Thoughts on balancing sex, seriousness and power on Women’s Day.
We reject clothes based on the labels we wish to reject, not necessarily ones which we wish to project. And this stands true for all of us. Think back to this morning when you stood infront of the wardrobe with five seconds on hand to get ready for the work day. How heavily influenced was your choice by the upcoming annual work-reviews and what the reviewer should not see in you?
As an entrepreneur in the business of empowering working women through what they wear, my interest lies in clothing and how it affects our daily lives. Clothing, and the meanings associated with it, like successful or mediocre, attractive or unattractive, professional or sloppy- decide what we choose to wear or what we don’t. So every morning when you stand in front of your wardrobe, you pick out clothes based on what you don’t want to look like on that day. In the course of my work, I have met many women at different stages of their careers. The young urban executives hailing from small towns who truly believe that to make it big in the city they need to fit into a Little Black Dress, regardless of their body type. The Little Black Dress is aspirational- it stands for the labels they wished to reject. The mid to senior level officers who, with some unease, appropriate masculine elements by wearing pant suits, so as to be taken more seriously. Everyone, in different ways, is trying to fit in by picking clothes that have certain meanings associated with them. Now, these meanings that we think our clothes have are ascribed to them by popular culture, and popular culture is fed by mass media which, in turn, is directly influenced by what fashion companies want to sell across the globe. So it doesn’t matter if you are lean or curvy, have a heavier bust or bottom, a high metabolic rate or low- we all end up wearing the same ‘fashionable’ clothes, with styles and sizes that are standardized the world over, from the Bay Area to Mumbai. The SAME. Does that sound right even in theory?
As for anyone who thinks that giving a serious thought to what one wears is a frivolous pursuit, I want you to consider something. A successful work dress is much more than simplicity in decision making. It’s your visual calling card. It tells the world what kind of work you do, how seriously you take it, and — here’s the complicated part — what kind of woman you are. Are you the one who is trying hard to wear the pants? Or do you prefer to be more feminine, hiding your steel behind chiffon? Do you wear the norm in skirts? or are more settled being an outlier in yellow stilettos? How far would you go to fit in? Instead are you one to innovate and make new rules? Can you be pushed? Or can you stand your grounds? These distinctions matter. Your work dress speaks for you.
In her run up for the US presidency, Hilary Clinton, has been the centre of attention from all quarters. Not just for her political standpoints, but also on her choice of what to wear in public. “Well, there still is a double standard, there’s no doubt about that. I see it all the time where women are just expected to combine traits and qualities in a way that men are not,” she said in an interview. It’s a challenge women all across the globe are facing and tackling on a routine. Hillary is known for donning masculine pantsuits of various colours, which have sparked the famous ‘Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Rainbow’ meme. The digital, image-focused world that we live in decides on our skills through our appearance. Think Hillary, Sheryl Sandberg and Amal Clooney. Or Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. We have different expectations from each based on our visual images of them.
You might also want to see this:
Your work dress signals your ambition, authority, experience, age. I get distressed every time a woman entering the mid-level ranks tells me that she has been ‘advised’ to start wearing a sari to look professional after having grown out of pantsuits. In offices that are overwhelmingly run by men, these two options seem to be the ‘safest’ bet when it comes to balancing sex, seriousness and power. It’s got nothing to do with comfort or day long wearability. Inside every woman’s mind runs an endless ticker: how much leg, how much waist, how much skin, etc. It’s important to feel confident from inside and let that wardrobe support that.
My personal favorite suggestion is finding your power suit. It could be anything that is reliably flattering, comfortable and meshes with your work environment. Even if you don’t already have an outfit in mind, it’s not difficult to make this concept work for you. A good place to start would be what is almost always in the washing machine at the end of the week. That is your body’s way of telling you what it’s comfort zone is. You need to build on that to help you confidently walk the road, chin up, without fear of any labels. That day will truly be your very own Women’s day.
Nazia Erum, the author of the article, is the founder of award-winning Indian Work-Wear Brand for women, The Luxury Label. She has been an ex-communications consultant with the Global Fund and a TEDx Speaker.