dressed-up people in my building.

    I think the term needs a new name!

  • Michael McGraw Photography

    I think the sexy secratary/librarian is only partly about how the person dresses, historically.

    I don't think something counts as a sexy secretary until someone who appears conservative with their hair up and wearing glasses lets their hair down to reveal a previously un-noticed sexiness.

  • K.Line

    Is the LW's issue the terminology – or the terminology as it applies to the look? I mean, would she mind if the term for that look were "intellectual administrator"? I have no issue with the term or the look. I mean, secretaries (as they were) are not really around anymore. An administrator is not a secretary, IMO. The secretary is a position that retired with another age. That's how I see it.

  • Danielle

    I am against the "sexy (insert generally female job here)." I am a secondary English teacher with the intention of one day obtaining my doctorate. With that said, with education comes a sense of independence and confidence that is sexy sans heels and pinup girl stockings. I think it's an utter travesty with girls/women try the "sex kitten" look in a professional environment. I especially can't stand it when women put themselves out there with cleavage and an ultra tight skirt that go around screaming about how they are being "sexually harrassed" at work. Excuse me, men are visually-stimulated creatures which translates to "you stick your ass out there and they're going to grab it." I would much rather want a man to be attracted to me because of who I am rather than how large my assets are. Hence why I haven't worn high heels and mini skirts since I grew a brain (i.e. high school). And I never flaunted the cleavage because well, some things are more sexy if they're kept in the bedroom.

  • Vanessa

    Sal: thinking about how say you were more referring to retro style clothing, I have to say I still see that kind of secretary look as highly sexualized. As it is, a lot of '50s style dresses, for instance, (a la Mad Men) are MADE to highlight a woman's curves and thus her identity as a sexual being. Though they tend to be more conservative in terms of skirt length and cleavage coverage, they still generally create or highlight an hourglass figure. I feel like the clothing itself would be seen as possibly cute and retro by women if the wearer, but less of that would translate with a man, not just because of the visual sex appeal, but the connotations, too. Perhaps men would be led to think the woman believes in the gender roles that go with her style of dress.

  • childfreelife

    I have never actually agreed with you when you said you were wearing a sexy secretary get-up. My evaluation of your look was that it was professional and demure. You don't do a come hither face when you wear the clothes, everything is appropriately long enough and the slits on the skirts don't really go up very far. I do like those outfits, don't get me wrong, and if they make you feel sexy all the better! But I don't actually think of them as provocative.

  • Sal

    Danielle: Although I understand where you're coming from, I believe that heels and mini skirts are perfectly appropriate when worn in balance with less sensual pieces. Plenty of women wear both and aren't automatically relegated to being "sex objects." Comportment ALWAYS plays a role, as I pointed out in my post.

  • Sal

    Vanessa: Hmmm, I can’t agree that any formfitting garment is going to automatically create outdated gender roles for male OR female beholders. Women highlight their curves because curves are gorgeous, and I’d hate to see anyone shying away from that for fear of being viewed as overly sexualized. ESPECIALLY if done with garments that are conservative in terms of skin coverage.

  • Solidaritybitch

    Yes, maybe we need a new term. Like "retro secretary" or "old skool librarian" or "Joan Holloway" look? It's definitely a cultural icon, and it's sexy without showing skin. As a post secondary educator, I wear nerdy glasses, loose tops, skirts and opaque tights with heels. Working around men 18-24 makes me think really hard about my choices (I'm 30 but look younger and constantly get questions about my age).
    I do appreciate what you're saying Sal about a goofy, laid back person donning such an outfit is different that a person who presents herself with more conventional sex appeal. I don't wear any makeup (not because I have perfect skin, but I was socialized to do so in graduate school), so I think that can mitigate any "sexiness."
    Ultimately, though, others' perceptions about us are out of our control. I can try to not dress sexy, but wearing a loose fitting knee-length wool pencil skirt to class one day resulted in 3 boys whistling when I came in through the door. Another day, when wearing a huge bag like outfit, the girls in my seminar hung around telling me what their male classmates say about my looks outside of class. People will read sex in one's appearance even if you try to control it, so maybe it's best to be aware but not affect your actions too much.

  • Anonymous

    I THINK (but correct me if I'm wrong, fellow-europeans) I sense an american-european view of things here. Well, anyway, here in Europe, this question never bothered me, or anyone I know. I do the sexy secretarian very often, because I love the retro vibe of it. I work as a researcher in a univesity department, and I don't notice men watching me more or being more flirtatuous when I'm dressed like that, than when I have an off-day (my uniform of wide dress – tights – sweater – boots day- not sexy!). I never even thougt of it as a problem. The only thing I sense is, in smaller towns, there is a certain provincialims that makes people look up if you show signs of extrvagance (teal coloured tigts would be extravagant enough to attract funny looks-and I know it, I lived there), but in a biggish town, as the one I live in, no such thing ever occurs. My friends agree with me on that. When men show interest, or harras us, it is always regardless of what we are wearing.
    Nobody seems to judge coworkers on what they wear here. I might be naive, though, but that's my experience. And I lived in different places over Europe so I do have a rather global look.

  • Kelly

    Most styles can skew sexy or conservative. You can be a sexy secretary or a modest one. You can be a sexy teacher or a modest one. You can probably be a sexy train conductor or a modest one. I don't think it's the blouses and pencil skirts and heels in an of themselves that can make your outfit a bad choice. The inappropriateness, or the sexiness, comes when you wear a particularly tight pencil skirt or unbutton one too many buttons on your top or wear heels a few inches higher than you know you should.

  • hope505

    I think the "sexy secretary" archtype comes from times when most women were very careful to cultivate acceptable public personas (trying not to look "loose" or "easy" for example)…you can put a bombshell in mundane, boring, conservative clothes but she's still a bombshell, right? I think men enjoyed thinking that conservative-looking women were actually tigresses when you got them out of their glasses and granny-boots…
    * ; )
    The secretary is desirable because she is not TRYING to look sexy, but she still does…

  • Annie

    I think that the sexy librarian and sexy secretary are less icons and more a male fantasy and as such will exist regardless of how a secretary or librarian (or woman in the workplace in general) is actually dressed.

    She will always be either a sexy secretary or librarian who hasn't let her hair down yet or one who has already fulfilled her "sexy" potential. I think we as women participate in this fantasy possibly even more than men, whether we idolize Joan from Mad Men for her glamor, beautiful clothing and full figure or watch a woman transform from dowdy to pretty in What Not to Wear.

    I think there is also a difference between being sexy and being overtly sexual (and I don't think it takes cleavage for a man to think a woman is sexy – the meaning of that word is subjective for everyone).

    Whatever signals we give out have as much to do with our body language as they do about what we wear. Being overtly sexual is something no woman should be in the workplace. We have more choices with regard to work attire than men do, and as a result we also have more of a challenge to dress appropriately for work. Men and women alike need to tune into their body language as well. I think it's possible to dress appropriately without looking dowdy *and* without being overtly sexual.

  • Anonymous

    Personally I don't think that "sexy" is ever really something I strive for at work. I do work in a very conservative environment (I'm a third year law student practicing at a prosecutor's office). When I'm in court trying cases I don't want to give anyone (the judge, defendant, witnesses, police officers etc.) a reason to not take me 100% seriously.
    I'm 25 years old and very petite and people often mistake me for being younger than I am. Plus criminal trial work is still a male dominated world.

    I love pencil skirts and seamed stockings and fishnets and high heels. But I save them for other occasions. That way I can do the "sexy secretary" look without negatively effecting my reputation at work.

    Is it fair? Of course its not fair. I wish I could wear what I want and not have to downplay my sex appeal or the fact that I am a woman. But this is the world I've chosen to play in. I'm a good trial attorney and I want to be a prosecutor more than anything. If these are the rules than I am willing to play by them.

  • Sal

    Anonymous (4): Indeed. I think one of the reasons I’m a little stubborn about continuing to don my version of the "sexy secretary" is I think it’s WILDLY unfair that I potentially shouldn’t. But, as has been said ad nauseum, life ain’t fair. And if dressing a certain way puts you at risk, you have to pick your battles: Fight for the right to wear what you want at all times, or dress within parameters at work and however you want outside work. And I’d never judge anyone for choosing either path, personally.

  • neighbourhood.gal

    Thinking about this topic of terminology and my own position…

    I am a stay at home mom. I don't really want to go for a "Sexy SAHM" because for me that conjurs up images of "kept" women or someone who is likely to jump any and all service men who come to the door – be it the pool boy, the electrician, the mailman, etc.

    Neither do I want other people to look at me and know immediately that I am a SAHM just by my appearance. (Even though there is no room for dry clean only in my life.)

    I like retro styling, but I like to call it for what it is: '40s, '60s, or '80s retro secretary, mom, teacher, whatever.

  • kathel

    It's a power thing, and you are lucky not to have experienced it that way. Working in a mid-level position in an egalitarian office, you can experiment with a fashion persona without it affecting your career. Neither the style nor the term is problematic for you because you're not objectifying a position you actually hold.

    Those of us in offices where a woman in a cubicle behind a computer is automatically someone's servant can't afford to compartmentalize ourselves on purpose. Sexual harassment is only a small part of what I'm talking about — if we wear the uniform of an underling (and identify it as such), we reinforce expectations of subservience. I work in a law firm where the secretaries are trained professionals integral to the litigation process, and they still fight every day for respect.

    Anna's coinage of "retro sexy" is an excellent and much more specific term. There are still going to be those of us who may not be able to wear it for the reasons I describe, but at least we're not strapping on our own ball and chain.

  • Bianca

    I think "sexy secretary" probably needs to be better defined to properly answer this question. For example, my girl Sheila above indicated that she wears SS often, however, I read her blog daily and would never consider her outfits inappropriate for work or fetishizing in any way at all.

    I think the person who sent the question has taken much too seriously the playful term "sexy secretary" and is confusing it with actually dressing in a provocative nature at work or being perceived as provocative.

    It sounds like she is worried that using the **fashion term** to describe her clothes will somehow cast dispersion on her actual character at work. I think she is too worried.

    I do not think the WORDS "sexy secretary" will bring us down in the office, (unless of course you are running around proclaiming aloud that you are going for that look) I think actually dressing way too sexy (think Kelly Bundy) might cause a problem. ;-)

  • Anonymous

    I am a librarian, and so I try very hard not to dress in that stereotypical "sensible shoes/hair in bun/long, shapeless skirt" ensemble. So I'm less of a sexy secretary and more of what I think of as a hot librarian.

    The difference? My clothing is tailored, and I take care to make sure that hemlines hit at or just above the knee. Bralines are never visible, and cleavage is perhaps hinted at, but never visible. Things aren't skintight. I want to feel sexy but honestly, this is work here. I like to look feminine and so I wear heels and stockings/hose.

    I do find that older men sometimes make passes, but I think there's still a "librarian" thing that goes on there. But you can definitely be feminine and wear fitted clothing if you do so in good taste.

  • Cosmo

    Sexy Secretary has always been to me the same as Sexy Librarian. Most people that dress that way are doing so in a Retro way. There are in my mind two versions of this look. The first is historically, in the period librians and secretaries were pretty conservatively dressed. Women were expected to look attractive all the time no matter what they were doing. It is only sexy now because women so often do not care how they look at all and are so often expected to look like men to be taken seriously. (Which is so wrong to me on so many levels). The other look that is probably the look that most people are imagining when they hear the term is the pin up art on the covers of trashy novels from the period. I cannot imagine a real secretary in period or now dressing that way in the office.

    Though I can understand objections to the term. (I don't know why "sexy" has to be used to describe a general look at all). I have never worked in an office or with a majority of male co-worker so perhaps that is why I don't fully understand the objections to the look. I do start to get twitchy when I hear women judging other women for being too sexy. It is such a subjective concept.

  • Hanako66

    I don't feel that it is a "dangerous" look unless you take it that far….leaving shirt unbuttoned exposing bra, skirt so tights you can't walk, etc

  • Missa

    I don't know, I guess it all depends on one's interpretation. It seems to me that many of the outfits that fashion bloggers and such would classify as "sexy secretary" or "sexy librarian" …etc, aren't even necessarily what one might consider "sexy" by today's standards.

    It's more about adding a little extra interest in the form of an unexpected punch of femininity to the sort of outfit that may otherwise appear stiff, drab, or boring.

    I agree with your thoughts on the subject though :)

  • gina

    I see nothing wrong with dressing in a "sexy secretary" look in a work environment. Then again, for me, the term "sexy secretary" does not mean tightness, cleavage or any other overtly sexy (or "tarty" or "provocative") look.

    To me, "sexy secretary" means a pencil skirt, heels, hose and a blouse. As long as the individual pieces are all work appropriate (meaning not too tight or revealing or too high in the case of shoes), then the look is work appropriate.

    The overall look might be a bit vintage-y and it certainly wouldn't be what I wear to court (I'm a lawyer), but for daily office attire, it seems appropriate to me for anyone at any level. In fact, a conservative elegant "sexy secretary" look would be a step up for the problematic dressers at the places I've worked. Sloppy or too casual or ill-fitting or overtly sexy (lots of cleavage and exposed thongs) were the main sartorial issues of the offending staff members.

    In many places I've worked, someone sporting the "sexy secretary" look (as I understand the term) would actually be among the most formally and professionally dressed of the entire company.

    The term "sexy secretary" may be a bit more controversial than the actual look.

  • Make Do Style

    Gosh hard one – of which I'm no help as don't work in an office and work in an environment where fashion, personal style and dressing up is an everyday occurrence.

    I prefer the word sassy as it implies more of the self than sexy which seems more about being an object.

  • K.Line

    Oh, and just to throw a wrench in the works :-): I think I'm sexy in the workplace as often as I'm sexy anywhere else – which is to say as much as is possible! It's about my attitude and joie de vivre. I'm a sexual person and I think that comes across. That doesn't mean I'm going to wear frumpy things to downplay that element of my personality. I (using well fitted and appropriate "sexy secretary" motifs – as everyone else here has pointed out) wear what I like and I don't think my sexiness – such as it is – impacts my professionalism or credibility.

  • kristophine

    Sexy whatever is fine, but not at work. I was a librarian for three years, and a damn good one–my name is on a plaque in my old library–and even though I never show cleavage and only wore an above-knee-length skirt once (in 90 degree heat, a rarity up here), I still got sexually harassed on multiple occasions. People pay a lot of attention to the tone you set with your clothing, and if the tone is "sexy" anything, they will respond to it. (I watched my co-workers discover this.) I stuck with turtlenecks, cardigans, and long skirts or pants whenever I was going to be at work. Off work, I wear a much broader range of clothing, but at work, especially in an academic environment (where self-congratulating "liberal" older men will deny the reality of sexism and then call young women who work for or with them "candy"), professionalism–non-sexy–is key.

    And it's not like I worked somewhere with a strong traditional component to sexism, either; I have family in the deep South, where it was considered perfectly acceptable for my grandfather to call me "sugar," ask me when I was getting married (when I was 14), and warn me that I was dressing "like a fancy-woman" (read: hooker) in a shirt that showed no boob but did not come up to my neck. No, I work in liberal country, and I still get crap if I show up in anything my conservative aunt wouldn't wear.

    It's like my dad always says: don't dip your pen in the company inkwell. And if I don't intend to, then there's no reason to dress sexy for work. If I want to feel powerful, I do it by accomplishing things. (There's no male equivalent of sexy secretary for a reason. The vast majority of men never had to barter sex for power in the workplace.) Looking crisp, tailored, and professional is a different animal than looking sexy. Sex/power is for after work. One of my favorite professors told me, "The only way to dress around here is what I call 'academic boring.' Button-ups, khakis, and lots of beige."

  • lisa

    "Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think both women and men of younger generations are a bit more enlightened both in terms of style and in terms of coworker roles/behaviors." Then I must be naive too because that's been my experience in the working world so far. :-)

    My office is very casual and most days I dress casually. I like having fun with fashion and experimenting, but I try to balance that with the need to cover up.

    For me, the term "sexy secretary" makes me think of figure-flattering clothes, and a level of dressed-up-ness and nostalgic femininity that aren't immediately apparent, perhaps, in casual modern day work places. I take the term as more tongue-in-cheek than offensive, but perhaps I'd feel differently if the "sexy technical writer" look were suddenly in vogue. ;-)

  • Jamie Cattanach

    I think that women are still hired largely on looks alone. My boyfriend, who used to work at Verizon wireless, says that when a woman would come in for an interview, he would tell his manager and his manager would ask what she looked like. If the description didn't please him, she was left to wait for a half an hour or more and often note hired.

  • E and O

    First, I strongly believe that the word "sexy" should NEVER enter into your professional attire. Unless you are (a) a model/spokesperson or (b) work in the sex industry or (c) work at Hooters. Sexy does NOT belong in an office. Period. If you have to every ask if something is appropriate — it's not. If you have to ask if something is too sexy — it is.

    A work environment is not the place to express all of your personal life. Professionalism means keeping the two separate. Your sex life and sex appeal are part of your PERSONAL life.

    Second, in the context of a work environment "sexy secretary" is an insulting, dismissive term. It stems from the difference in power between the secretarial and management positions. Secretaries are subservient to their managerial bosses. This has led some men to think that this translates into subservience of all kinds: sexual, personal, emotional.

    In other words, it connotes that secretaries aren't real people, they're just walking sex dolls there to make the office look better and make for some sexy-time fun for the male managers.

    This is the source of the "sexy secretary" fetish. And it is a fetish. Just like "sexy nurse" and "sexy librarian" (which are equally annoying and dismissive in a professional environment).

    This is never a look you want to cultivate in a work environment, unless you fall into one of the 3 categories listed above. It'll insure that neither your male nor female co-workers take you seriously. It'll send mixed signals at the office, create an uncomfortable vibe for your female co-workers (as well as for the non-creepy males), and possibly lead to rumors about your advancement or treatment.

    Attractive or put-together are not the same thing as sexy.

    Studies have shown that it's beneficial for people to dress well and appear attractive (in the sense of being well groomed) in a professional environment. It causes people to think you're more capable, more likeable, etc. So you don't have to dress dowdy or eschew style altogether. But sexy shouldn't enter into the equation.

    And while older men or more traditional environments are often more likely to cross the line in this case, this problem can also occur in younger and more contemporary environments. Sometimes the latter ends up creating more problems on this front because too many boundaries have been dropped in the name of a "friendly" or familiar environment.

  • La Belette Rouge

    I do like the sexy secretary look. To me it is one part serious/smart and one part sexy. To me it is a way of being both. I am a fan of the look. I never thought it was an office look, rather I see it as more retro.

  • E and O

    oh, and Bianca brought up a good point…

    "I think "sexy secretary" probably needs to be better defined to properly answer this question."

    "It sounds like she is worried that using the **fashion term** to describe her clothes will somehow cast dispersion on her actual character at work."

    I think this strikes to a key part of discussions like this. :)
    It can be difficult to talk about such terms due to the variance of meaning — it's hard to know if we're all on the same page when we argue for or against something. I suspect that here some of us are using "sexy secretary" as merely a style label, while others of us are using the term in its whole or original context.

    I feel we need to remember that the majority of the world (the average person) is NOT familiar with the fashion terms we throw around. Use "lolita," "kinderwhore," or "sexy secretary" in any conversation outside of this little fashion bubble we create online — and the listener will undoubtedly think "sex" or even "underage/tawdry sex." So we need to understand the original source of the words we use and their ACTUAL connotations, not the strange little meanings we've created in the fashion world.

    Personally, I feel the fashion world creates and uses some truly terrible terms. Ones loaded with such gross connotations — lolita, wife beater — but then used casually as if they are completely distanced from the original source. This is both irresponsible and ignorant on the part of the industry, IMO.

    Words are very powerful communication tools, they leave strong impressions on our subconscious. Even if we know intellectually that a term is just about style, emotionally and socially a darker mark is left. Which is why using terms like "gay" to mean "stupid" or "lame" is just plain wrong — we all known the actual meaning and therefore what it implies about homosexuals by context. It leaves a subtle but lasting imprint on our cultural subconscious when it's used in that way.

    For this reason I believe that when asked to talk about something like the "sexy secretary" look we do need to consider the whole connotation of the word, not just our intimate little fashion world. It's things like this that VERY much make me wish the fashion industry would be more careful and responsible with the terms they create to describe trends. I love style, but the fashion world embarrasses me a great deal at times. ;)

  • The Budget Babe

    These days, I think the phrase "sexy secretary" is a tongue in cheek expression that suggest you're dressing in a playful, retro style that hints at those bygone Madmen days, but isn't really meant to be overtly sexy or inappropriate. So it's relatively harmless in my opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. After reading through this, I'm not sure if I am incredibly angry or feel terribly lucky. Either way, I do know that I am very glad that I have managed to be promoted time after time without ever having to worry about how I dress.

    I have always dressed in what some may term as "sexy secretary". Pencil skirts, patterned hose, high heels of all types and fitted sweaters. It's a look that suits my body and I've always thought of it as sort of a uniform. I never wear anything too tight or show cleavage, but I guess it is still what some refer to as "sexy". Yet I've never once been sexually harassed or had it negatively affect my career advancement. I had never thought about it before, but now I realize I am probably lucky.

    While I agree that work is not necessarily a place for "sexy", sexy is often in the eye of the beholder. My husband, for example, finds me sexiest in old ratty sweats. I've had another male friend tell me that he finds jeans and tee shirts to be incredibly sexy and yet another told me that khakis and button-ups do it for him. I'm not sure you can avoid all that is sexy – and frankly, I am not willing to try to determine what men will/will not find sexy when I get ready for work in the morning.

    That said, I do, of course, recognize that sexual harassment is alive and well and that in some workplaces, women really can be treated differently or even punished for the way they dress. And it makes me incredibly angry.

    -Amy

  • ebinbaby

    Speaking as a woman "in the prime of her life" I feel I need to add that many of the women in my generation didn't have mothers who worked so it was often difficult to find role models for office fashion. This may explain why there was a reliance (conscious or unconscious) on stereotypes for fashion direction.
    I agree with E and O that attractive and put together are much different than sexy. I try and achieve something I call "modern executive" which sounds much better to me than "sexy anything" for work.
    I like to wear a skirt suit to work – a fitted skirt and jacket or cardigan looks good on my curvy body type. I am very conscious about the fit of the garments as I have an hourglass figure and there's a fine line between tailoring and tarty with a curvy body.
    I will admit that I have been guilty of using the term "sexy secretary" when shopping for skirt suits when I ask salespeople for something "a bit more sexy secretary, a bit less prison matron", by I mean a bit more fitted or figure flattering with some feminine details… but from now on I think I'll use the latter terminology thanks to the blog comments!
    I also agree that comportment plays a huge role in anyone's overall look. I don't think anyone thinks of me as "sexy" as I make it clear that I am serious about my work through my stance, my voice and my eye contact. I also, more often than not, throw in an interesting (as in whacky)shoe or boot (Fluevog, Fly London, etc.) which I find sets a more unique than sexy tone.
    I had a young colleague who was just starting out in her career, had graduated top of her class and was incredibly intelligent, unfortunately no one will ever know this as she wore 5" stilettos, skin-tight clothing and tons of makeup.

  • The Raisin Girl

    After trying at least five times to write something that stuck to the point, I give up.

    I don't know if the term "sexy secretary" really brings us back to those days, or if it's just another stereotype that–like the dumb-blonde stereotype–nobody really believes anymore. I am a little disturbed when I think of how professional women have been transformed into sex objects, but I'm not sure women don't do it to men as well, in different ways. How many times have you seen a male doctor, cop, lawyer or firefighter on television turned into a sexy bit of gossip and ogling for the female characters? I can think of two or three times in Friends alone. Worse, how many times have women on television (I don't know if this happens in real life or not) been pressured by their mothers to settle down with someone–not because of anything important like love or a good personality, or even a strong disinclination to be neglectful or abusive–but simply because 'he's a doctor?' It doesn't have this big long history of discouraging objectification and diminishment behind it, but it's still a sexualized, unrealistic image that has nothing to do with real doctors or firemen.

    So how do we reconcile all this, these objectified sex-fantasy professions? I'm positive I do not know.

  • Patricia

    I hate the term sexy secretary, sexy librarian, etc. However, the look you describe –pencil skirt, back seams, pumps, etc., in balance as you say, – is really fine as long as you’re comfortable both in terms of how you feel in them and how you’re prepared to react to possible rude/dumb comments. Don’t compromise who you are. When you say that execs err on the side of androgyny, that is so true, yet in doing so they’ve sold out their femininity in order to be “equals.” You don’t see men moving to a middle ground. In an “ideal” world, we would keep our femininity, and if someone misinterpreted a classic-look as being sexual in nature, we’ll, that’s their problem. Oh well….

  • Lady Cardigan

    A woman can wear a sack and some men will find it titillating. So I think it is more about the observer than the observed.

    Things like cleavage, see-through clothes etc. obviously don't belong in the workplace. But I've often seen women's glasses described as sexy, and what is sexual about glasses? Nothing, at least to me. But if you wear them, some men will find it sexy. So I say wear your glasses or retro clothing or heels or patterned hose or whatever. The men who find it sexy would probably think the same no matter what you wore.

  • The Raisin Girl

    I know I've already commented, and I really should have ready EVERYTHING before I did, but I have to disagree with Danielle. I feel this attitude of "if you stick it out there they're going to grab it" puts all the responsibility for appropriate work relationships on the woman, at the same time belittling men. While I feel, on the one hand, that a woman's right to complain about men NOTICING her body decreases in inverse proportion to the amount of skin she's showing, I don't think anything ever excuses sexual harrassment…which is very different from just being noticed. It is not the woman's job to make it easier for men to control themselves. Men should be expected to be responsible, keep their hands and their leers and their dirty comments to themselves. And if this is expected of them, it just might happen. Because all men are not, contrary to what so many women seem to have been taught, apelike, sexmongering imbeciles with no self control. I was raised very conservatively, and wasn't allowed to show my knees or even wear thin-strapped tank tops because I might provoke some man to lust, and this always bothered me. It's not my job to control other people's lust, it's theirs. That doesn't mean I should strut into work with three inches of cleavage showing and a skirt so short it's a belt, but I shouldn't have to agonize over whether my clothes are too "sexy" for some man to handle. Especially if what I'm wearing is a pencil skirt with heels and a button-up blouse.

    A note from the boyfriend (who understands men better than I do) (paraphrased): If women are going to teach each other to dress in ways that won't attract attention from men, they should teach women not to be pretty, because a pretty woman covered from chin to ankles will still be noticed by men. He also feels the "if you stick it out there they're going to grab it" mentality treats all men like potential rapists. Which is quite offensive to all those men who have never committed rape.

  • Lemondrop Marie

    FAb and thought provoking post as always!
    I am a slightly sexy librarian. (I read the first comment that didn't take as kindly to the label but I think it's humorous) I inject style elements in my wardrobe that could read differently depending upon the evaluators' attitude and intentions, but as you've said, I think that my attitude and other elements of my wardrobe don't read as unprofessional or seeking the wrong kind of attention. My motto is everything in moderation when you have reservations about wearing something to a work setting, but be yourself and love what you wear.
    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge

  • Clare

    To me, it's more the term than the actual dressing style that I think conjures up the unwanted attention (and, dare I say? stereotyping of women's sexuality). I think La Historiadora de Moda puts it well when she says that "sexy can be empowering, but it can also create circumstances in which a woman is objectified and demeaned". I think that it sometimes has to do with who is putting the label "sexy" on the supposed "sexy secretary" look.

    Of course, you have to be careful in a professional environment not to actually cross over into inappropriate territory, but again I think it's more about terminology and perception than reality. Men, women, and society, have begun to think of a button-down, high-waisted skirt, and t-strap heels as "sexy secretary", which pigeon-holes the real secretary into a category that she may or may not even intend to be in (not to mention all the questionable usage of the very charged term itself. "Secretary" as a word isn't really used in the professional world anymore, as it tends to conjure up exactly the types of female stereotyping that I fear can result from the "sexy secretary" look).

    All that being said, I still kind of love the sexy secretary look, and kind of love that so many women are embracing an image of sexiness for themselves. It's empowering to define yourself as sexy, even without cleavage or majorly tight clothes (or with them sometimes). I guess I'm trying to say that it's pretty subjective. :)

  • kristophine

    In response to RaisinGirl, who suggests that it could come down to "just another stereotype that–like the dumb-blonde stereotype–nobody really believes anymore"–what's so sad and painful is that there ARE still people who believe that. No matter how outdated the stereotype is in your circles, there are sexist, misogynistic people who will mouth every word of every idiot saying ever invented and mean it. It may seem impossible to you that people would do that, but I come from a trashy little town where people still regularly say things so ignorant it makes my head spin. And the dumb blonde myth? Still gets thrown around there, in all seriousness.

    And there's a big difference between how the world SHOULD be and how it IS. Sexual harassment is wrong. Nothing I wear or fail to wear excuses it. Obviously there are people who will commit sexual harassment no matter what I wear, but in working life, the way I dress does impact the behavior of other people. Especially in a customer service situation, which is what my library job was–that set-up often gives the customer a sense of entitlement, and in that case, people are simply more likely to be inappropriate. I can either stick to my idealistic guns and try to insist that people be respectful to me while I'm showing cleavage, or I can dress modestly and be harassed a little less often.

    The choices women get are generally not good ones. And they are never simple.

  • Funnygrrl

    Great comments on this! I have been pondering the question since I posed it to Sally. I should clear up that it is the term that I objected to more than the look. When Sally and other bloggers showed styles similar to what I wear and then call it 'sexy secretary' it made me question how I'm being perceived at work. When I wear something which gets pegged as 'sexy secretary' (especially by other women) I feel it slaps me down. Imagine you wore an attractive outfit and I said "Nice slutty (insert your job position) look". Is slutty the same as sexy? No but sexy implies sex. Which has no place in my career development. As for the comments that have never had an issue and think it's over-sensitive, I think we know that just because we've never experienced it (sexism, racism, ageism) doesn't mean others don't face it and that our words don't go out into the world and affect it.
    -Vanda

  • daisy

    There's the term, and there's the style. The style is fine. I'm not crazy about the term in any of its variation.

    It's inherently sexist. A secretary, nurse, librarian, or teacher could be a man, but these are traditionally underpaid roles available only to women. A sexy teacher or sexy secretary is obviously not a man, even though men occupy these positions quite frequently.

    I'm a librarian. I don't get too worked up about these phrases, but it is annoying, because it reflects an outdated view of our profession. So calling something "sexy librarian" seems (to many librarians anyway) to reflect a view that most librarians are frumpy old spinsters with glasses on their noses who like to shush. When in fact librarians tend to be super liberal and friendly.

    So when you are working in a traditionally disrespected, underpaid, female field, it's frustrating when other women seem to push you down more by "dressing up" as your job.

    Also, while I am hearing the references to Joan Holloway and Mad Men, these terms were around years before this show. The sexy librarian has been available as a Halloween costume at Target (ugh) for years.

  • Sonja

    Sally, I definitely think "wanton woman" when I see you. Wait, maybe I should be concerned about that, since I'm Asian. Or would I be a "wonton woman"? hahaha! snort! But seriously folks, I think you make a good point about the generation gap. I think most people our age don't look to secretaries as easy dalliance opportunities.

    I also don't think that doing a Mad Menesque ensemble instantly puts you into sexy secretaryland. Sexy often has very little to do with what we wear and a lot more to do with the vibe we send out, IMHO.

  • Audi

    The terms 'sexy secretary' or 'sexy librarian' conjure up a very different image for me than a 'wanton woman' who's vying for male attention. To me the looks are more about a fairly conservative ensemble that flatters the body and hints — HINTS! — at the sexy lady who's hidden underneath. What I find appealing about the look is that it proves you don't have to wear a latex miniskirt and a tube top in order to be sexy — sexiness can come from professional, business-appropriate clothes too. And hey, there is NOTHING wrong with being seen as sexy, even at work. It's very different from being seen as slutty.

  • tigresse pourpre

    after thinking about this post and the following discussion, I am also putting in my two cents:

    I'm with la historiadore de moda and claire on the terminology of "sexy secretary". Because while I agree on the argument that "sexy" (the way it's used in an intimate context) should not enter into professional attire, I sometimes like to play up my feminity. While I am also petite and often worrying about people not taking me seriously enough, my working experience (I am a trained lawyer now working in the position of a judge in Europe) taught me that I am not at risk for that if I keep things really serious.

    I would like to second fellow lawyer gina on "someone sporting the "sexy secretary" look (as I understand the term) would actually be among the most formally and professionally dressed of the entire company". this is definitely the case at my working place, so while I am practically the rookie on the team, I definitely stand out for my sleek but feminine attire. but thenI am maybe dressing way more conservatively that I would ever have thought…?

  • tigresse pourpre

    oh, and being not so articulated at this time of the day (we're nearing midnight in my part of the world),, I forgot to add: actually I was much more worried about putting myself in whatever "sexist" category there is (and there are!) while I was in a junior position. having moved up the ranks a bit, I feel I am now free to pull off my style (as in contrast to the fully trained legal secretaries doing a lot of my paperwork, who might not get away with this). I still hope it will never prevent me from going up.

  • Elizabeth.

    Sally, you need to start an Already Pretty forum!

  • Elissa

    I used to be a temp/receptionist for a big ol' bank in NYC and I took my role as front door eye-candy very seriously and with much zeal. I wore high-necked, ultra ruffly blouses with tight pencil skirts and sky high heels. Everybody, men and women, gave a positive review. I regarded being considered a sexy secretary (because I could just have easily have worn turtlenecks and slacks, I suppose) as having a gigantic television… it's a bit over the top and people wonder, "How much money did she spend on THAT?" but at the end of the day, if you enjoy watching television and having people coming over to your house to watch important games or movies on blu-ray, then you get a gigantic television. As a "sexy secretary", I understood that some people might be creepy about it, or some might be jealous, but at the end of the day, I enjoyed titillating myself through dress more than I feared feeling like I had to shield myself from the power-leeching glares of others. They're the ones offering the negativity, and I can simply say, "No thanks!" and blow them a sloppy kiss.

  • Anonymous

    Elissa, assuming you are also a competent professional, you sound like a load of fun! More power to you!
    -Sandra

  • Anonymous

    Much depends on where you live, what your position is and what industry you work in is as to what is acceptable and what steps over the line.

    If you work in the fashion, art or entertainment related industry and live in a big city, a little sex appeal is expected as you want to appear cutting edge and a leader or the pack.

    If you work in a medium to smaller city and or conservative industry, especially in today's tough economy, your to high of a heeled shoes (aka "F*c% Me shoes), fishnet stocking and low cut blouses might not only be damaging your reputation and chances of promotion, but could cost you your job. While your employer may not always send you home for inappropriate clothing, they certainly do keep a mental note of it and take that into consideration when they decide whom to promote if an opening comes up and whom to cut if they are downsizing.

    When I worked in the financial industry in a large city there were several younger girls who sabotaged their careers by dressing too "sexy". You might be the smartest person in the organization, but it is doubtful that will ever be recognized or acknowledged if you are known to your colleagues as "the one who dresses like a slut". Before you blame the stuffy old ladies and men, think twice – many times it was the younger males who would ask the supervisor to have their scantily assistants sent home to change as they felt it was not only distracting and made them uncomfortable, but a bad reflection on them and their credibility with their clients and peers in their quest to climb the corporate ladder.

    When you go to work, you are a reflection of that company – be sure that you know your companies dress code and image is and keep that in mind in choosing what you are going to wear to work. When in doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution and save the sexy stuff to strut your stuff on your evening and weekends.

  • Shaye

    I haven’t been able to work my way through all the fascinating comments on this post, but being about halfway through, I have a few thoughts I haven’t seen expressed yet.

    I have a shirt that I refer to as my “sexy librarian” shirt – not because it’s really all that sexy, but because the fabric and print has a traditionally academic aura for me, but the top is cut in a way that I think particularly flatters my body. People traditionally think of, say, librarians and secretaries and teachers as dressing on the dowdy side, so to me the term indicates that I think of the garment as flattering. In this case, “sexy” is hyperbole.

    Second, I don’t actually see true “sexy secretary” or “sexy librarian” looks as belonging in the workplace. For one thing, the terms call to mind a look that is usually quite a bit more dressed up than is appropriate for, say, a business casual environment such as mine. But if a woman wants to put on a low-cut silk blouse and a pencil skirt for a night out, where’s the harm? If the look is co-opting traditional office wear and making it sexy, isn’t “sexy secretary” an appropriate descriptor?

    Because here’s the thing: at 31 years old, I have never used “sexy secretary” or “sexy librarian” or “hot for teacher” as anything other than playful and ironic terms. I can see how some people who have more direct experience with harassment and objectification in the workforce might find the terms problematic, and that’s fine; use of them is up to each woman to decide for herself. I see using them ironically as a way to take back both traditionally female workplace roles and traditionally feminine dressing. Calling the look “sexy secretary,” to me, holds a component of mocking any man who might take the term seriously. As with most things, attitude plays a huge role.

  • Tabitha

    I love the “sexy secretary” look. I’m a recent college graduate and when I was purchasing suits and suit separates and other office attire, I purchased only two pairs of slacks. Everything I own is either a suit dress, skirt suit, or just pencil skirts and button up blouses, and several blazers I can mix and match. I wear at least a three inch heel and prefer a four or five inch heel. I still look very professional, and to be honest I always wear my shirts buttoned up all the way (which is why I feel I still look so professional). I don’t think it’s a bad thing to look attractive and professional…to be honest party of the “sexy secretary” look comes from the confidence one has. I also know that my “sexy secretary” look is what landed me the job I just got. The hiring manager (male) is so nice. When I submitted my resume, he informed me I needed to fill out an application. He asked me to come to his office and interviewed me right then. He forgot to have me fill out an application, which later led to a delay in my being officially hired (learned that on my first day). I don’t mind the term sexy secretary or the reactions I get out of people. I actually think it is advantageous to me, but then again I’m a car sales representative…so my attractiveness helps me.