How a mole in the tech sector is helping shape the look of 'Silicon Valley's' women

Dressing in Silicon Valley? There's a code for that

The hoodie, the baggy jeans, the New Balance kicks, that infamous black turtleneck. By now, the men’s tech industry uniform is so well known it’s become a pop culture cliche.

But what do women in the tech industry wear? That’s more of a mystery, in no small part because there are just not that many of them.

The keynote presentation at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference on Monday in San Francisco offered a few clues. The conference was newsworthy not particularly because of the new products it heralded, but because of who was doing the heralding. For the first time in company history, two women spoke during the keynote, Jennifer Bailey, vice president of worldwide online stores, and Susan Prescott, vice president of product management and marketing.

Having two female executives on stage representing the world’s most valuable brand was a much-needed step toward more diversity in Silicon Valley. I also couldn’t help but take notice of what they were wearing.  Bailey was in dark denim jeans, a tweedy jacket and a blue button down shirt of indeterminate designer origin (but with the slight statement of a contrast white collar), plus black patent leather ballet flats. And Prescott wore an olive green suede jacket, T-shirt and non-descript black pants.

Their looks were more casual Friday than business corporate, in line with Apple CEO Tim Cook’s long sleeve polo shirt and Dad jeans ensemble. These women didn’t dress to exude power, they dressed to blend in, which when you are a minority in a field is a way to assimilate and alleviate any possible tension about otherness.  It reminded me of the days of women’s power suits in the 1980s; to join 'em, dress like 'em.

For more clues about how women in tech dress, I turned to Christina Mongini, costume designer of HBO’s hit show, “Silicon Valley,” which wraps up its second season on Sunday. The show, which seems to get just about everything right about the tech world gold rush, centers around six brainy dudes and a startup. This season, it took on the gender issue by developing three strong female characters: Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer), a venture capital executive at Raviga Capital; Monica (Amanda Crew), her director of operations who rose from being an assistant, and Carla Walton (Alice Wetterlund), a punky coder who joins Pied Piper’s startup crew.

Each of the characters is dressed differently by design, according to Mongini, who has a mole in the tech sector to help her research real-world looks.

Laurie (the VC) “is basically Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor,” Mongini says. “She wore a lot of driving mocs that you couldn’t see too. She’s not dressing for men, she’s professional, straightforward and cerebral.” Monica is “more classic office professional wear — pencil skirts, button downs — but with some color.” Then there’s Carla, the coder. “She’s not ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ but it’s close,” Mongini says. “Programmers are fringey and smart, so combat boots, Goodwill clothes that we cut up, and a Millennium Falcon necklace.” 

Mongini knows her stuff. Although she lives in L.A., where “Silicon Valley” is filmed, she grew up in Sonoma County and has a secret weapon on the ground in Northern California. Her sister works in a tech securities firm in Cupertino, right down the street from the new Apple campus, and shoots photos of real world tech workers in the wild while attending the Cisco, CTIA and VM World conferences. 

“It’s all very anonymous,” Mongini says, declining to share her sister’s name. “But she sends me files and files of what people look like. There’s not a lot of variety, but then you’ll see a fanny pack or a wide-brimmed hat that’s kind of eccentric-looking.”

For the most part, Mongini says she avoided fashion on the show. “The look is more anti-fashion because the feeling in Northern California is, ‘We may have a lot of money, but we're not going to show you.’”

Still, she acknowledges things could change when the show returns in 2016, especially in the wake of the mutual love affair going on between the fashion and tech industries.

(Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer, who has a penchant for Oscar de la Renta, co-hosted the Met Gala this year alongside Vogue’s Anna Wintour; Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive is establishing a cult of personality to rival Karl Lagerfeld’s; the Apple Watch has been widely covered by the fashion press as the first fashion wearable; and luxury brands from Dolce & Gabbana to Gucci are trying to appeal to the tech crowd with outreach, events and new stores in the Bay Area.)

“Right now, things are pared down and classic,” Mongini says of the look on “Silicon Valley” and in Silicon Valley. “But I feel like things are changing so fast, from season to season it’s going to be different.”

Maybe at next year’s Apple WWDC, we’ll see some Dolce on stage.

 

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