Sunday, April 5, 2009

When Casual Dressing Is Serious Business

From the Wall Street Journal

Like Hollywood executives, Silicon Valley Tech Tycoons, hedge-fund chieftains are often the most casually dressed guys in the room (though their Seven jeans and untucked Lacostes cost as much as some suits).
But those dress codes don't apply to their female colleagues. It's a measure of the tremendous scrutiny that hedge-fund women face that they can't confidently imitate the men's "power casual" style.

"You're neither here nor there," says Kay Garkusha, who worked at a small Connecticut hedge fund until December. "You can't dress like the guys and you can't dress like the other women who are in support roles."
I'm a little confused here...if you are intelligent enough to get into the hedgefund business....wouldn't you be savvy enough to make reasonably intelligent choices with your wardrobe? Couldn't you redefine "power casual" to be somewhere in between jeans and brioni?
Clothes signal our position at the table. For instance, buy-side executives, as Wall Street's consumers, can afford to under-dress the sell-siders, who are more often expected to suit up to help close a sale.
For women, who have more clothing choices than men, the risk of a mistake is magnified. Just ask Michelle Obama about the peril of bare arms. There's a steady debate about whether former Lehman executive Erin Callan's heels were too sexy.
Wouldn't common sense dictate that you don't wear sky high Lamboutins with their sexy red underside while in the office or out with clients, just as you wouldn't wear a skirt that is too tight, or a blouse that shows décolletage.
Still, it's possible to reduce such risks by considering what clothes mean to the people around us. Our clothes at work needn't express our true inner selves. Instead, they can express our ability to contribute or take charge.
If you work in a creative profession such as entertainment, advertising, fashion or the arts, pretty much anything long as it is chic. Mixed patterns, sky high platforms, animal prints, arms full of bangle bracelets, can all look appropriate.
Double standards show up in many fields all over the country, but none more than the testosterone-charged world of Wall Street. There, women are still fighting for access to executive levels in an atmosphere where men also dissect each others' wardrobes for minute suggestions of power or weakness.
If you are interviewing for a job or in front of clients, not matter what your quantitative abilities, an overly chic outfit implies that you care more about your wardrobe than do about your business.
It isn't fair, but neither is life.
One experienced hedge-fund executive, sharply dressed in a Brioni suit the other night, related her experience interviewing for jobs in a suit paired with boots rather than pumps. She didn't get a single call back to a second interview when she wore the boots. If you consider clothes as symbols, a possible explanation emerges: Boots with heels are sexy, with a hint of dominatrix. While that message might be subtle enough for everyday work, our antennae are more sensitive in job interviews, where there's no room for risk.
Boots to an interview? Only in a blizzard, and maybe not even then.
Collars on a shirt or jacket convey authority. Flat shoes can suggest a girlish lack of authority; if you wear them, choose flats with some hardware and avoid the ballet look. As for stockings, the debate rages on, but if your primary audience is over 50, they may feel more comfortable with them.
Even though my profession is dominated by men, my job doesn't entail dressing to assert my authority. On the rare occasion when I do need to meet with clients my outfit is always the same, a black suit, black sheath dress or black pencil skirt and white button down shirt, black pumps, black handbag, South Sea Pearls or a vintage brooch (serious not whimsical), and a classic (and large) wristwatch.
How hard is it to put together this type of wardrobe?
Women have worked so hard to get to the top of the food chain.
I just hate to see fashion designers, editors and stylists promoting the kind of trendy dressing that keeps the fashion industry employed and the women outside of the industry in the purgatory of never making it to managing partner.
Does your job require some level of power dressing and if so what do you wear?
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1 comment:

Deja Pseu said...

Yikes. I may kvetch about what a trainwreck "business casual" has become, but I'm certainly glad I don't have to parse my work wardrobe to that degree (one of the reasons I decided early on against working in the financial sector). BTW, what does the book say about Hermès in the boardroom, yay or nay?

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