“Look at your outfit today, and tell me what you see.”
At a different workplace, I would have thought my boss was trying to Miranda Priestly-shame me for not wearing enough curated unique vintage finds or European designers. But I was working in corporate at a consultancy firm. Outfit critique shames weren’t expected.
Was I wearing two different color shoes? Did my dress come undone? (this actually happened once at a client meeting and I ended up having to excuse myself to the ladies room and concoct a MacGyver-like fastening out of paperclips and tape.)
“Uh, my dress?”
“It’s a little pink?”
“What would the partners think if you went into their offices wearing that?”
I wish I had said something sarcastic like, “They’d probably tell me I did a great job on that 35 page proposal I worked on till 2 AM and compliment me on my mastery of Pivot tables, impeccable styling, and shiny, bouncy hair.” But instead, I giggled nervously and waited for him to continue.
“It’s too much pink, and they won’t take you seriously if you wear that.”
The “take me seriously” outfit in question was a Nehru collar, BCBG dress with pattern diamonds of pink, orange, white, and gray, partnered with a fuchsia wool cardigan (it looks much cuter than described). Conservative 2 ¾ inch heels. No hose (this was a violation of our Corporate dress policy, but I have a no nude hose policy of my own, even if Kate Middleton brings it back as a trend. And no red fishnets. Ever. Because that’s just a wardrobe gateway to a future insider trading scandal.)
Certainly as a style blogger, I subscribe to the idea, that in both business and personal, appearances make a difference. Reading enough worst-dressed lists has taught me that. I also understand what can be communicated non-verbally with a well-tailored three piece suit (power, prestige, professionalism, the list goes on.) Was my outfit the most professional one I could have chosen? No, and I won’t pretend it was.
But should my outfit choice have mattered?
If he had come down on the side of me dressing too sexy or revealing, I would have understood. I do believe that dressing too sexy in the office can distract people from my big, beautiful brain and my presentation. But too much pink?
Would he have made the same comment if I had worn too much forest green or burnt sienna? I thought his comment rankled of sexism.
“I don’t think you would make the same comment to a guy if he was wearing pleated khakis from Men’s Warehouse or a ill-fitting suit.” He assured me he would have.
There are important women in business who dress as they want and don’t care what anyone thinks. Take Hilary Clinton and her fondness for red pantsuits and scrunchies. Or Lynn Tilton, head of distressed investment fund Patriach Partners (who bought Stila out of bankruptcy) and routinely wears super lady-killer outfits. She once sent client Christmas cards with photos of herself dressed in red and black lingerie wielding a whip. Clearly her apparel choices are unusual enough to be commented on in the press, but without discussions about how her fondness for leopard print affect her deal makings. Similarly, public relations impresario Alison Brod is known for only wearing dresses and her affectation for pink, which decorates her office and company logo.
I wish I could say that in a scene inspired out of "Working Girl," I told my boss and the partners to mind their own business and then came to work the next day in my brightest, pinkest head-to-toe outfit where I killed it at a presentation by pointing out the killer was the one with the de-activated ammonium thioglycolate/we had made a huge mistake in amortizing the depreciation used in our net income calculations.
But instead, because I was up for an important promotion, I put away the pink patterned dress and kept my outfits more conservative. I got a lot of use out of my rotation of pencil skirts and button downs. I did get the promotion, but wondered if it would have happened still if I had continued to flaunt my fashion flag, pink and femininity? I was too scared to risk the years I had put in to try.
But then again, I ended up quitting and risked being disowned by my family/became a writer, where writing from home means less corporate wear and more adorable loungewear/sweatpants.
I do genuinely believe my boss was trying to be helpful. Some of the partners may have believed they couldn’t take my work seriously because pink happens to look good on me and brings out the warm tones of my skin. But should they have?