Fashion in the Workplace: Getting into Part

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In “lessons learned” I always try to address work issues through personal experiences. I’ve looked at topics from the leadership styles of Charlie Brown versus Lucy (gleaned from years of watching Peanuts, not to mention playing Lucy in the second grade show) to negotiation tactics learned by listening in on the way my dad scored a car.

My first lessons learned of 2014 is about Fashion in the Workplace, a topic that is not without big opinions. So, as is often said, there is no right or wrong answer; I can only give you my perspective.

I always taught my kids not to judge a book by its cover, encouraging them instead to base their judgments on a person’s good deeds and caring merits, not by clothes.

Now for my personal truth: Whether it was the first day of a new school year or my very first job interview, what I was wearing became a huge determiner of how my day went. At summer camp, chic stretch Danskins in hot pink helped me win consecutive games of jacks; in high school, Hukapoo tops helped me through the awkward teenage years with dreams of being Farah Fawcett; in my early 20s, second-hand vests from men’s suits and Frye boots helped me channel Joni Mitchell as I played guitar in coffeehouses.

I believe that it’s not how fashion makes you “look” at  work, but the power it gives you to “feel” successful. Let’s start with that first-ever job interview: I can’t remember a thing I was asked or what the interviewer actually said. But, I do remember — with vivid clarity — her dress! It was summer and I was greeted by a swish of a mint-green shift in chambray, complemented by silver stilettos. It gave the wearer grace and confidence, everything I understood a professional to be. Mostly, that dress was the main reason I wanted to work there. To work at all.

Since that interview so many years ago, there have been countless times when the right cuff, pair of shoes or coat has helped me “get into part.” I can wake up in a total fog with a task list as long as a runway, and yet, the minute I start to get dressed in something I adore, the transformation begins. I start to perk up; even the pinched toe of a patent leather shoe helps me focus better. Comfort? Who can think straight in sweatpants? What we wear sends a signal to ourselves that we have it together…even if we don’t.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about fashion in the workplace:

  • Go window shopping to get ideas.  Remember you are dressing for you, so get to know what you like.
  • When you try something on, picture yourself actually wearing it to work. How do you feel? Is it giving you confidence?
  • Don’t fret over price.  The fun is in the mixing of high and low and there’s plenty to choose from in both categories.
  • Buy a piece or two each season to update your wardrobe, but otherwise get skilled at  “shopping in your closet” and putting outfits together in new ways.
  • If in doubt, wear black; it always looks expensive, no matter the fabric.  Get a stylish bag, shoes and use jewelry to differentiate your outfit.
  • If you screw up, just own it.  Someone in my office realized at an event that she had on two different shoes.  Rather than ruining her whole day, she just walked around like she was starting a new fashion trend.

Don’t worry if you make a bad choice. But if for some reason you feel off your game and can’t tell why, maybe put that outfit at the back of the closet.

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