Our Sex, Our Wine, Our Dress, Our Time

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the issue of women in the wine industry. The Batonage Forum was formed specifically for that purpose. As it is described, the Batonage Forum strives “to educate wine professionals as well as wine industry supporters on the unique challenges and opportunities that women in the field…have faced both historically and present-day. We simultaneously seek to propose pragmatic solutions for charting a positive, inclusive course forward.” It appears by all accounts to be fulfilling its goal.

I listened to all the sessions from the 2019 event and I urge readers to do the same, particularly the last session. At this second Batonage Forum held recently, the session that ended the day was titled, “Do You Sell Sex?” The meaning of this session was to “explore the ways that women use (intentionally or not) their sexuality to “sell” wines or create their brand, the decisions that are involved in that process, and more.”

A good deal of the session dealt with clothing and personal appearance. Panelists addressed a number of topics, but a certain amount of time was devoted to the complexities women in wine face just putting an outfit together, what message they send with the clothing they wear, the implications of those messages and the consequences that arise when their dress is misinterpreted (usually by men). And finally, a good deal of discussion was devoted to the impact on women when they are judged (by men and women) based on what they wear.

For me one of the most interesting moments of this discussion occurred when industry icon Carole Meredith stood and made the following comment and observation:

“I haven’t really heard what I expected to hear here,” she said, “which is, when I go to wine events, I see women who are overtly selling sex under the pretense of selling wine. I sometimes see women who show up to pour wine wearing very tight clothes, very short skirts, their boobs hanging out. I have to wonder, Do you feel that you have to dress like that because the wine you’re pouring just isn’t very good? Doesn’t that diminish the wine? And if it doesn’t diminish the wine, doesn’t it diminish you?”

I know what Carole is talking about.

I’ve been to countless wine trade tastings and what you see there are the vast majority of people dressed professionally, meaning traditional business or business casual attire. Both men and women. It’s the “uniform” if you will.

However, every now and then you come across a woman whose garb is entirely different. An extraordinarily low cut blouse or dress. a very short skirt barely covering her, more skin than clothes. And she’s working the event. And every time I’ve come across that person I’ve thought the exact same thing: No one representing my brand would ever be dressed like that. She would either agree to dress more professionally or she would not work for me. Moreover, the image I have of the brand, as Carole suggested, goes down in my estimation.

Obviously, my view of this subject isn’t universal. But I’m positive it is the view that is taken by most men and women who employ others to represent them and their brands. And I’m positive there are consequences to ignoring this view.

What was fascinating to me about this session at the Batonage Forum that spurred Carole to make the above comment was that in response to her observations was the predominant view among those that followed her or responded to her that women ought to be able to wear what they choose at such functions; that judging a woman negatively on how she dresses in professional circumstances is a matter of “tearing down” women and it shouldn’t be done—at least by other women; that the continued sartorial professionalism endorsed by the majority of people in the wine industry is a reflection of a “Patriarchy” that harms women (and men); and that there’s a changing of the guard and a newer way of thinking in which people just accept people for who they are no matter how they dress.

There is a great deal of nonsense in these kinds of responses, much of which I think comes from a well of natural naivete that is masked by a time of powerful and empowering cultural change.

Whether those women I would not have representing me or my brand dressed inappropriately by showing more skin than clothes was because it makes them comfortable or happy or because they want to sell wine with sex or because they want to send some other signal is not in any way the most important idea. What’s most important is that I would not have them representing me dressed in such a way.

Now again, my view is not universal. However, it’s the only one that matters when it comes to my brand. Another way of putting it is if you don’t want to wear my uniform and talk the way I want you to talk or if you don’t want to present my brand the way I want you to, but would rather present yourself in a way I don’t prefer but that makes you feel comfortable or happy or empowered or sexy, then that’s fine. But find another job. And don’t be indignant or blame the Patriarchy or feel you are being torn down while you look for your next gig.

This reality of “my brand, my way” is something that both men and women are forced to deal with when it comes to dress as well as many other facets of employment. Importantly it’s a fact that the vast majority of men and women in the wine industry are employed, not business owners who can choose to do as they please without answering to someone else. I didn’t hear nearly enough of this reality expressed at this Batonage Forum session, and that’s too bad because it’s a reality of great importance and one that nearly everyone in the industry must confront.

Finally, Carole’s question of whether or not dressing inappropriately diminishes one’s brand or wine or self is a very good one. It’s a good one because the answer for many people, including (obviously) some women, is that it does. And admitting that it does isn’t an occasion for calling on all of us to “Fuck the Patriarchy”.

The question of how women are treated in the wine industry is an important one. How they are paid, when and how they rise in their profession, how they are treated by both men and other women while on the job, and what can be done or changed to assure their careers and person are not diminished in the process are all important issues that the Batonage Forum has wisely taken on,

I’m not sure, however, that going to the wall for a new acceptability of Beyonce-inspired dress codes in the wine industry rises to the same level of importance as these other issues.

Audio recordings of all the sessions at the 2019 Batonage Forum are on line here.

Posted In: Culture and Wine

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18 Responses

  1. Paul Franson - May 19, 2019

    bâtonnage or even batonnage

  2. Kathy Bailey - May 19, 2019

    I agree completely with you and Carol. If a man showed up to sell wine in a Speedo, just because he felt comfortable, it would be inappropriate. Not because of the Patriarchy, but because we have social norms. Save your sexy outfits for when you’re out on social time, not work time.

  3. Sarah Bray - May 19, 2019

    Thanks for listening and for your feedback. I am one of the founders of the Forum and also the person that moderated the panel that you delved into here. While I agree with many of your points, I do think there is an element also of the brand wanting said sexy attire (we’re obviously speaking in broad strokes here). I spoke more about the difficulty of 1) seating this panel and 2) moderating the discussion on a podcast following the event this year, called Drinking on the Job. As a moderator, I choose to content map the threads of conversation that connect the women seated on the panel, and ultimately, the conversation follows those panelists’ personal experiences. I also let these women know that they should answer the questions they felt comfortable with. We dive heavily in our pre-planning calls and emails into a variety of topics, ultimately deciding the personal lens was the best route. It was interesting where the audience itself took the conversation in the QA portion, post Carole’s commentary in particular, and how different the generational perspectives are when it comes to this issue. Notably, all of the younger women supporting the “wear what you want” attitude are, in my experience of those I knew who spoke, some of the most professional looking women when they are in the road; this is obviously not evident on an audio recording. Regardless, a topic that should continue to be explored, and I appreciate the recognition in particular of the emotional labor that goes into how women have to think about presenting themselves. Thanks for the coverage and support of the mission.

  4. Rebecca Stamey-White - May 19, 2019

    I guess I’m interested in having a different conversation. The one where it’s not just women being shamed for wearing the wrong clothes. It is really hard to dress as a professional woman (not just in the wine industry) but let’s also get men to dress professionally please. I’m tired of attending events that say “jeans and polo” or “jeans and blazer” attire with no equivalent spelled out for women. I don’t want to see men dressed in shorts and Hawaiian shirts or the tech/wine industry’s jeans and Patagonia vest uniform. There’s not an easy female equivalent for this casual attire that is so common in the industry (plus the additional complication of footwear if you’ll be in a vineyard). Can we just say that everyone should dress professionally and stop shaming women for their decisions with no corresponding shaming for men?

  5. Tom Wark - May 19, 2019

    Rebecca,

    I’m not sure it is a matter of “shaming” when your boss tells you, “put something on”.

    Your point about women having to navigate many more shoals when it comes to dressing for work is well taken. To begin with, it seems to me that men’s “uniform” possess far fewer choices than womens. This makes things much easier for men. But on top of that I think women are asked by men, other women and themselves to dress for others in a way that men are not. In addition, its far more common for women to be considered “tarted up” based on how they dress than it is for men. And while undoubtedly women will sometimes choose overly revealing dress to get the attention of men and in the process make a mistake based on the circumstances, they are equally subject to being mistaken for dressing to attrack men.

    I remember being told on my first job at an agency (by my female boss) that “we dress in suits at work, Tom”. This was after I came to work the first day in Kakies and a sweater. Up that that point I had worn a suit for no other reason that a funeral or a wedding. The instructions I was given were easy for me follow. When you get down to it, it’s hard to fuck up matching pants and jacket and a dress shirt. So what did I care? I bought a few suits.

    What I noticed immediately, however, and what was really enlightening was that the minute I put on a nice suit I received demonstrably more respect and it was unearned respect too. I liked that a lot.

    In any case, the point is that I didn’t have to decide how long my pants should be or how open my shirt should be. But, tell a woman to wear a suit and she still has decisions to make. I get that. I just don’t think the issue of dressing professionally is one that needs to rise to the level that leads us to question the role and force fo the “patriarchy”.

  6. Emma - May 20, 2019

    It is quite something that some men still feel they are the main reason a woman dresses a certain way. I think this says more about what’s going on in that man’s mind than anything else.
    I have more questions than answers here:
    Is this not demeaning to men? Are men really not capable of thinking about anything but sex? Do men get so distracted by clothing that they can’t see the person, or hear what words are being spoken? Who decides what ‘dressing professionally’ means anyway? Who thinks they are qualified to make that decision on behalf of everyone else?

    Tom, you mention getting ‘unearned respect’ when you put on the suit (in your reply to Rebecca) – I find that intriguing, did that not make you feel uncomfortable? (but then as a woman ‘unearned’ attention is usually of the very negative kind). I think I’d have felt a bit of a fraud getting ‘unearned’ respect.

    I completely get that society likes its uniforms – doctors, nurses, etc. But can we admit this ‘dressing professionally’ is a social construct? There are areas in the world where women (and men) don’t wear clothes that cover their bodies up, and their market places aren’t full of men unable to focus on the product, their students don’t get ‘distracted’ by near-nakedness.
    I think if you look deep enough into it you’ll find that ‘dressing professionally’ or ‘acceptably’ is designed (maybe unconsciously) to keep people out, to keep the circle (whatever that circle is) small, elite if you will. The tut-tutting that goes on may not be about the attire, and more about something else altogether.

  7. Bill Tobey - May 20, 2019

    A well-written article and then you had to go off the cliff” yourself with the use of the “f-word”. I will not read your articles again! I thought you had more class than to use the “f-word” but I was wrong.

  8. Tom Wark - May 20, 2019

    Bill,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m not adverse to using the word “F*ck” in my posts if it’s used well. In this case, it’s a quote from one of those commenting at the Batonage Forum. Listen to the recording or read the SevenFifty Daily articlel

  9. Marcia Macomber - May 20, 2019

    Great discussion and comments. Thanks for the further insights from Sarah Bray, Rebecca Stamey-White and Emma.

    I’m in Tom’s (and Carole Meredith’s) camp when it comes to the question of what exactly are we selling. My personal experience of those dressed inappropriately (specifically: skimpy) is that they stand out in the room for the wrong reasons. Whether or not they are aware of it, I’d have no idea.

    To label it as “inappropriate” is a judgment call we all make consciously or unconsciously. And it’s a perception, which is the key for understanding. Tom offered his own experience and likely found out the hard way on day #1 that his boss wasn’t taking him as seriously/professionally as desired due to his attire. But the perception of him was altered as soon as he dressed appropriately to the job and his company.

    I certainly concur with Rebecca and Emma that with women’s greater wardrobe choices, it’s far more challenging to achieve appropriate attire acceptable to yourself, your boss and your audience. But that’s part of the job too.

    What woman hasn’t arrived at an event, conference, meeting, etc., only to inwardly groan, “Whoops! Got the wardrobe choice wrong today!”? But we put on those requisite smiles and soldier on, noting internally to make a better wardrobe choice the next time….

    I love the resolve of those at Batonnage tenaciously affirming they’ll dress how THEY want. I only ask, “Are you considering how you want to be perceived in making those wardrobe choices?” If you didn’t get the promotion you expected, or didn’t sell your team on a major initiative you thought was in the bag, could it have been because they perceived you in a different light than you yourself perceive your appearance?

    There’s a reason “Dress for Success” works – and that depends upon what type of success you’re after. While I agree with the Madeleine Albright sentiment (“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help one another”), it’s harder to help women who undermine their own success potential.

    Wine sellers (generally men) who continue to use the old-fashioned (and now highly offensive) car sales’ technique of scantily-clad women pouring their wines at events will find their brands shunned by women. (And it may be their intent to appeal only to a specific male cohort.) But this is a marketing method clearly on the way out.

    I applaud the women at Batonnage for tackling this topic and those commenting here on moving the dialogue forward.

  10. Tom Wark - May 20, 2019

    Emma,

    Thanks for offering your comments. Very intriguing, all of them.

    First let me say that the unearned respect I received as a result of dressing well at my first job in no way made me uncomfortable. I was grateful for it. I was new in the industry and welcomed every bit of help I could get.

    It’s not just dressing that is a social construct. Just about everything is from handshakes, contracts and courts of law to welcoming greetings, use of utensils and standing in line. They all have some explaination for their evolution, but they are all social constructs.

    I would disagree that professiional dress is meant to keep people out. I’d suggest it has something to do with identifying who is part of the professional guild. There is an important distinction.

    But that’s beside the point. The real point is that if you don’t want your employees dressing in nothing but underwear, nothing else matters—assuming your employees want the job you offer. And, most people ARE employees. Moreover, I’d argue that the convention of dressing appropriaely that is demanded of and happily assented to by the vast majority of people isn’t a heavy lift and it certainly ought to fall very low on the scale of what’s important in any reform of culture.

  11. Lynda Paulson - May 20, 2019

    Think like a good speech writer and speaker and build from the result you want. Visual communication is by far the strongest component of communication with people. Let your audience see what you want them to get.

    Do you want them to perceive you as a professional there to build relationship and do business? Or do you have another agenda?

    Like it or not, reputations are built on the perceptions you create. What messages are you sending?.

  12. Susan McHenry - May 21, 2019

    What’s so difficult about wearing a pencil skirt, nice blouse, and low heels to your job? Worked for me in 20+ years of corporate America, which was not entirely fun but it did allow me to retire with a nice nest egg. Sure, I would have preferred to dress like Stevie Nicks but that’s not how anybody in management dressed (no Keith Richards look-alikes to be found either). Now that I am retired I can dress like Cardi B and scream “F**k the patriarchy” all I want (while driving down a nicely paved road and knowing that emergency services have my back).

  13. Emma - May 21, 2019

    Hey Tom, thanks getting back to me, and I think I get what you’re saying. But my point is that the people being criticised for what they are wearing don’t work for you, or for the others you mention who seem to not like the way they are dressed. If you have an image you want to portray for your brand that is totally up to you to decide. If I’ve understood correctly though, in the examples given, what people are or aren’t wearing here is being scrutinised by those other than their employers.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t agree with anyone being specifically asked to wear ‘sexy’ attire to sell wine either – but if they are wearing their outfits by choice, and if their employers seem ok with it, it does seem to be coming across as if they are being looked down on for their choice of outfit.

    I have witnessed a lot of snobbery in the wine trade, overt and otherwise, as well as a lot of sexism. It does kind of seem to me here that the women in question have failed some kind of test they weren’t even aware they were sitting.

    And yes to your point on other social constructs, you’re right. I think (hope?) that when it comes to addressing this particular case of clothing we are quite possible watching a slow change taking place. I sincerely hope that down the line the men and women coming through in the wine trade will raise criticisms of their peers’ knowledge of what they are pouring rather than what they are wearing.

  14. Paul Vandenberg - May 21, 2019

    Lovely debate.
    Dress For Success was mentioned. Great application of science to the the challenge of appropriate dress in society.
    We make statements with our attire. I see across the spectrum of society that women show more skin. Dancers, singers, tasting room attendants, servers, physicians…

    Myself? If it’s over 80 F I’d just as soon be naked. Not considered appropriate very many places and situations.

    Hilary Clinton understands dressing for success.

    Clothing by Frederick’s of Hollywood is not wine biz attire.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos Del Sol

  15. Paul Wagner - May 26, 2019

    Tom:. How a brand representative dresses should be determined by the target audience and the brand identity. I can think of thousands of successful brands that do not successfully market to me, and I would include both wine and beer brands who focus on selling their product as a ticket to a wild and lively lifestyle.

    But I don’t criticize them for selling that way. It’s their decision. It’s their brand.
    And I don’t criticize their salespeople for executing that strategy, or dressing differently.

    If I owned a wine brand-and I do not–then appropriate dress would be part of a larger brand strategy that would be determined by the results we hope to achieve with our target market.

    If my target market were Carole Meredith, then my strategy would reflect that. But while I consider Carole a friend, I would never use her as an ideal target market, any more than I would use myself as a target market.

    The wine world is full of brands trying very hard to sell exactly the same product exactly the same way to exactly the same target market. And it’s full of people who criticize anyone who does anything different. It’s also continuing to struggle to grow market share.

    Hmmm.

  16. Tom Wark - May 26, 2019

    Paul,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. If a brand wants to use sex to sell their wine and can find women to dress in a such a manner, more power to them. However, few wine brands, for better or worse, choose that route. The point I was working toward was if a brand owner doesn’t want to see their representatives dress with lots of cleavage and a short short skirt, then the argument that “I ought to dress how I want because ‘F*ck the Patriarchy’ doesn’t hold much water.

  17. Paul Wagner - May 27, 2019

    Agreed, Tom. But this is complicated territory. What about fashion houses that only use thin models? Fashion houses that only use white models? Companies that will not hire “overtly gay” people… Etc.

  18. Tom Wark - May 27, 2019

    Paul,

    Yes. I think we see examples of specific groups of people devalued and pushed to the side for reasons of prejudice and we see this accompanied by rationalizations that are often disconnected from the source of the prejudice. Moreover, the cultural source of the angst and anger that in part drives the #metoo movement is still innappropriately dismissed.

    But, claiming one’s inherent rights over the objections of those who would dismiss WHO you are, is different from attempting to claim a right to represent an employer as you like, not as the employer demands.

    I think the Batonage Forum has done a great job of honing in on the very specific issues that women in the wine industry confront and need to confront in order to ply their trade on the same level as men. I just don’t think that demanding the right to wear short shorts at a trade event when representing an employer and to expect to do so without consequence is the kind of push back that will effectively address the impact of the Patriarchy.


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