More style confessions this way … volume 1, 2, 3, and 4.

I’m Having a Style Crisis

Because I think I should dress like this:

photo credit: theory
photo credit: theory

But I always somehow seem to end up looking like (an infinitely less cool version of) this:

Elisa Nalin (photo via stockholm streetstyle)
Elisa Nalin (photo credit: stockholm streetstyle)

And, really, it all comes down to thoughts I’ve been having after reading this article. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

OK, it’s a bit ridiculous. A lot ridiculous. I wasn’t sure at first if it was satire or not. I’m still not sure that the author isn’t trolling all of us; regardless, let me reiterate: don’t spend hundreds of thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars on your work wardrobe. Your career doesn’t require it and probably isn’t worth it, and that’s not an insult – neither is mine. I don’t make a million bucks a year, which is what I would have to earn in order to make a $162,000 wardrobe bill even remotely palatable (from a financial perspective at least).

[As an aside, last year I spend about 6% of my annual net income on clothes. This number is a little higher than I’d like it to be, but it’s not irresponsible given my overall financial picture and the fact that I count my clothes habit as a hobby more than a functional necessity. I don’t have a lot of other hobbies, and they tend to be inexpensive.]

Back to the clothes-as-an-investment thing. Once and for all: they’re not. An investment is something that appreciates (or has the potential to appreciate) in value, not something that depreciates. Clothes, bags, shoes: they all lose most of their value the minute that you take them out of the store. With that said, if you’re working in a client-oriented field, where personal presentation is key, clothes can be a sort of indirect investment vehicle. Looking the part of a competent, successful fill-in-the-blanks matters; maybe not as much as being a competent, successful fill-in-the-blanks, but enough. If you consider that your career is likely to be your biggest investment (i.e. money-making asset), spending money in furtherance of it can be a wise choice, provided you do it within reason and with an eye to your ROI.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. [Holy freaking diversion.]

I’ve always been bothered by the phrase “dress for the job you want.” For a long time I thought it was silly, because I was convinced that ability would always trump presentation. The older I get, though, the more I realize that the world is (sadly) not as black and white, or fair, as I had assumed in my naïve youth. But I think what really bothers me is the implication that your job should dictate your style. As you guys know, I consider style a very personal form of self-expression. And I struggle with the idea of being defined by my career. I do what I do, but I am not what I do. It’s one thing to wear nylons, or knee-length skirts, or close-toed shoes, because of an office dress code. But style is another thing.

And yet.

After a few “wilderness years”, and then some family-building years, it’s now time for some career-making years. My career could still take any one of several different paths, but if I decide to stay on the current course, I’m probably going to have to take a hard look at my wardrobe. If I’m being honest with myself, it really should look more like that first picture. And it is a lovely outfit, don’t get me wrong. It just doesn’t feel like me. It feels like a some-day-I’ll-be-a-grownup version of me.

I’m not sure I’m ready for that, even if my career is.

I’m not sure I can afford to wait any longer to be ready.

The thing is, I’m dead serious about my career, and about what I want to accomplish. The work and personal sacrifices that will be required are also no joke. It’s probably time to stop fooling around with my style.

11 Comments on Style Confessions, vol. 5

  1. i found that article you linked to be pretty upsetting. he’s clearly coming from an abundance of privilege. however, the way he wrapped up in the conclusion was pretty spot on, and i think it something most of us bloggers value: the power of the right outfit. it should fit, it should project something about what you want to say about yourself, and it doesn’t have to cost a billion bucks. the rest of the article should have been purely anecdotal, rather than used as any sort of advice.

    as for your closet/clothing choices, i meant to comment on your earlier post this week about it, so i’m glad it came up again. first, and you already know this, i work in a creative field and have no experience dressing as a lawyer or in a male dominated world. however, i still experience sexism as a woman in the working field at all in whatever i wear, and i have experience helping friends dress for their male dominated fields (specifically politics and science labs).

    having said that, i think that your wardrobe is an asset, though possibly in disguise. why try to conform to what the men in your field do/wear? you’re a better employee than them and you have something different to offer — not just as a woman, but as Adina.

    from what i’ve seen, your work clothes are absolutely professional, and you know how to wear things in a way (and time and place) so that they don’t distract from your intellect and skills. nothing about your wardrobe says immature.

    are you going to be better at your job if you wear grey? or if you stop wearing prints? absolutely not. will you enjoy your job less? almost definitely. when you’re stifled in seemingly small ways, it can impact the whole shebang! so don’t overhaul the whole thing. editing to include a few more conservative pieces for work that make you feel confident isn’t a bad thing, but getting rid of things you love and replacing them with things you think you should be wearing is.

    ack, okay, i realize i’m really naive and young and probably don’t know what i’m talking about, but i wanted to give my two cents.

  2. Is there any way you can do something that’s in between the two photos? Yes, maybe photo #2 is not the way to go for work. But she’s interesting and exciting and looks like someone you’d want to get to know – or at the very least, someone who has a unique and exciting point of view. The first photo, on the other hand, looks professional and corporate, yes, but there’s no spark, no interest. She’d do the work you asked of her competently, but shows no originality and would just blend in with the crowd. She brings no individual point of view to the table.

    All I’m trying to say (poorly) is that I think you need a balance between the two. Don’t lose your style completely.

  3. I’ll confess to being early 40’s, government, finance, law and consulting background/fields I play in. Outfit #1 is a base outfit – add some interest – a different shirt or shoes or accessories (I said all this before) and when you get to be where you want to be in your career – you can wear #2 – some of the time. I’m going to be brutally practical here from a career perspective – it isn’t like men get to indulge in more personal style than women and still get ahead. They basically have a freaking uniform to wear – even the tie has to be a certain way. Stylish crazy investment bankers wear colored socks. The fact is you don’t want the first thing people to think about is your style/clothing in the legal world. You want them to think about your skills. From a NY/DC/Chicago perspective (and BTW – I love most of your looks and envy your skill at mixing patterns/color) – a lot of your work outfits would be considered business casual (everything that isn’t a suit is considered that honestly). If you a mid-level person wanting to get on the partner track – you will look more like #1 – once you make partner – you can wear some of #2. You already stand out being the woman in the room – you don’t need your clothes to emphasize your difference as you move up. BTW – (to some commenters on the earlier thread) you don’t get to chance the system if you don’t get to a position of power. If your personal style/self expression is more important than the career advancement – that is OK – but don’t be surprised when you don’t move up in some organizations. I know this sounds cynical – but I’d rather get the recognition and compensation for being the expert in my field than try to change the system because I want to wear something different. But that is my field – in creative or tech or other areas – if you dress like #1 you aren’t going to get ahead. Climbing off soapbox now! 😉

    • I really appreciate your perspective, and I would say that my experience (albeit in a much smaller market than NY/DC/Chicago) bears most of it out. A lot of my ambivalence stems from the fact that my current career path is not one I had expected to end up on, so I am still adjusting mentally (and sartorially, I guess) to it. But I am very excited about the future, and the possibilities, so I’m sure that I’ll figure out this aspect as well.

  4. I’ve only commented here once before, but I feel the need to weigh in on this. I’m in a very similar situation. I work in finance, which dictates a very conservative/professional (and yes, borderline boring) wardrobe. Although I’m not married and have no kids, I think we’re close in age, and I’m starting to feel the same pressures that you are. I’ve tried to step up my professionalism a bit in terms of wardrobe in the past year in hopes of gaining a bit more stature and credibility in my workplace, but in the meantime I’ve also developed a definite feeling of “mehhhhh” towards my work clothes. It’s very frustrating that we live in a world where we are constantly encouraged to be our “authentic” selves, but there are still so many fields of employment that require us to kowtow to strict appearance guidelines or suffer the consequences, regardless of our work ethic and job performance. Anyway, I guess my point is that I’m in the same boat and am really interested to see how you handle things from here on out! 🙂

    • Haha – you and me both! 😉 And I know there are probably many others in similar situations to ours, as more and more women are making in-roads into male-dominated fields.

      I agree with SAK: ultimately, getting recognition, respect and compensation for my work is the most important thing. If I valued creative expression more, I probably would have chosen a different career. With that said, since I work in a less conservative environment than others in my field, I probably won’t have to completely wean myself off florals just yet.

  5. I’ve always thought of “clothing as investment” as being more a reflection that buying a nice bag that you can take care of and wear for over a decade is often more cost-effective, over time, than buying the cheap bag on clearance at Target that will fall apart after a year or two and need to be replaced over and over again, and less of a literal investment. That being said, the idea of that guy who wrote the article going jogging in that lovely cashmere hoodie makes me stabby. How out of touch.

  6. I’m in Oil&Gas engineering – same problem. My rule of thumb is, I need to look as professional standing next to a man dressed in shirt and tie. If the answer is no, back to the closet I go.

    I also get fun comments from my 50+ male coworkers. “How do you hold your head up wearing that giant necklace?!?”

    “That red shirt should be part of our company safety attire. Much better than a safety vest”

    Or the best one yet, “Safety moment: ladies should take the elevator instead of the stairs when wearing heels”.

    • Do you happen to work in Houston? One, those 50+ men sound like Texas men to me, and two, I have a close female friend who works in O&G in Houston and I’ve shopped with her before and heard her bring up similar concerns.

      Also, if you’re in Houston — hello from Austin!

  7. This is a very interesting debate to me. I work in a hyper-masculine field – yes, even more than oil & gas – and am the ONLY woman in my immediate circle of colleagues. However, I have never felt this puts me at a disadvantage. To the contrary, I am most likely to wear an office-appropriate skirt, bold blouse and heels to an important meeting, as I feel that accentuating the difference between myself and my co-workers ensures that they’ve noticed me before I even open my mouth (in a non-sexual way, obviously). Maybe I just have a particularly enlightened bunch of male co-workers – or a more self-assured bunch – but I don’t feel that I need to downplay my femininity to get me any further ahead, and I don’t think any woman should. There’s nothing wrong with being a feminine woman, even if you’re a lawyer/banker/cop/janitor, and it’s time to stop being something other than ourselves for the sake of the men who work with us.