I haven’t been reading much lately, which is a crying shame, but one of the things I did read last month was Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. Essentially, it’s a glorified coffee book that was released in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of the same name, which “explore[d] how Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada changed fashion over the last ninety years by challenging accepted norms.”

The format of the book (and exhibition) was inspired by the Vanity Fair feature called “Impossible Conversations”, which has featured such odd celebrity pairs as Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow engaged in, well, imaginary conversations. The book features photographs of both designers’ pieces – contrasted to show striking similarities, and divergences – and their thoughts on their aesthetic, approach to design, and various style-related topics. Schiaparelli’s portion of the “conversation” comprises excerpts from her autobiography, Shocking Life; Prada’s presumably comprises interview quotes (it’s not clear if she was interviewed specifically for the book, and asked to respond to the Schiaparelli quotations, or whether this is material gathered from a number of sources). There isn’t a ton of substance to the book, to be honest, which is a shame, because both women seem to have had very interesting lives. The Preface gives you a taste of it, but it’s altogether too short. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of Prada’s design aesthetic, although I am drawn to/intrigued by the way the book defines her design sensibilities and inspiration:

“Saint Laurent’s costumes for Deneuve’s character [in Belle du Jour], Severine, a society woman slumming in a brothel, are the beginning of “Prada”. Her collections, like Bunuel’s films, are the chapters of a sly parable about the discreet charms and secret perversities of bourgeois society. But here, too, Prada rejects an archaic paradigm. Bunuel’s Severine is a frigid housewife seeking transcendence via sadomasochism in the arms of repulsive strangers. Prada’s Severine (who might be a gallerist or a surgeon) dons a mask of impeccability to recruit a lover or a playmate who can see through it. There is always a subtle clue – something odd or off-kilter – about her neat little skirt and her tailored shirt buttoned at the collar; but it isn’t her virtue that’s a lie, it’s her passivity.”

Anyway, it’s not the photos that are the highlight of the book, in my opinion, but the interesting morsels hidden in the “conversations” themselves. These ones, under the heading “Naif Chic” caught my attention in particular:

MP: Women always try to tame themselves as they get older, but the ones who look best are often a bit wilder. Thinking about age all the time is the biggest prison women can make for themselves.

ES: Ninety per cent [of women] are afraid of being conspicuous and of what people will say. So they buy a grey suit. They should dare to be different. Although I am very shy (and nobody will believe it), so shy that the simple necessity of saying “Hello” sometimes makes me turn icy cold, I have never been shy of appearing in public in the most fantastic and personal get up.

As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interplay between my age, my career, and my personal style – how the latter can or should or must change to reflect the demands of the others – so these quotes struck a nerve. My first reaction was “Yes! Absolutely!”, but my enthusiasm was quickly tempered. In the abstract, I agree absolutely that women should not allow themselves to be defined by others according to their age, especially if that means being minimized, or made invisible. I also agree that women should not be afraid of standing out – drawing attention to themselves, having a voice and demanding to be heard – any more than men would think of doing. But in business, and especially in the upper eschelons of conservative business, all of that becomes more complicated.

In most conservative professions, age denotes seniority, demands respect. I have male colleagues who looked upon the early onset of gray hair as a bit of a boon; it conferred a certain measure of gravitas that, in a competitive environment, gave them a little added edge. I don’t know if gray hair on a woman has the same effect; looking too young is definitely a hindrance, but looking just plain old is not much help either. I think women are best served by achieving what is a difficult balance: looking mature (and, therefore, competent and experienced) but ageless, in a sort of effortless way.

At the same time, style is seen as a sort of frivolous thing. I think that attitude is slowly changing, but it isn’t going anywhere just yet. (I hasten to add that, in this regard at least, I don’t think that women get a worse or different rap than men. If anything, men usually get the short end of the stick when it comes to dress codes.) A perceived preoccupation with clothes often connotes a lack of seriousness; this might seem silly or unfair, but it cannot be simply disregarded – not without running the risk that your professional standing, especially in the eyes of your superiors or clients, will suffer for it. Where age and style intersect is especially tricky territory, because there is so much subtext to keep straight. Moreover, clothes are a perfect medium through which to convey messages about yourself, but above all, you can’t be seen to be trying too hard; the medium can never be more important than the message, and it certainly cannot be the message (sorry, Marshall McLuhan).

I think that one way in which women (and men) can overcome the traditional strictures on sartorial self-expression in the business world is by being really, really, really good at something not many others can do. Success has its privileges, you know? And success often comes with experience, and therefore age. Which brings us back, full-circle, to where we started. Some day, it might be fun to be an eccentric old lady; for now, I’m still struggling to figure out how much self-expression I want to put into my sartorial choices at work … and how much I should.

Obviously, I am writing this from a very specific perspective, based on my own experiences; I would love to hear your thoughts on the intersection of age, style, and career.

15 Comments on Not So Impossible Conversations

  1. I feel like I need to start paying more attention to how other (older) women dress–I badly crave a role model. “Adult” dressing means “boring” dressing to me, and I’d love to find a way to get past that.

    • It can be difficult to find role models if you don’t personally know people who are style-conscious, because the media simply doesn’t care about what older women wear, for the most part. Older women are generally not seen as trend-setters or influencers of style, which is a shame. Everyone is pushed to aspired to the same aesthetic – modeled by 20-somethings – without recognition for the fact that lifestyles, at the very least, are very different for 20- and 40- and 60-year olds, and demand different style choices. I think there are more and more style bloggers out there who are not in their 20s, but they rarely get the same amount of exposure, which means less opportunities for an audience to find them.

  2. I think you are getting hung up with the confusion of ‘style’ and ‘fashion’. To me style is how we interrupt fashion personally. Fashion is an industry hell bent on influencing us to spend money. So it changes seasonally and creates all the subtext. To create a personal look we need to use fashion-only as far as it serves us.
    I agree with lots of you thoughts and will be passing them on.

    • I agree that there is a huge difference between style and fashion, but I think style creates subtext just as much as fashion, and in a more personal way. It reflects how we interpret fashion, how we see ourselves in relation to fashion and its messages (whether we adopt or reject or adapt them for ourselves), and more.

  3. I do wonder about the response I would get at work if I just wore whatever I wanted. I am in a small, very casual office, but I am technically the top of our very small heap and we deal with a wide variety of clients. Our receptionist is very t-shirts-with-writing-on-them oriented, but I feel like for what my time costs I should look a bit more professional (and by professional, I mean business… VERY casual). And not too wacky. I did go very prematurely gray and I often wonder what impression it gives, competence vs. not “taking care of myself”.

    I do think it’s interesting that you gravitated towards this book just as you seem to be “toning it down” a bit for work. I am still guessing you wear more color and pattern than some of the people you work with, maybe your personal tastes are just shifting a bit in combination with your desire to look professional?

    • I probably do wear more colours/patterns than some of my colleagues, but not all of them, and not as much as I used to. Actually, I think you’re right about that last part – my personal tastes are shifting. Whether it’s because of my desire to look more professional, or unrelated to it but contemporaneous, who knows.

      I will say that this book was a total impulse buy at the discount bin at Chapters. And it was covered in plastic wrap, so I couldn’t even see the inside of it. I was just curious about it, LOL! Whoever designed the book jacket – job well done!

  4. Do you look at the people one level above you to see how they dress? Any clues that you can pick up from them? What is different about the way that they dress vs. how you do? Unless there is a jump to business formal clothing in the step above where you are I’d say you’re balancing style and formality really well.

    Even though you’re too young to be the red hat/purple suit lady I think you’re still allowed to showcase your personal style at work. Having personal style means that you put effort into your appearance and that presentation matters to you. Regardless of your career I think that’s a positive light. I think it’s worth noting that personal style doesn’t necessarily mean dressing trendy. I think that striving to follow fashion trends in the workplace is a bit more dangerous because it can be construed as youthful and frivolous.

    Especially if you work in a male-dominated field I think that your silhouettes are going to be more memorable than your individual pieces, regardless of whether you stick with neutrals or interject color and patterns.

    • Only one of my bosses is a woman, and she is somewhere in the range of 10-15 years older. I don’t want to dress like her, although I certainly take direction from her in terms of general “tone”, if you will (like, the degree of formality, for example).

      I actually feel like I’ve hit a good balance, for this particular stage in my career. Now it’s only a matter of calibration, you know? Making sure that each outfit hits the mark, or at least somewhere close to it.

  5. The decisions I have to make when I go to the office are centered around:

    – Is this too bright / loud for work?
    – Will my accessories annoy people (e.g. earrings that are jangly)
    – Is my outfit too short (skirt) or when I bend over, do I show cleavage?
    – Am I age appropriate and not dowdy?

    I usually end up wearing what I post. Of course I am not in a very formal environment, I am in a business casual one, so I can get away with a lot more than in a more formal place…

    My field is very male-dominated though, so wearing a skirt/dress makes you stand out.

  6. Adina, I like this post and I also appreciate the comments above.

    A few facts from me: I am no longer young. I work in a very casual profession (IT) in a very casual sector (university) and I manage almost 50 staff. We do get extremes of weather – but in summer, not winter. It is regularly over 40C outside and while the building has air-con, we do have to walk between buildings and across campus most days.

    I am also interested in fashion, style and ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ (ty Erving Goffman).

    There are many factors that influence the choices when deciding what to wear to the office, not only profession, sector and age, but culture, climate and appropriateness. In my experience most staff assess their work environment and adapt their wardrobe appropriately, but some do not and need guidance. My experience is that, in general, the most technically brilliant staff have the least awareness of how they are perceived through their self-presentation and they mostly don’t care – in line with your success statement.

    A professional approach to attire for work takes into account business boundaries and respects them. This does not necessarily mean boring. You can wear clothes that are appropriate, and stylish or even fashion forward, but are not disrespectful to your age, your culture or your colleagues. This will always work towards furthering your career, not hindering. Dressing ‘in line with’ current fashion, but not blindly adopting extremes of fashion is a demonstration of how you can keep up with current ideas even when you are no longer in your 20s. Not that this is the message as such, but it is a way of showing the wider world that you haven’t been left behind.

    On a personal note, I dyed my hair from the age of about 15, at first for fun, but then I started going grey in my early 20s and dyed to hide the grey hair. I stopped dying about 5 years ago, a decision made as a consequence of serious illness. Most people say my grey hair suits me, but I still struggle with how old I think it makes me look. IMO men have an unfair advantage in being considered ‘distinguished’ with grey hair.
    This has turned into a bit of a long and rambling comment!

    • Thank you for the comment! I love hearing different perspectives, so I’m glad when people engage with a post.

      And your take on dressing professionally really resonates with me, even though we work in different environments. Very insightful – in fact, some of things you said, I wish I could copy & paste into my post. So, really, thanks!

      • Thank you for the OP!
        I added the climate piece when I was thinking about the post from a few days ago. I wear tights in winter and go bare-legged and sandals in summer, but as I said 40C+ and super casual environment here.

  7. This *is* really difficult. I used to look very young for my age and was working in a formal, corporate environment, undertaking mediation talks to avoid going to the Supreme Court. I was constantly mistaken for the tea lady, which was infuriating for a number of reasons as you can imagine. Now I work with engineers, ratio about 99:1. There are a lot of things to consider beyond “what is clean, what fits?” everyday; but I am quite conservative and concerned about what others think/assume (tea lady kick-back perhaps). I have seen other women that totally own a more dramatic or feminine look though and it has become a bit of a badge. That can also prompt another train of thought…. Like you said, tricky!

    • Yes! Exactly. I keep coming back to topics like these because there is never a black and white answer, no matter how much I ponder it. There is always a “but” or “on the other hand”, and more to think about. I am also fascinated by social psychology, and the various ways in which we communicate with one another (spoken and not), and this sort of dovetails with that.

  8. Oh, the grey hair. I yearned for some grey in my mid-twenties. You’re right though, it totally didn’t have the same effect as it does for men when they did rear their wiry little tentacles out of my scalp. I just got a lot of comments about how people noticed it and eventually coloured my hard won grey. Ageless is definitely the way to go!