Style is the Message (and has to be Just Right)

Hi Mara, I will be taking part in a conference. Would you help me figure out what to wear? 
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Having already worked with Cynthia, an accomplished woman, on her professional/social/mother-of-two wardrobe, her first words told me that she was up to something big. With her usual humility, she conveyed that she was invited to a panel with two very prominent figures, one from public life, one from the private world, with 700 attendees. (I know, can’t disclose, let’s just say that informed people like you would absolutely know who they are.)

In contrast to her expertise in the subject matter of the panel, she was unclear about what to wear.

Let me clarify: she wasn’t unclear as in “I haven’t decided” but unclear as in not having cracked what the real dress code was, how to be genuine, context-appropriate and with an edge, and then how to bring all of this plus her message into a visual form and style. This multidimensionality sounds familiar, right?

Because for women, this is the recurring situation we face, regardless of the names of the panelists and the number of attendees. We, women, have it difficult, while men don’t. (Tell me something I don’t know). It’s not about knowing the official dress code (more about this below). It’s about  making sure that what you wear conveys your professional achievements, is up to and on top of the context, highlights who you are and what looks good on you, and is aligned with what you stand for. In other words, your style is also your message.   (Allow me a note here, as a past in academia is difficult to overcome: Marshall McLuhan, Canadian media philosopher, hit it on the nail. In a quick and probably irresponsible analogy, the style/outfit in which you are embedded establishes a relationship with your message and your audience. I know, all McLuhan scholars will come after me. But just think of the unsubtle, unthoughtful and extreme case of Melania with her I don’t care jacket when visiting immigrant children. Maybe when she said "don’t" she meant "do." Ok, let’s close that hyperlink and go back to our window with a two key considerations.)
 

Casual causes casualties

(I had to get this out without preamble).

Laila conveyed, with a sense of concern and a flashing red light, that her conference contact had told her the dress code was casual. She had already taken in my gender-analysis-evidence-based-reservations about casual style for women and had the chance to confirm it with her own experience after we re-invented her professional wardrobe. For women, casual causes casualties, it’s a no-win fashion fatwa. A casual code is in fact a gendered dress code. Men can afford casual, no one is going to take them for less, or make comments about their outfit. If anything, they will look more “human/approachable.” They have (also) that prerogative.

Think about it: literally, casual means relaxed, unconcerned, and also irregular and occasional. Women can’t afford casual.

For smart accomplished women, casual means:
- in the best of cases
that people will assume that we are younger/less accomplished/less reliable, and a cognitive adjustment to acknowledge our stature may come too late during the course of our performance and with a heavy cost. (Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, in Beyond Good and Evil, acutely said: “When we have to change an opinion about anyone, we charge heavily to h(er) account the inconvenience (s)he thereby causes us.”). Women in their 40s are especially susceptible to this.
- in the worst of cases that conversation after our performance will be about our style and/or the appropriateness of our outfit (No Nietzsche quote here, just the regular experience of media commenting on women’s sartorial choices before anything else, the most recent iteration of this happened after the formation of Spain’s female-majority cabinet)

Ok. I don’t want to be a fundamentalist here. There are exceptions. (When I say there are, I mean, there might be). But trust me, they are negligible in the big picture.
 

McLuhan meets Goldilocks

It would be great if outfits didn’t matter for the perception of your talents, skills, and professional expertise (and “I mean would and not wouldn’t”). But they do. And we want to get it just right. For us women this is a constant exercise in navigating and second-guessing ambiguities and unspoken standards about how we should dress.

    - Neither too little (under dressed) nor too much (overly dressed).
    - Not too conventional (ordinary) and not too unconventional (extraordinary, polysemically speaking).

The issue is not only quantitative but also qualitative: what is the bottom line message and feeling you want to convey with your attire and look? Professional with an edge? Sharp and humble? Challenging and inviting? Who are you trying to reach? Co-panelists? Attendees? Particular groups in the virtual audience?

As you can see already, there is no one recipe --- forget about making do with the little black dress, a summer dress, a suit. You would just be underplaying yourself (definitely don’t mean wouldn’t, but actually mean will).

You know where I am getting at already. This requires thoughtful/creative/ just right styling - a 360 degree styling that brings you, your personality, your message, your interlocutors, your audience, the event, and the context into visual form. (Now breathe).

Sharing a panel with two prominent national figures for the first time may require special style attention. But it illuminates a situation that it is widespread, and I’m sure you have experienced a version of it. Too often!

So here are some actionables (I hear blogs require them!)

1. Align your appearance with your message. “Style is the message” means people are going to connect your appearance with your values and commitments in a given situation. They reinforce one another. At the very least, avoid dissonance. 

2. Elevate your look. Leave casual behind, bring a note of distinction, as much as your personality can pull off.  

3. Think 360. Take into consideration all factors (social context, the background and interests of attendees, your take-away point, your comfort, your audience, etc.) and caliber them to strike the right style. Subtleties are crucial.

And if you need 360 help, I am here to help you. And have fun doing it!  

Stylish regards,

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Postscript:

Dear Mara,

The talk -- both substance and style -- went well!!! I don't have any photos. For whatever reason, the organizers have made the decision to keep this event low-profile and despite the large number of prominent attendees virtually no one Tweeted or wrote about this. I decided to follow suit.

Thanks again for all of your help. It made my life so much easier to have a good idea of what I was going to wear throughout the conference, and I felt so relaxed knowing that I was going to look well dressed no matter the setting and time of day.

Cynthia


Postscript II:

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