women who work
“But a successful work uniform does much more than save time and brain space. It tells the world what kind of work you do, how seriously you take it, and — here’s the complicated part — what kind of woman you are…Your work uniform signals your ambition, authority, experience, age. It conveys if not actual competence, then your feelings about your competence as well as your desire (or not) to blend in.” – Lisa Miller, The Cut
Well, that’s the essay I should have written about three months ago. I had been trying to start a series of blog posts centered around the work uniform, and even contacted some other bloggers for contributions, but was too busy with, well, work, to actually develop this into a proper project.
On my blog, you can find examples of my work outfits in the early years of my career. I will not link to them because it embarrasses me, some of the things I thought was okay for work – there was a time where I thought a loose tank top tucked into a flippy grey mélange skirt from American Apparel was okay for press conferences.
How I wished someone gave me some career advice about dressing – no, nothing happened (to my knowledge at least; for all you know I could have been running a media conglomerate by now if I had dressed better) as a result of my cavalier attitude to work wear. I have the fortune of working in an office with no clearly enforced standards of office attire. But there are downsides. I don’t want to be told exactly what to wear but I wished someone had taken me aside early on and asked me to think about the professional impression I left on others with my dressing.
Was there anything offensive about that little flippy American Apparel skirt? No, but I looked exactly like what I was – a fresh graduate that hadn’t quite understood how to go from “student” to “super awesome and professional adult”. I didn’t understand that it didn't matter whether I thought my outfit was appropriate – it was also about what other people, whom I was meeting for the first time, sometimes under antagonistic circumstances, thought. Once you enter that sphere of working for someone else, you have to look past your ego, and learn to dress for the gaze of others. This is especially important as a journalist, because, your subject, not you, is the story.
And yet, you want to signal your individuality, because that’s also part of winning people over. People respect independence of thought, which can be signalled through dress. And you want to be true to yourself, because that way you carry yourself with more confidence. The challenge of dressing for work is to nail that perfect balance of utility, individuality, and, as The Cut put it, the "public-facing self".
I figured it out, after a while. I embraced the liberties of my workplace, but I looked for ways to polish things up. I can still wear jeans, t-shirts, sneakers. But I made sure I had back-ups – a blazer to throw on for important events, for example. I gave up sneakers (well, most days I do) and embraced the oxford because they dressed up a pair of jeans well. I found shirts that worked for me - ones I could leave them untucked for comfort, and tuck in when I need to smarten up. I found a good alternative to the t-shirt – slightly structured, boxy short-sleeve tops in stiff materials that were comfortable as t-shirts for days spent outdoors, but less sloppy than t-shirts. I even found dresses that were neither casual t-shirty things nor power-woman tailored sheaths – shirt-dresses or similarly cut shifts, slightly loose on the body. A couple pairs of well-cut black trousers – loosely tapered, cropped – to take me through days where denim is really a no-go. I don’t wear make-up, but I realised well-groomed brows made me look less sleepy.
I learnt to maximise versatility and comfort, and show respect for the myriad of circumstances I encounter in my work. But I also learnt to make the casual edge work for me. People remember me, because in a room full of suits, I could wear a slightly oversized shirt with sleeves pushed up, and leopard-print loafers. My collection of jeans, dating back to my university days, have never gone out of rotation – even the ripped ones, or the slouchy boyfriend ones. I just had to wear it with the right items for the right occasion.
The Cut essay touched on a dimension I hadn’t given much thought about – sexuality. I've always thought, if you draw a lot of attention to your body in the way you dress, people will talk about it, and it's up to you as an adult to decide how you want to deal with it. Maybe you have the confidence to live with the chatter, or are so powerful that it has no detrimental impact on your career. Maybe your office genuinely doesn't care. Whichever option we choose, it's a statement.
So what do my work outfits say about me (apart from the fact that my clothes seem to rumple a lot)? But they're practical. Sober. I think they respect most of the professional situations I find myself. They're also consistent, which I find useful - it's nice to have a signature look at work so that people remember you (like Jenna Lyons and her glasses). What do you guys think?
I didn't want to make this just about me, so I approached some other bloggers to chip in. For a start, Maja of Maja Huse and Marlene of Chocolate, Cookies and Candies will share their thoughts on dressing professionally, and hopefully, I can add more to this list as and when.
Look out for the first feature next week. In the meantime, I would love to hear what you guys have to say about this.