Monday, June 19, 2017

Sartorial lessons from surgery

As an introduction to clinical medicine, we first years were individually placed with various school-affiliated physicians around Boston. I feel very, very lucky to have spent my Wednesdays at a surgical clinic at our teaching hospital, with a preceptor and mentor (Dr. M) who I hope to become one day. I could fill an entire blog post on clinical knowledge, surgery knowledge, life knowledge, and how-to-be-a-doctor knowledge I have accumulated, but this post is about the sartorial lessons.

In this clinic, the surgeons wear dark suits, ties, monograms, polished shoes, and no white coats. All other MDs and MDs-to-be wear white coats. What did this mean for me? These three outfits represent the only things I thought appropriate to wear to clinic, where male M3s in pastels and khakis looked exceedingly out of place.

Purple top - Ross | Trousers - Banana Republic (too fitted?) | Shoes - Fitzwell | Maroon blouse - NY&Co | Dress - Uniqlo | Watch - Casio

Lesson #0: I am a first year medical student unaccustomed to dressing professionally and have no idea what I'm doing

Lesson #1: when the attendings wear suits and look like bankers and politicians, go as formal as possible without wearing a suit

For me, this meant charcoal grey and quiet jewel tones. The sleeveless tops were fine because I always wore my white coat (not true for all placements). I generally dislike collared, button-down shirts because fit is so fickle with them. Blouses are more forgiving and read a bit more formal. I think I was in the minority of my female classmates who regularly wore a dress to clinic, but I am much, much more comfortable in a dress than in trousers. This one was long enough where sitting, standing, kneeling, etc were all very comfortable.

Lesson #2: accessories and layers matter. Comfortable shoes and a watch are necessary.

On top of these base outfits, I wore a black cardigan and black tights to stay warm during the winter. Because I had a locker at school, I never had to commute far in these clothes and could easily walk to clinic without snow boots, even in blizzard conditions. Because I err on the side of being too formal, I usually wore a dark grey overcoat instead of a parka.

Corollary to #2: an anecdote

Though I spent most of my time in clinic, I often accompanied Dr. M around the hospital to talk to radiologists or other services. Following around a much taller person while wearing heels can be a chore: the dress + low block heel made it manageable.

Dr. M's advice from one of these occasions: "I noticed that you're always walking a few steps behind me. Don't walk behind attendings, walk next to attendings. When a young female medical student walks behind a male attending, it looks subservient, especially if you're the only one there."

How does one young female medical student follow an attending around without looking subservient? Wear comfortable shoes and take longer strides.

Also Dr. M: "Always wear a watch."

Lesson #3: details matter when trying to look like a competent, clean, and professional adult

I got a lot of this kind of advice from my high school job at an ophthalmology clinic where my primary grooming objective was to not look like a high school student. I think that patients may be less inclined to trust someone who looks quite young and unkempt, and attendings less likely to take one seriously. I combed my hair and made sure my makeup looked okay before clinic, and that I wasn't tracking in salt, snow, slush, or ice. Unlike these pictures, I did try to make sure my white coat look like I had not just dug it out of my backpack.

Lesson #4: dress for the job you want?

These are just thoughts I've had from my placement at a surgical clinic where the surgeons wear suit. But also, I haven't seen what female attending surgeons wear when not in scrubs. Yet another thing: I want a woman surgeon as a mentor.

Any advice on how to dress professionally? Thoughts on how to succeed as a young female in a male-dominated field?


  1. This was an interesting post! That dress really suits you, the fit is so nice - I thought it was something fancier than Uniqlo!

    In terms of dressing professionally, it might be that the hospital atmosphere is just more casual here in Australia but I'm always a little bit underdressed. "Just a bit too casual" is almost my signature style, haha. I've never been called out and have no idea what my seniors think about it.

    Here in the hospital I see a lot of female surgeons/surg trainees wearing blazers/structured jackets/suits when not in scrubs, whereas their male counterparts don't usually wear a jacket over their shirt/trousers combination.

    As for succeeding in male dominated fields - let me know when you find out! Haha. I'm already jaded, it almost feels like we can't win - you have to be twice as good as the men to get half the respect, and you get penalised for both being too feminine and not feminine enough.

    1. Thank you!

      Since I haven't gotten to the strictly clinic part of my education, all of this is conjecture. Boston in general is much more formal than anywhere else I've visited (from observation during interviews). I also think that the line between feminine/not feminine enough is extremely vague, and really depends on the person wearing the clothes sometimes. (I would look like a fool wearing pearls, but some of my classmates really pull it off).

  2. That dress looks great on you! I was also surprised that it was Uniqlo, and expected it to be fancier.

    Really interesting that all the surgeons wore what sounds like full-on business formal (and it sounds like they're all men? which makes it so much harder to figure out what to wear as a woman...). I've never been around a hospital environment myself, but that definitely isn't what I expect! For all that we're a pretty conservative profession, full suits aren't terribly common in law (most people don't wear full business formal unless they absolutely have to for court or certain meetings).

    I'm also generally more comfortable with dresses and skirts, both for business formal and business casual wear. I've gradually started wearing pants for business casual, but generally don't wear pantsuits for "real" business formal days. For pantsuits, I feel like only more traditional looser-fit, straight-leg or slightly-flared full-length pants are truly conservative enough for either business formal (or more formal business casual environments) and... that's not a very flattering fit, nor one that's particularly easy to find right now. It's also impractical if one is going to spend even a minute outdoors in inclement weather, with puddles or snow on the ground.

    As for succeeding in a male dominated (and otherwise non-diverse) field... Ooh boy, that's a tough one. I'm spoiled right now because my work environment at the clerkship is wonderful, but things at law firms can be... complicated. My firm is actually remarkably good when it comes to diversity numbers (large numbers of women and women of color as senior associates and partners in my practice group, which is a massive rarity), but that does not translate to the day to day experiences of most junior associates. My sense, from reading about the experience of Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg (things are better for women in the profession than when they were my age, but not better than 10-15 years ago) is that a lot of grinning and bearing it is required, as well as a lot of "when they go low, we go high." My friends and I are mostly having a rather cynicism-inducing time in our first few years at our firms (lots of being mixed up with other Asian women associates, to start, as well as some higher-level indignities).

    1. Wow! Thanks for such a long reply.

      I never knew of any doctors who wore full suits to clinic and was surprised to see the surgeons in that clinic as business formal as they were. The hierarchy was very visually evident, with non-surgical MDs in white coats/no suits. While there are a few very vocal and visible female surgeons in the faculty, they are vastly outnumbered. What is pretty encouraging is that the female residents seemed very well integrated into the program, and that they are respected and there seem to be no differences in how they are treated (as far as I saw).

      I think that grinning and bearing it will be necessary. It's a long road ahead.

  3. LL, not that I can help much because my workplace is insanely casual--but from my experience the following helps (especially when you work with more traditional hierarchies)
    1. dress like the people in charge (which you already do): you emulated the attendings' outfits without sacrificing comfort/practicality. but even matching tones, textures, etc. counts. I'm subtly changing my own image to a more outwardly feminine one and it's taking a while, not just internally but also to amass the right clothes and accessories. it's a worthy goal IMO.

    2. the upkeep matters. Ironing, dry cleaning, having the right shoe/accessory for the outfit, they're all hidden costs/additional things to think about when crafting the work-persona. everyone will have what they are willing to do/can afford but it behooves us to invest in those actions. what good is a nice dress if it's wrinkled before you get to work? (also a reminder for me, hehe)

    I think you've got such a great start with these outfits already! And seconding what Jane said above--the Uniqlo dress fits you very well. It's one of the stretch ponte dresses from this winter, right? I think I tried a sleeveless version of it and decided no because it's not as versatile at work (needs cardigan for sure, if sleeveless.)

    1. Thanks for the advice! The dress is indeed the stretch ponte from this winter. It's wonderfully resistant to wrinkles and is heavy enough for late winter/early spring.