This recent NY Times article that describes how young women in New York are dressing for themselves, and not the male gaze, was of interest to me and drew considerable backlash from readers who wrote that just because a woman dresses femininely does not mean 1) she is not a feminist and 2) that she is inviting the male gaze. Right. We knew that, didn’t we? And the irrepressible Jennifer Weiner wrote about the pressure to look good in an article that underscores what many women feel is a cultural imperative to keep up appearances.
A couple of weeks ago, a recent honors college alumna, who has started her career in New York City, wrote to ask for dress for success tips because, as as she wrote in her email, “You always look ready for the day.” That made me smile. Her inquiry also made me reflect on the many confusing messages that women, particularly our young women just starting out in the world, receive regarding looking good. These messages range from presenting themselves in hyper-sexualized ways (the Kardashian effect) to paying no regard whatsoever to how they look, lest they seem “frivolous” or actually covering up (wearing winter clothes in summer – see the first article).
How about some middle ground — looking appropriate and comfortable all while staying within the dress code of wherever you are and within your own personal style comfort zone? There is nothing vain about wanting to look your absolute best. Wash your face, style your hair off your face, and find a look that makes you feel comfortable and the way you want to look. Most of us want to dress professionally and maybe a tad stylishly, too without spending all day and night on it. Over the years, as I taught introduction to communication, I tried to impart to my students that a neat and clean look and the tendency to dress up a bit will almost always serve them well. But John Molloy’s 1980s “Dress for Success” advice is quite a bit dated now. The padded shoulders and men-style suit dressing are not required for women in the workplace anymore. So here’s my advice for young women joining the workforce and thinking about their look:
1. Wear clothes that you like and feel comfortable wearing that are within any kind of company dress code
2. Avoid anything sexy
3. Almost anything can be made work appropriate if you add a jacket so buy at least three well-fitted all season jackets to start: black, beige or grey and a bright color (maybe red or whatever looks good on you). Since I work for Penn State, am a proud Penn Stater and I love blue, I have a few great navy jackets and I wear them a lot!
4. Solid color dresses/skirts/pants are great Simple recipe:
—(A simple dress, with a simple jacket plus a scarf and voila — you look darn good!)
5. Black pants are a must
6. Have one full skirted (or pant — whichever you prefer) suit in navy or black that looks good on you
— buy a couple of solid color modestly cut “shells” to go underneath — white and beige will go far
7. Scarves –they are inexpensive and add a lot to your outfits – buy them in every color/print/style
8. Buy a nice trench coat
9. Too-thin knit wear (unless it is a blouse under a jacket)
10. Short skirts (save them for the tennis court) or a night out
11. Open toe shoes — peep toe is OK but sandals just don’t look professional in the office, especially when you are just starting out, no flip flops and keep the heel height of shoes under 3″.
12. Looking sexy — cover up — I know! I’m going to say it again!
13. Hair in your eyes
14. Too much make up, especially as you get older — less is more! Lipstick and mascara are probably enough for work
And none of this “dress for success” matters if you don’t know your job well or you are unprepared. So study, be sharp, get as many credentials as you can (research shows women need more than men just to break even) and be prepared and do the absolute best job you can for your organization. Knowing you did your best is the greatest reward and will always make you “look good” to the person who matters the most: yourself.