On Having the Courage to Wear What You Want
I was recently asked what the best thing is about “lifeshifting”. I had to stop myself from saying “wearing what you want” (I didn’t want to appear shallow), but after years of working in a corporate environment wearing what I want is definitely one of the best things. Don’t get me wrong, there are days now when I’d love to get dressed up in a sharp suit (yes, even I can have one day too many in Sweaty Betty). But wearing what’s required to fit into a corporate environment day in day out? Not for me.
Looking back, the nail was driven through my corporate coffin in 2011 when I joined a Scottish engineering firm to establish their investor relations and communications function. Within a couple of days I felt uncomfortable; my London wardrobe of DVF wrap dresses, statement jewellery and heels felt too “look at me”. I was the most senior women in the company and I felt my “chic” and “from office to cocktails” working wardrobe alienated me from the other women who were generally much younger and did not have externally facing roles that demanded the armour of power dressing. But next to my male colleagues, I felt too fashionable and therefore young and girly. Old before their time, out of shape and unlikely to make GQ’s best-dressed list, dressing for work wasn’t something I expect they gave a second thought to. With a heavy heart I bought a couple of conservative suits.
New York image consultant Ksenia Avdulova suggests when putting on an outfit, we ask ourselves: does this represent me, and is this the image I want to portray? When we put energy into what we are wearing, image (the outer) and identity (the inner) are aligned. The result is a clarity that helps us reach our goals and a quiet confidence that comes with looking (and feeling!) our best. It allows us not to get caught up in our insecurities, and gives the world a clear and consistent message.
So, in my TM Lewin suits, what message was I giving the world? That I wanted to belong, fit in, not stand out. I was most certainly caught up in my insecurities – I was in my first head of department role but desperately wanted to be seen as someone who could step up and be worthy of promotion onto the Exec. My outer image and my inner identity were most certainly not aligned: I felt my joie de vivre and sparkle was muffled.
But does what we wear really have a psychological effect on us? Northwestern researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky have discovered that yes, the clothing we wear does influence our behaviour and the way we think and act. They coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the mental changes we undergo when we wear certain clothing. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (July 2012) Adam and Galinsky explain that it’s the co-occurrence of the symbolic meaning that’s associated with a particular item of clothing as well as the physical experience of wearing that item that impacts our behavior. The success of programmes such as What Not to Wear and books like Dress for Success focus on the impact what we wear has on others (that we want to impress or positively influence), but this work is the first to provide a scientific underpinning to how what we wear has power over ourselves.
I thought I was dressing for success, but I know now that I didn’t want to be an executive in an engineering company. Subconsciously trying to be the person we are dressed as, clearly works both ways. My husband and friends saw it way before I did, but eventually I quit. An objective eye cast over my wardrobe would’ve saved me 18 months of misery.