Dressing The Part Makes A Difference…To Me…

I enjoy dressing up. Give me a scarf and I’ll become a bubba in a babushka or a nun in a whimple. I’ll try to be   Grace Kelly in a convertible, but I’ve never mastered tying the scarf around my head and neck like she did. Bottom line, give me the opportunity to don a costume, to take on a character, to let my clothes inform my performance and I’ll take it. I enjoy dressing up.

This personality twist serves me well and serves me not at all. Sometimes I forget that I’m actually the real thing not the character I dressed in the morning. I first learned about power dressing from The Women’s Dress for Success Book written by John T. Malloy.  A man’s styled blue suit with a pair of gold earrings made you fit in around the conference table even if you weren’t a perfect fit for the job.

So a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on fashion for the modern female boss made me think about how my dress code has changed over the decades. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304451104577392652319112084.html?KEYWORDS=boss+dressing

Half the fun of going to work in the mid-‘80s was wearing a bow tie. Floppy or stiff. Bright red, blue or black.  It didn’t matter. I liked the ritual of tying it. It announced my competence without me saying a word. It stood in for all that I might lack. As long as I kept my mouth shut I was part of the club.

In the mid-‘90s I pushed for my office to go business casual. We were a 5-person consulting group hidden in a top floor of a tall skyscraper in the Chicago South Loop. Clients didn’t come to our office we went to theirs. It just didn’t make sense – monetary or otherwise – to wear and run pantyhose on a daily basis. The chairman of the firm balked. He believed in what I like to call the Catholic school rule: “Children behave as they are dressed. Dressed in dungarees they will be devils. Dressed in blue plaid and white shirts they will be angels.”

When the chairman finally agreed he insisted on written rules for business casual, which seemed oxymoronic to me. Rules for casual made it formal. Luckily our band of five was seasoned and didn’t need much guidance. “No jeans” ended up being the first and only rule on the list.

In the ‘90s I moved to a creative field – advertising – where dress code meant you just needed to be dressed. In my office you could wear graphic tees, jeans with or without holes, flip flops or army boots. However, most of the business types – suits as they are called in advertising – wore nice dress pants and a collared shirt if they were men and nice dress pants/black skirt and the collared shirt equivalent of a top if they were women.  In other words, they dressed like grown-up Catholic school students.

As my workplace shifted from corporate office to home office my need for a business or business casual wardrobe decreased dramatically. I found myself waking up and pulling on my favorite yoga pants for the short commute across the hall to where my computer lay in wait. I didn’t need to be showered and coiffed by any hour so often that hour of cleansing occurred after lunch. I found it difficult to dress the part of my new life when there was no definition for this new position I was crafting. There was no job description that hinted at the appropriate wardrobe choice.

I had this same problem when I went to college. Twelve years of uniform dressing did not prepare me for picking out an outfit every morning before 8 AM biology. I had a uniform and weekend clothes when I was in high school. In college I needed to figure out everyday clothes.

At home, pulling on my stretchy exercise pants every morning reminded me of pulling on my go to college painter’s pants. Pulling my hair into a ponytail was like wearing a bandanna. Sliding on my flip-flops or UGG slippers, depending upon the season, was equal to wearing my Dr. Scholl’s sandals or Minnetonka moccasins.

Had I regressed to college?  Forgotten how to dress? Was I struggling to find a role to dress – just as I did in college when I floundered from theater to something else? I asked myself: “Do I need a costume to inform my identity?”

The answer was: “Maybe.”  And if so, that isn’t such a bad thing. If the bow tie gave me confidence, prepared me for the business battle then why not arm myself for my current freelancer and writer challenges?

What do I need to feel ready to market myself and write? I need to feel fresh, creative, and adventurous. So now I look in my closet and find a bright color or crisp white top – it may be a tee but not one in which I would exercise. I do rely on jeans for the bottom – but jeans I would wear to a nice restaurant with a blazer or sweater, not jeans better worn when cleaning out the garage. And I add fun earrings after my hair has been dried. I may not do full makeup, which isn’t much in the first place, but I always add a dash of mascara.  My shoes are comfortable but not suitable for the gym or beach.

This new ritual is like the old ritual of getting ready for work in an office. It resembles donning the uniform of school days. It signals to my body and mind that I’m ready to create the role I’m living. This may sound crazy – to anyone who can be productive no matter what they’re wearing but hey, I’m not one of them.  I’m better when I’m prepared for the task and I’m best when I’m dressed for the part.



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