July 16, 2013

The Clothes Make the Woman

I noticed something lately. Well, rather, I noticed it for a friend and suddenly some things started to click for me.

My friend, whom I will call Karen, and I had dinner some time ago when she divulged that she was somewhat frustrated with her job. As a PM, she had recently had a project sour late in its implementation, leaving her in a bit of a bind. She was unhappy with the feedback about the project, but more importantly it sounded (to me) like she was also unhappy with how she felt she was being treated by her teammates. Now, I had only ever praise about her work, but she was frustrated with her immediate superiors. My take on her frustration boiled down to: although her work is good -- is really good -- she didn't feel she was being taken seriously, and as a result was losing out on upward mobility.

I've seen Karen in action. She's direct, tactful, and all business. Her work is top-notch, her writing skills are exemplary, and I think of her as a consummate professional. Karen is also really beautiful in a traditionally feminine way, with a heart-shaped face and wide-spaced eyes and a softer voice. Her hair is always coiffured well, and her makeup is done without being overwhelming. She also wears dresses and skirts, all strikingly feminine: ruffles, lace, floral prints, etc. In fact, the night we had dinner, she had just come from work: blue watercolor sheath dress with an A-line skirt, tasteful necklace, cardigan, and hair curled. Having spent time with her personally, I knew this was her personal style adapted to a professional environment.

Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes

I had another friend, in university, whom I will call Mary. I never worked with Mary directly, but I saw her around school. She was always dressed a touch severely: black or navy pantsuits with simple shirts or blouses, matte neutral makeup, conservative heels, and her hair neatly parted and tied back. Even her manicure was minimal -- usually just French tips if that. Mary was also incredibly smart and confident. Her soft voice and large eyes were expressive, and she was always heard even though she rarely raised her voice save for presentations.

Yet, the one time I saw Mary in a casual social setting, I was completely taken aback. She wore a beautiful floral print sundress, jeweled gladiator sandals, and her hair was long and wavy around her shoulders. I think she was even wearing pearls! The contrast was intense, and I remember complimenting her appearance. She had smiled and said that this was more her style, but she "just knew" that it wasn't appropriate for the b-school.

At the time, I had thought that Mary just meant that her look was overdone for the business world, but as I got older I realized what she really meant: she was too pretty to be taken seriously in her usual attire. She had to look a little more severe in order to be heard for her intelligence and not her aesthetics.

So when Karen asked me if I had any suggestions, I winced and said, "I think you need to dress more masculinely." Her immediate, negative reaction was expected. But I had to point out to her that she's conventionally beautiful, and that means that people are seeing the pretty and not her intellect. My immediate suggestion was to switch to pants, but she balked. So instead I suggested she pull masculine articles into her usual wardrobe: shirtdresses, solid colored blouses, pleat-front shirts (i.e. tuxedo shirts) with cufflinks, masculine prints like stripes, less jewelry, and so on. No more lace, no more ruffles, and no more florals -- or rather, no more of those at work.

I think she found it a little counterintuitive: in order to be taken more seriously, she had to "unpretty" herself a little. But a number of conventionally attractive women I know have had to do this, and I hope it works for Karen. If I'm being honest: I'm pretty sure it will. Presentation matters, and people often take the liberty of categorizing you by your clothes. And, of course, I daresay this happens to women more than men. Then again, there's a hell of a lot more variety to women's clothing than men's.

"You're too intense."

Fairly recently, I've received an interesting bit of feedback from people that I respect and trust which just leaves me confused and angry in turn. The first time I was told this was about eight months ago, by a well-meaning friend who I will call Jane. She and I were chatting over beers and I was complaining about something when she suggested that the root of my problem was that I'm too intense. While the rest of that conversation is, ah, fuzzy, that line stuck with me, and I remember mulling it over at length. Later conversations with my other confidants as well as my mentor offered no real illumination beyond suggesting the comment was a reaction to my intense extroversion coupled with my intelligence. After all, most "loud" people are perceived as a bit (or a lot) shallow. Being outgoing and "deep" can be off-putting.

So I tried toning it down a bit, and in doing so allowed myself to feel increasingly isolated and distant from those around me. I didn't like that feeling of being alone constantly. As an extrovert, my preferred state is to be around people. I enjoy the company of others, even passively. (In fact, I write most of these blog posts in coffee shops, surrounded by people I don't interact with.) However, my greatest fear is being a burden to those around me. I never want the people I spend time around to resent my presence. I could never figure out the line with my colleagues; I figured if they wanted my presence, they would seek me out. I forgot that most introverts don't work that way.

Anyway, the second time I was told this was earlier this summer, at the end of just a really terrible day. In contrast to Jane, Zach is (a) male, (b) more extroverted than I am, and (c) not talking to me over beers. Zach's commentary was almost word for word what Jane said. While Zach's motivations for telling me this are somewhat suspect, the fact that his commentary matched Jane's almost exactly meant I had to shut up and really take a hard look at myself and my behaviors in order to figure out what exactly was "too intense" about them.

Allow me to take a moment for an aside here: I really hate that word, "intense." It means about as much as "interesting" in an academic essay -- it doesn't mean anything at all. Intense is a stand-in word for something else entirely, and I suspect that the behaviors that would fall under that label (intellect, vocal, opinionated, direct and straightforward, critical, sarcastic, ambitious, persistent, takes ownership) would not be taken negatively if I were a man.

That suspicion -- that if I were a man, I would never be called "too intense" for my current behaviors -- should have been my first clue.

Fast forward: when I got home from spending time with Karen, I opened my own closet and took out all the clothes I still fit into and laid them out, and realized that the wardrobe I had described to her was my own. I tend towards solids and masculine pieces: blouses with pleats and minimal ruching, button-downs cut in the Oxford style, and I often complete my outfits with Chucks. I wear my hair tied back and rarely bother with makeup or jewelry. For a long time, I'd stuck to slacks and pants, and I often topped dresses with a blazer. My own personal style values comfort and simplicity -- few frills, not many patterns, structure, and clean lines. Paired with my natural personality, I was both presenting and owning a strongly masculine image, one at odds with the expectations of my gender. Hilariously, being tall probably did/does not help.

I considered how I was treated when I bothered to go "full femme," as I call it -- makeup, heels, hair, dress, the entire thing -- and realized that I was taken more seriously in the ways that mattered. Some of this is also body politics; when I was heavier, my personality was more acceptable because of my weight. As I've slimmed down and approached socially expected norms of what a woman "should" look like, I've lost that protection.

Anyway, it was in surveying my wardrobe that I realized: I had to dress more femininely in order to offset my stature and my outspoken nature. By presenting a more feminine image, I would take the edge off of my message (that is, the aggressive edge that I was unconsciously projecting in my dress and manner) and thus make criticism and my suggestions for change more palatable. My ideas would be better heard for their own merit. Nothing sucks more than knowing your point is being brushed aside just because it's yours.

Presentation Matters: Balancing Gendered Projection

If you're a self-professed girly-girl and sharp, but you find yourself: not being taken seriously, even though you know your work is awesome; or, if you're being told to be more aggressive even though you're speaking up at all the right times; or, if people are doubting your commitment despite you working longer and harder than your colleagues, try altering your wardrobe to be more masculine. This means:

  • More solid colors. -- Stick to jewel tones, darks, and neutrals. Burgundy? Awesome. Pastels? Keep away. White, cream, and champagne are also acceptable. Avoid Easter or baby hues -- you're inadvertently infantilizing yourself. Strong, bold colors are your ally in this.
  • Minimal patterns. -- Cycle through the men's department sometime for a sense of what patterns are commonly attributed to men. Usually these will be stripes, geometric prints (i.e. checkered patterns or tweeds), and the occasional dot pattern. Stick to these, especially pinstripes, which are more varied and more likely to flatter multiple figures.
  • Keep the lines clean. -- A-line skirts, fitted slacks, blazers on top of dresses and blouses. No cardigans! Avoid ruffles and lace, but feel free to include pleats and tucks. Experiment with different types of collars if you feel a need to add a personal touch to your wardrobe. To a degree, you want to emulate the "lined" shape men have -- men's clothes gives them to a triangular or rectangular body shape. For women who want to mimic this, you're aiming for two triangles: shoulders (base) to waist (tip), then waist (tip) to either hips, knees, or feet, depending on the occasion. More femme clothes tend to round out these shapes' edges; your aim is to minimize that "rounding" as much as possible. Structured clothes like suit pieces will help tremendously.
  • Cover up. -- This is sexist as hell, but try to keep everything covered. Skirts should always hit at the knee, aim for blouses with longer, fitted sleeves, and necklines that really only reveal collarbones, if that. Again, I know this is sexist, but remember you're emulating male styling; with traditional masculine wear, you're lucky if you see their Adam's apples, let alone the hollow of their throat.
  • Easy on the bling. -- One ring on each hand, max, and no ring if you're wearing a watch on that wrist. Stud earrings, pearls or a simple necklace, and nothing "jingly". Statement necklaces and earrings stay home.
  • Pull your hair back. -- Buns, low ponytails, chignons, and twists are your best bets here. Here, using a fancier clip is ok; I've seen ponytails clipped with a jeweled clasp, for example. No stray curls framing your face, no loose strands on your shoulders, and try to keep the coiffure sleek. Keep everything back and out of your face so that people pay attention to what you're saying.
  • Matte makeup. -- No shimmer, light eyeliner, natural nails. French tips or a buff/neutral polish are best, if you must mani-pedi. For lipstick: I go back and forth. The simple red lips look forces people to watch your mouth, which usually translates to listening. On the other hand, men don't wear lipstick, so sticking to a neutral shade could be better. Go with whatever you're comfortable with. Also, remember: eyes OR lips, never both!
  • Sensible shoes. -- The phrase that is the bane of women everywhere: sensible shoes. To me, this means closed-toed, medium height heels/pumps. Depending on where you work, this could be the Chucks/Keds I love to wear with my slacks.

Protip: use Janelle MonĂ¡e as your style inspiration! She's pretty great and uses masculine pieces with femme touches in a seriously awesome, powerful way. Plus she's super talented.

If you're tomboyish and sensitive but: you find yourself being told you're too aggressive or "intense," even though you spend more time listening; people find you overwhelming no matter how much you try to remain self-contained; the same ideas / changes / criticisms from other colleagues hold more water than from you, try altering your wardrobe to be more feminine. This means:

  • Add more textures. -- Lace, ruching, ruffles, satin, and knitwork can add a softening touch to your wardrobe. Knits, especially, will round out shoulders and curves, but only up to a point. Too much cabling or too "chunky" a knit can swing back towards that masculine edge. Keep an eye on shoulder shaping when it comes to knitted sweaters and tops. For lace and ruffles, you want these elements to be "statement" -- ruffles should be the single eye-catching element of the piece, for example. The lace should draw attention and soften features. Lace on shoulders or arms is great; ruffles on the front (especially asymmetrical or diagonal ruffles) add interest without overwhelming you or making you look overdone. Ruching is my favorite. It adds visual interest and can be slimming / shaping without you feeling like you've been stuffed into sausage casing. Satin, by nature of being SHINY, should be used sparingly; only ONE article of clothing should be satiny in any given outfit.
  • Go printed. -- Prints! Prints add instant femininity without you having to change the cuts of clothes that are most flattering for you. A-line dresses make your figure less heavy? Great! Buy that dress in a cute polka-dot print instead of a more severe black and white or colorblock. Lean towards florals, dots, and other uncommon prints; I saw a blouse in a butterfly print recently that just blew me away, and postcard prints are gaining popularity of late. Avoid stripes, colorblock, and plaids. Checkers can go either way; gingham is pretty feminine, but it also doesn't work for everyone.
  • Wear your hair down. -- If you have medium to long hair, stop tying it back! I am super guilty of this; I wear my hair tied back a lot because it's just convenient, I'm lazy, and my hair is really thick, so it get uncomfortably warm if I wear it down all the time. But the thing is, wearing it down (or even half-down) can soften your features considerably. For a lot of women, loosened hair also looks younger, which you can use to your advantage.
  • Do your makeup. -- A little eyeliner/mascara and lipstick go a long way. Use YouTube to learn how to better / more effectively apply eyeliner and shadow, and see how you can use cosmetics to give yourself a look that's comfortable for you. Wing-tip eyeliner, a touch of white shadow at the tear duct, and careful use of false eyelashes, for example, can make your eyes look larger and more widely-spaced, a "look" that can be interpreted to your advantage. I'll pass on a tip someone gave me: even if you hate makeup, learn how to use it. Makeup, especially for women, can be an armor. You can't let yourself cry if you're wearing cosmetics.
  • Accessories make the outfit. -- Statement necklaces, chandelier earrings, a good manicure, these are the pieces that can give a softening touch to an otherwise "edged" outfit. The key here is sparkle -- deliberately picking shiny (as opposed to matte or metal) jewelry will give your outfit more color and flexibility. Jewelry is also a relatively inexpensive way to "femme" up an otherwise minimalist wardrobe without having to spend a lot of money. Also, try scarves (ascots! in butterfly prints!), headbands (especially ones with prints and/or bows), and replacing blazers with cardigans. Somewhat counter-intuitively, removing structure can soften your edges without sacrificing a more "professional" look.

For this look, your style inspiration should probably be Zooey Deschanel, whose "twee" style counterbalances her massive success as an artist, actor, and businessperson. She's clearly using her cute aesthetic to allow people to draw their own conclusions about who/what she is. (More succinctly: despite her relative power and role as a boss, no one's ever called her a "bitch," which is more than I can say for myself.)

Style Alone is Not the Answer

I should absolutely warn you: style alone will not solve all of your image issues. However, changing your physical presentation can have an impact on how people take your actions. I'm not going to pretend it's not sexist; it's TOTALLY sexist! Are you kidding?! But part of Real Adulthood, I've found, is knowing how to leverage the game against itself.

The most important part of revamping your style is to make sure parts of yourself continue to endure; stick to cuts that are flattering for you, and color palettes that complement your skin tone. Don't compromise your own styling because of your career ambitions. If you enjoy color, wear colors! Just stick to solids under blazers if you're going for a more masculine look.

Cutting out your personality in your wardrobe is not what I'm advocating; what I'm saying is, look at where you are and where you want to be, and ask yourself if your personal presentation makes that statement for you. If it isn't, find a way to bridge that gap.

A number of trusted mentors have pointed out that this isn't the ONLY solution to this issue. Managing your demeanor, and how that comes across to people of different sensitivities and personality types is also a big part of your personal success. A post about this approach (called "emotional intelligence") is forthcoming.

Arguably, however, altering your wardrobe is far easier in the short-run. It's a good stop-gap solution while you self-evaluate and work on the far more valuable (and difficult) skill of building your EQ.


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