What’s your work-fashion personality?

For some, professional attire is still highly personal

For some, professional attire is still highly personal. Styles in a clinic may range from traditional to more individual. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.com
For some, professional attire is still highly personal. Styles in a clinic may range from traditional to more individual.

One of the very few times I was moved to write a stinging critique of a “practice management guru” was after watching a video on a popular veterinary platform purporting to offer the definitive guide to the professional appearance of veterinary team members. Tattoos and wayward piercings were predictably verboten, of course, but so was anything else that might have offended the delicate sensibility of the average client.

The rationale? Clients are more willing to part with their dollars if their veterinarians and vet team members look more like them.

Is it true? Maybe so. But who cares what the average client “prefers” if it means eschewing ethnic, gender, or religious minorities when hiring, mandating “a trip to Sephora” for women who don’t wear makeup, or otherwise imposing potentially illegal and questionably ethical appearance-based policies—all in the service of common denominator client preferences on behalf of the almighty dollar?

I was incensed, of course. Uniforms I can understand. Anything affecting our safety is fair game, too. Everything else is just window dressing and, as such, cannot affect our performance and, therefore, should not be subject to practice-policing.

Some of you will take this advice with a grain of salt, more so since it comes from someone who’s worn her hair pink for the better part of a decade. Still, as a unicorn-haired practice owner who runs a successful, growing enterprise in a conservative neighborhood can attest, what we wear and how we wear it has way less bearing on our clients’ choices than some practice management “experts” would have us believe.

Do my employees’ choices sometimes annoy me? For sure. A push-up bra under low-cut scrubs and too-tight scrub pants (along with those evoking the plumbing profession and breaching marine mammals) have been known to elicit a persuasive comment on my part. Yet, poor fashion choices ubiquitously abound, and I feel it is not my place to judge, much less police.

In fact, as a devotee of independent street style, I find it interesting to observe how veterinary professionals dress in different practices. Geography, practice type, and practice culture are the biggest differentiators, but, for the most part, we veterinary professionals adhere to some really basic fashion categories. For your amusement, I’ve dedicated the balance of this column to describing these distinct breeds:

1) The consummate professionals

The rule-oriented among us believe what we wear reflects our level of professionalism. This veterinary professional demands respect and holds fast to the notion that clients think more of their skills if they look the part. Some studies have indeed backed this up. In particular, they suggest those who wear white lab coats garner more respect and are better able to convince clients to follow their recommendations.

Practice owners, specialists, first-born children, and prigs of all stripes are most likely to adhere to this uniformed look. They may wear scrubs underneath if they are planning on being in surgery, but typically prefer the buttoned-down, dress-shoed look underneath (tie or full-on “no-makeup” makeup) is optional, but, in a perfect world, undeniably preferred).

2) The fashionistas

For those who know the rules but prefer to be seen as flouting them, there’s the fashionista look I also like to call “hospital chic.” It’s the veterinary profession’s equivalent to the “French-girl” (or “cool-dude”) look.

For those of you not in the know, this style is characterized by its conspicuous effortlessness. The bearer of this look is going for the, “I’m-not-really-trying-but-I-look-the-part-perfectly-anyway” style that’s notoriously epitomized by off-duty runway models. In the veterinary world, this looks like some idealized version of a casually dressed-down veterinarian, one who comes close, but never quite crosses the line into unprofessional territory. It’s for those who know the rules, but prefer to be seen as flouting them.

Not sure what this looks like? For the women, it’s a crisp white, scoop-neck T and lightweight cardigan (add a crew-neck T and a button-down for men) over casual pants (never denim) with a wide-open, long white lab coat and a pair of fashionably comfortable shoes (think: high-end leather loafers with a sensibly-lugged sole for women and a hipster-casual dress boot for men). Add a high ponytail, loose braid, or well-cut bob (for women) and an almost-too-long haircut with hipster facial hair (for men), and you have got the French-girl/cool guy look down.

3) The scrub-clad crew

For those who believe veterinary medicine is the perfect excuse to wear PJs 24-7, there’s the 100 percent scrubs look. Whether paired with a well-worn lab coat, hip-front hoodie, or a matching, scrubs-style lab jacket or vest, this über-casual style is perhaps the most common in the profession. It says, “I’m a professional, but I’m also practical, which is why I might as well commit to a look that’s comfortably functional.”

This vet professional likes their scrubs loose and cozy. They tend to stick to traditional colors (they’re the least expensive and most widely available). Shoe choices are typically limited to sneaks, Crocs, or clogs. Their only concession to formality is the optional embroidery bedecking their greens.

4) Dr. Slovenly

Do you habitually dress down for work? Does rolling out of bed and crawling into yesterday’s “clean enough” scrubs sound like something you’re want to do? You may not be proud of it (much less ‘fess up to it), but we all know one or two colleagues who treat the scrubs-as-uniform look as an excuse to…

a) Give their washing machine a break;
b) Show up to work in their actual PJs;
c) Abandon their exercise routine altogether;
d) Eat more McDonald’s fries, and…
e) Buy more of those unwrinkleable, unstinkable, magically forgiving, four-way stretch Figs scrubs, so you never have to buy new scrubs to keep up with your inevitable waist expansion, while simultaneously avoiding the unmistakable aroma of three-day-old greens.

I won’t lie; I go there a few times a year. It’s my entropy state for sure. But at some point it crosses the comfort threshold and just starts to feel a little gross, you know? (I’m fairly certain you do.)

5) Pleasantly eccentric

If this look were described as a breed of dog, it would be an unusual hybrid of indeterminate origin. Risk-taking as it is, this look almost always comes together, but occasionally goes a tad too far (like the time I used a cobalt-blue eyeshadow to paint an elaborate, scrubs-matching eyeliner wing, or like the tie-dyed scrubs another colleague adores).

This style is unmistakably medical and practical, but it’s also cheeky and irreverent. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. But mostly, it says, “there’s more here than meets the eye and you should pay attention to what I say, not to how I look.” This is what I’m usually going for. After all, how a vet professional dresses need please no one but the dresser. (Insert mic drop.)

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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2 thoughts on “What’s your work-fashion personality?

  1. I am semi-retired so my age biased views may not reflect the current profession. I attended an AAHA session in the early 90’s that was on veterinary dress. The speaker quoted a poll and study of veterinary clients that asked clients what they (the clients) expected their veterinarian to dress like. At that time the expectations depended on the sex of the veterinarian, but basically for a male veterinarian, a business casual look, with a neck tie and white lab coat were what clients expected their male vet to look like. For women it was business casual and a white lab coat.

    I think that the profession is overdue for another study like this. Despite practicalities for some forms of dress, this is one, very easy thing that we can do to meet client expectations and help facilitate, create and foster the trust that clients need with us.

  2. This piece is hilarious and I typically really like your work. However, I’m not really a fan of the implicit shaming around abandoning exercise and eating extra fries. I understand that it’s a comedic/entertainment piece and I 100% agree that we should lighten up in the profession. I have tattoos and my team members have rainbows of hair colors. My Figs look clean and pressed even on my “extra dry shampoo” days, thank goodness. I just want to call out that people in our field struggle with mental health and feeling shamed instead of supported is “cringe” as my younger team members say. As a manager, if I had concern about hygiene or professional presentation, I would speak to the person about what was going on in their life rather than judge them for not adhering to anti-fat bias standards.
    Keep up the awesome work caring for pets and keeping us laughing with your words, Dr Khuly- ! I appreciate it 🙂