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Fashion Faux Pas or Face Plant?

Coming of age in the 70s I was more than a fashion faux pas, I was a fashion face plant. Nothing can explain away the dress I wore to the junior prom. I looked like a picnic tablecloth on the bottom with a matching place mat on top. Since I can’t find the picture, which I know I saved, you’ll have to use your imagination.

Large red and white checked gingham fabric. Long skirt accented with a ruffle. Halter-top attached to the skirt, also accented with a ruffle. Straps crisscrossed in the back and buttoned into the top of the skirt. My father made me dance around the living room to make sure nothing fell out of the square piece of material over my chest. Since my chest amounted to nothing at the time, I was safe.

Ruffles play a major role in my best wardrobe worsts. My early choices for formal dances at college all had ruffles on the bottom and unfortunately a few had gathered sleeves with ruffled edges. And there was the ruffled yellow dotted swiss bridesmaid’s dress accessorized with a matching floppy hat. Of course that was chosen for me and truth be told, the whole time I wore that dress I squelched the urge to cry out, paraphrasing Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, “I’ll never go dotted swiss or ruffles again.”

Of course it took a whole new decade and career before I found my ruffle replacement. Half the fun of going to work in the mid-‘80s–for me¬–was wearing the businesswoman’s bow tie. Floppy or stiff. Bright red, blue or black. It didn’t matter. I simply liked the ritual of tying it. And it announced my competence without me saying a word.

I first learned about power dressing from The Women’s Dress for Success book written by John T. Malloy. His advice to women hoping to be taken seriously by others (men) in the workplace: look like those others (men) as much as possible. My closet was full of men’s styled dark colored suits that I wore with white, blue, or an occasional pink shirt, when I felt rebellious, and a bow tie. Simple jewelry, gold or silver stud earrings and maybe a pearl necklace rounded out the corporate career gal’s look.

I took all of Mr. Malloy’s advice and added my own twist. Looking at my first-day-on-the-new-job picture I wish I had applied Coco Chanel’s advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I wore a dark gray pinstripe suit with modest shoulder pads and a light blue wing-collared shirt with pleated front. A bow tie in the same color as the shirt flopped under my wing collar more than it stood at attention. A necklace of alternating silver and lapis-colored beads lay under my tie. Thank goodness I just wore matching silver studs.

In the 90s my bow ties and starched shirts gave way to flowing scarves and silky blouses. Then I went casual, business casual and then work from home casual. Today the most flounce in my wardrobe is found in the pashmina-style scarves warming my neck in overly air conditioned and under-heated environments. I am aware of the return of the bow blouse to the workingwoman’s closet but have resisted. Much as I have resisted anything in red and white checks. Neither bows nor gingham fit my style anymore.

“Some day your mouth is going to get you in trouble,” my mother would say.  This wasn’t such a difficult prediction given the number of times I brought home a report card from elementary school with a check mark next to the words: “does not exercise self-control.” That was Catholic school code for “doesn’t know when to stop talking.”

The nuns were just agreeing with what a school psychologist had told my parents earlier. “Julie’s mouth and brain don’t operate at the same speed.” This led to talking without filtering, speed talking, and non-stop talking.  And to check marks and verbal gaffes. Gaffes that could have been avoided if I had just known my audience

Understanding whom you are talking to is the key to effective communication. Talking without understanding often leads to unintended consequences.

If I had known my manager at one of my first jobs, for example, I would not have confronted him after he reprimanded me like a drill sergeant in front of a row of administrative assistants.

I understood that he was upset. I understood that there was a check mark next to my name for “did not meet deadline.” But if I had understood his management style, I would have known that ignoring his outburst versus asking him to not talk to me like that was the key to keeping one’s job.

If I had understood the makeup of a typical comedy club audience I would have never entered the contest to find Jay Leno’s sidekick when he took over the Tonight Show in 1992.  I headed to my hometown, Dayton, Ohio to perform a two-minute stand up routine.  Mind you, I wasn’t a stand-up. I had studied and performed improvisation sketch comedy. I gave 20-minute talks as a business humorist. I was just a marketing consultant looking for a creative outlet.

I whittled down my material, donned my red power suit, and froze when I entered the club. I was not like this hometown audience. This audience did not work in corporate cubicles or talk corporate speak.

This audience laughed till they cried and ordered another beer throughout the stand-up routine before mine – which was filled with tales of working for the man, men behaving badly, and scatological asides.

This audience did not smile when I performed. Thankfully, they didn’t laugh me off the stage. Thankfully, I still had my day job.

Just two weeks ago I accompanied Husband to the Principality of Liechtenstein for official diplomatic business. Husband is the Honorary Consul of Liechtenstein to the Midwest, and I his unofficial chief of staff.  Our program included meeting the Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, which I was excited about, until it came to packing.  What do you wear when meeting a prince?

On the first day of our visit, a young diplomatic officer met our group at breakfast and accompanied us to the Prince’s castle for Liechtenstein’s National Day ceremonies. The young diplomat sat next to me on the bus and I asked him how to spell his first name.

“U-l-r-i-c-h,” he replied and then asked about my family and work back in the States.

“I’m a former advertising executive,” I said. “Currently I teach on the university level and I’m a freelance writer/blogger.”

“What do you write in your blog?”

“I write personal essays and cultural commentary for women of a certain age who are reinventing themselves. Going through transitions.”

“I imagine there is much to write.”

We talked easily about my writing, my teaching, and my impressions of Liechtenstein.

If I had known my audience I would never have told Ulrich that the title of my last blog post was:  What to Wear When Meeting a Prince”

‘Well, I can imagine that might be difficult to determine,” Ulrich, the diplomat said.

“It is. I’ve never met a prince before. I don’t know anyone who had met a prince before. I want to be appropriate”

I proceeded to give him a synopsis of the endless options listed in my blog:

Formal or semi-formal, long or short, pants or skirt, cocktail, business or business casual, and so on. I did not share my quandary about whether or not to wear pantyhose.

“Later this week I’ll be posting about what I wore when I meet the prince.”

“I will read your blog. Perhaps you will write and tell your friends that you have already met a prince,” Ulrich said, and smiled, and bowed with his head.

And I remembered that when he introduced himself at breakfast I thought he called himself Something Something Liechtenstein, but I thought that can’t be right and let it go and focused on the pronunciation of his first name. Ulrich.

“You. You’re a prince. Of course, you said Ulrich Liechtenstein. Are you a cousin? Oh, I am so embarrassed. Have I hurt Husband’s appointment?” I stammered along until I just had to ask: “Well – what do you think – how am I dressed to meet a prince?”

“Quite fine,” Ulrich, the Prince said.

“You’ll learn your lesson one day,” my mother would say. The best connections are made when you know your audience. Whether it is one person or a group. However, some of the best consequences happen serendipitously when you are just truly yourself.

What Happened When I Met The Prince?


“Seriously? You met a prince and it’s all about what you wore?” my sister wrote, referring to my most recent post.

“Yes, but if you read the post prior to the unveiling of the LRD  you would understand why,” I wanted to respond.

Recap: Last week I met Prince Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein. Husband is Honorary Consul General of Liechtenstein for Chicago/Midwest. When I learned about the princely introduction I thought to myself (and aloud), “What does one wear when meeting a prince?” I figured that out and here’s what happened.

As we approached the castle I realized I didn’t know what to call the Prince. Your Excellency? Your Highness? Prince? Sir? Before I could ask Husband, who was several paces behind me, or the Ambassador, who was moving our little group along, we were ushered upstairs to a receiving room. I’m not sure that’s what the room is really called but since that is where we were received that’s what I’ll call it.

Prince Alois met us at the doorway and the Ambassador prepared to introduce each of the four Honorary Consuls and the two HC Spouses in attendance. Husband motioned for me to go ahead of him.

“I don’t want to go first.”

“Please, go ahead.”

“No, you speak the language and I don’t know what to call him.”

The Ambassador introduces Husband and he says something in German that makes the Prince smile and shake Husband’s hand a little longer and harder. I see a friendship blooming in front of me.

“And this is Julie Danis,” the Ambassador says, and indicates that I’m with Husband.

And so the Prince shakes my hand with a great smile and says something engaging–in German.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I only speak English. He’s the German guy in our house. It is a pleasure to meet you, thank you so much.” And I move on, quickly, realizing I had no idea what to call him so I just avoided the greeting all together, much like I do if I can’t remember someone’s name and don’t want to be found out.

“Shall we do the photographs first,” the Prince suggested. We moved to another room/hallway/photo op location. The official court photographer (I’m assuming) positioned us around the Prince and took a gazillion pictures.

“Don’t squeeze my upper arm,” I say to Husband.

“What?”

“Smile.”

After the picture session the Prince steps to face the half-moon of Honorary Consuls and Spouses.  The Ambassador explains where we are from and what we have seen and done in Liechtenstein for the last several days. A server passes beverages and light canapés.  It’s only 4:50pm and a glass of wine sounds like a fine idea.

I wouldn’t say I was star struck, but I felt speechless and the need to talk at the same time. Like the time I met President Clinton and was at a loss for words until I couldn’t stop myself from telling him: “We share the same birthday along with one of the Wright Brothers. I’m not sure which one but I think It’s Orville.” (It is.)

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked about the format of this meet and greet. Clearly my obsession with what to pack/wear had pushed all other thoughts of protocol out of my mind. Against my late mother’s better judgment (she always said my mouth would get me in trouble) I leaned over and whispered to the Ambassador, “Would it be appropriate if I asked the Prince a question?”

How couldn’t I ask a question? I’m the “why, why, why” girl, according to Husband. Always wanting to know why he’s done, said, or thought something. That’s a hazard of being a consumer insight professional. I need to know the why behind the what.  And truth be known, I had been thinking of what I might ask, if he opportunity presented itself.

“I think that would be fine, okay,” the Ambassador responded.

At the next lull in the back and forth I interjected, “Sir, Prince (I still didn’t know what to call him), if I may, if you can…we’ve had a wonderful program full of meetings with different departments and offices and the university…and I’m wondering, if there’s one thing you would want us to take back to our different regions, one message about Liechtenstein, what would that be?”

Phew. That was the longest, rambling question ever. Why didn’t I just ask the question I really wanted to ask, the one I often asked consumers and clients: “What keeps you up at night?” Because I was afraid it might be misconstrued as personal, and therefore definitely inappropriate.

“Hmm,” the Prince started.

“Feel free to have two or more,” I offered, not wanting to constrain him.

I wish I could quote his answer, but I can’t. I believe his message is this: Liechtenstein’s economy is feeling the effect of being reliant on exports to the EU. The country is small but mighty in entrepreneurship, education, high-tech manufacturing and self-reliance. Increasing awareness and interaction between the United States and Liechtenstein is what Honorary Consuls can do.

Our group agreed that we could carry the Prince’s message back to the United States. We all thanked him for his time and energy. In the end it was a perfect visit, except for one small thing, which I’m sure he would have never noticed or remembered.  I just wished I had said: “Your Serene Highness, I think I can do that.” Because that’s how you address a prince.

What I Wore When Meeting The Prince

I met the Prince. Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein. I met him in his family’s schloss (castle) that sits atop a cliff above the capital city of Vaduz, on a steamy afternoon. Husband took the above picture as the gate to the castle’s inner garden was closing on our visit.

You can see what I decided to wear after endless decisions.

A LRD (Little Red Dress), silk (possibly duoppioni) with a standup pleated collar reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth I – but not that big and not completely surrounding my neck.

Black cloth pumps with embroidered flowers and a wooden heel, 2.5 inches tall. A compromise between kitten and stiletto. Remarkably comfortable to stand in, which I knew I would be doing for about 45-60 minutes. It was more like 90, and included walking on gravel and across Medieval pavers.

Accessories included: an antique gold charm bracelet with one heart shaped, garnet charm. Gold hoop earrings with red stones. Red leather clutch, perfect match for the dress.

And I wore pantyhose, sheer pantyhose, out of respect for the Prince and his family who have reigned over the Principality of Liechtenstein forever. Really. Forever. The country celebrated its 300th year this past August 15th, National Day.

Wearing pantyhose was the right thing to do. But it was very, very hot and the castle is not air-conditioned, at least in the man made manner of which I am accustomed in my concrete and brick prairie hometown, because it sits in the Alps where Mother Nature provides the air conditioning.  But even Alpine Mother Nature couldn’t cool the receiving room to a temperature that made pantyhose comfortable, or a jacket and tie for that matter.

I wore pantyhose for the approximate two hours it took for me to dress to meet the Prince, to greet and meet the Prince, and to return to a state of relative deshabile post the Princely meeting activity. It was worth it. My mother would have been proud and I felt appropriately dressed for the occasion.

Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein is the princely looking gentleman in the middle, wearing a red tie. The local newspaper, Volksblatt, did not print the picture of the Honorary Consuls and their spouses meeting the prince, so you’ll just have to believe me that I did. My LRD and I did appear in another photo from a gathering immediately following the princely reception, which I’ve included in the above screen shot.

(Volksblatt Fotos: IKR)

 

 

What To Wear When Meeting A Prince?

One week from now I will meet a prince. A real prince. Royalty from another country. In his castle that was built in the 14th century. On top of a hill, nestled in the Alps. This is beginning to feel like The Princess Diaries except I’m not distantly related to the Prince or in any way heir to the throne. I’m just lucky, I guess.

A little over a year ago, Husband was appointed Honorary Consul General of the Principality of Liechtenstein to the Midwest. Crazy, right? How did someone who is 100% descended from Irish immigrant grandparents become HCGL/M? In short, he speaks their language and he kept in touch with someone he met over 20 years ago working on a legal case.

There’s more to that story but this story is not about that story, which is about…what to wear when meeting a prince? The decisions are endless in my obsession: formal or semi-formal, long or short, pants or skirt, cocktail subdued or sparkly, business or business casual,  colorful or neutral, closed-toe or sandal, kitten heel or stiletto, pearls (definitely, I think), bangles or brooch, studs or dangle, small – medium – large bag? What about my legs? Princess Kate’s style book reads panty hose for official events, but she’s a princess, I’m just a guest.

The whole affair runs from 4:30 to 5:30, ruling out formal, semi-formal and cocktail. Although, I assure you I’ll have a cocktail when this is all over, no matter what I’m wearing. Since I’m meeting the Prince at a reception, not a picnic, I’m crossing off casual from my options too. So I’m left with business or business casual and therein lies the dilemma. My business wardrobe really hasn’t been refreshed since I was laid off five years ago. Since advertising was my business, this wardrobe wasn’t too business anyway, leaving me with dated business casual outfits and a couple of things to wear when teaching graduate students.

Can we agree that business casual is the worst dress code ever invented? I can’t imagine that the Europeans do it like we do it in the USA–khaki’s and golf shirts for men and every which way for women. Towards the end of my corporate career I wore a lot of black pants/skirts with a white tee/blouse, plus some accessory so I didn’t totally look like I worked at TGIFs. I so hope I don’t need to dress business casual to meet the Prince.

I shared my worry about what to wear in an email to the assistant to the Ambassador. Her response, “I’ve ever only seen you impeccably dressed so I have no worries there.” Thanks for the compliment but can you  sift through my closet now for the appropriate, impeccable dress?

Maybe this is the time for the LBD. Yes! With a little kitten heel pump, because I can’t stand around in stilettos longer than a minute before my mother’s feet, that have become my feet, start screaming, and I think toes should be covered when meeting royalty for the first time. Pearls interlaced with a black ribbon around the neck. Studs. Small bag, similar to what  I would carry to a wedding. I don’t need to take much to visit a castle, after all.

Wait. Did I just write wedding? Yes. This is like attending an afternoon wedding. I would counsel against wearing an LBD to a wedding, afternoon or anytime. And it’s the summer. Is black too severe for the afternoon? What about my legs?

“No worries” the assistant wrote. Yes, worries, I feel.  What to wear to meet a prince? I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

 

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